During the 1920s the Student Volunteer Movement suffered its first reverses.
The first quadrennial convention following World War I was held at Des Moines, Iowa, in 1920. This was the year that the SVM reached its zenith. Attendance climbed to 6,890 at the Des Moines Convention. Within twelve months 2,783 students enrolled as missionary volunteers.
It was clear that many of the students who attended Des Moines had no heart for the missionary cause. Conference business sessions became stormy. Students wanted to deal with the social, political, and economic issues of the day. They asked, What was the point of sending missionaries abroad when conditions in American were so much in need of “Christianization?”
The patriarch of the SVM, John Mott, opened the convention with an address similar in tone to those of previous conventions. When Sherwood Eddy took the same tack, he was asked, "Why do you bring us this piffle, these old shibboleths, these old worn-out phrases, why are you talking to us about the living God and the divine Christ?" In response Eddy threw aside his prepared message and instead spoke in support of the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) and social reform.
Following Des Moines the conflict continued and the SVM began to experience financial difficulties.
The consequences were catastrophic. Less than twenty years later the entire enrollment of student volunteers for one year had collapsed from the peak of 2,783 in 1920 to just 25 in 1938. By 1940 the quadrennial convention held at Toronto was attended by only 465 delegates, down from 6,890 in 1920 at Des Moines.
The World Student Christian Fellowship (WSCF), the international equivalent of the SVM, suffered a similar fate. Shaken by student criticisms, it’s commitment to world missions was replaced by a concern for issues of international relations, race and economic justice.
In Britain the Student Movement leadership embraced religious relativism that undermined the missionary impulse. The organization split and during the 1920s the evangelical InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF) emerged to eventually replace the SVM as the major missionary recruiter of the nation.
Wilder saw the future of the movement he had founded. In a letter to Mott he predicted that, as the Social Gospel replaced the personal gospel of salvation the movement would become “an empty shell with but little real life within it.” He was right.
Eventually those who rejected the "watchword" (The Evangelization of the World in this Generation) prevailed, not by defeating their opponents, but by wearing them out. In Britain, by 1922, the SVM officially dropped the watchword. In the US there was no formal repudiation, but 1924 was the last year the watchword appeared as a rallying point for the movement.
Over six thousand delegates attended the Indianapolis Convention in 1924. Theology and world missions received little attention. The focus was on social issues: capital and labor relations, race relations, and war.
Mott no longer presided. A new generation of leaders were in charge. A new vision of Christian mission had emerged. The meaning and purpose of the movement had been profoundly transformed.
In a report to the General Council of 1927 Robert Wilder observed that, students showed little interest in Bible study and prayer. They rejected the reliability of the Scriptures and regarded Jesus not as the way, but as one way to God.
This new generation of students emphasized meetings, conferences, and discussion groups. The outcome of this activity did not lead to consecrated lives but rather “a vague interest in international questions.’”
Religious relativism replaced evangelistic zeal. Lofty ideals had replaced a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The task of world missions was no longer evangelism, but social reconstruction. The watchword quietly faded away.
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