The death of a movement: 7 lessons

Seven lessons from the story of the rise and fall of the Student Christian Movement (SCM):

1. Drift to secularism
A recurring pattern in the lifecycle of movements is the drift to secularism. Finke and Stark write, “By 'secularized' we mean to move from otherworldliness, to present a more distant and indistinct conception of the supernatural, to relax the moral restrictions on members and to surrender claims to an exclusive and superior truth.” SCM surrendered to this tendency and paid the price.

2. Failure of Gospel nerve
SCM's commitment to theological liberalism meant that it tended to define itself by what it did not believe. Biblical authority was undermined. Its message became vague and poorly distinguished from other agendas.

3. Powerless to mobilize
In order to have some chance of being effective in recruitment, a movement needs a clear understanding of what the truth is, who has it and who needs it. A lack of clear beliefs undermined recruitment and made internal cohesion and united action unlikely.

4. Treated with indifference
The lesson of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that Liberal Protestantism has failed abysmally to attract support from those in the modern world looking for religious answers to life's questions. Ironically, theological liberalism set out to make the faith intellligible to the modern, rational, secular world only to find itself treated with indifference by that world.

5. Hijacked agenda
The increasingly authoritarian political ideologies of the New Left and neo-Marxism filled the spiritual void that SCM for itself. Lacking the courage to define itself, SCM allowed itself to be defined by movements alien to the Gospel.

6. External life support
Eventually SCM found itself, as every declining movement does, living on external life support—asset rich but cash poor. Surviving due to investments made by a former generation.

7. God is faithful
The story of the decline of SCM is paralleled by the story of the rise of Inter-Varsity. God is faithful and his purposes will not be thwarted even when movements prove unfaithful. He is always at work, often on the fringes raising up new movements for the renewal and expansion of the church.


Story of a Storm: The Ecumenical Student Movement in the Turmoil of Revolution, 1968 to 1973 (Publications of the Finnish Society of Church History, No 174); (Risto Lehtonen)