A lost cause

In 1927 Robert Wilder resigned and returned to the mission field. He was the first and last of the founding leaders. The Student Volunteer Movement continued to distance itself from the missionary ideals that had launched it.

At the 1928 SVM convention in Detroit, Sherwood Eddy publicly repudiated the founding vision of the movement: “The Evangelization of the world in this generation.” No one challenged him.

As the SVM, YMCA, YWCA, and the mainline denominations embraced theological liberalism and the social gospel, the outcome was catastrophic.

In the 1920s the numbers of missionaries sent out by the mainline denominations declined by two-thirds. Faith missions replaced denominations as the primary senders of missionaries. They shunned the SVM which became increasingly irrelevant to the missionary enterprise.

In the 1940s the faith missions and conservative denominations turned to the evangelical Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) for missionary recruits.

In its last thirty years the SVM wandered dazed through a series of mergers and restructures. In 1969, the ecumenical student alliance it had joined three years earlier, voted itself out of existence. What had once been the greatest student missionary movement in the history of the church was laid to rest.

Meanwhile many SVM leaders found their way into the ecumenical movement and the religious bureaucracy of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In 1946 John Mott received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the ecumenical movement.

Today Wishart’s dream of a non western indigenous missionary force to complete world evangelization is coming to fulfillment, but not through the SVM.

At the heart of the SVM’s demise was the loss of its reason for existence. A clear missionary mandate to evangelize the world in this generation was replaced by a vague social gospel agenda that eventually found expression, not in social transformation, but in the religious bureaucracy of the World Council of Churches.

The SVM embraced another gospel that was powerless to mobilize students for world missions. The movement was born in 1886, by 1924 it had abandoned its founding cause of world evangelization. For the next 45 years, the momentum of its pioneering era carried it through until what was left of the SVM voted itself out of existence.

When the SVM emerged out of a student summer camp in 1886 there were 2,000 protestant, cross-cultural missionaries serving around the world.

Over the next generation, nearly 100,000 students joined campus SVM groups, and over 20,000 of them sailed overseas to serve God among the least evangelized.

As the SVM lost it's passion for world evangelization, other student movements took up the challenge — InterVarsity, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, today there is even a SVM2.

Robert and Grace Wilder’s prayers for a student missionary movement are still being answered despite the failure of the original SVM.

Next: Lessons from the SVM