The Student Foreign Missions Fellowship over Fifty-Five Years

By Norton, H. Wilbert, Sr. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 1993 | Go to article overview

The Student Foreign Missions Fellowship over Fifty-Five Years


Norton, H. Wilbert, Sr., International Bulletin of Mission Research


Students have been in the vanguard of the North American church's missionary outreach, spearheading each of three eras of missionary advance. Students, huddled in prayer in a haystack on Williams College campus in 1806, inaugurated the foreign missions history of the American church. Eighty years later, in 1886, the Mount Hermon Conference of college students led to the organization of the Student Volunteer Movement. The SVM sent thousands of missionary volunteers throughout the world, making missions central to the church's life at the close of the nineteenth century.

In his latest work, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, George M. Marsden reaffirms the place of missions in American Protestantism:

Missions, whether as evangelism at home or in efforts abroad, were the central Protestant crusades. American Protestants had been active in mission abroad since early in the century, but their enthusiasm burgeoned after 1890. Together with their British counterparts they were leading an advance of Christian mission so great that historian Kenneth Scott Latourette has called the period from 1815-1914 "the great century" of Christian missions. Certainly in America the period from 1890 to World War I was the golden age of Protestant missions.(1)

A third student missionary advance began as the war in the Pacific was concluding in 1945. A new generation of students began to rally their peers in a renewed missionary thrust to evangelize the world as they met, 575 strong, in a post-Christmas conference at the University of Toronto in 1946.(2) Forty-four years later, the numbers had swelled to 19,510. The students convened in the assembly hall of the University of Illinois, Urbana, from December 17, 1990, to January 1, 1991. They studied their Bibles en masse as Ajith Fernando of Sri Lanka, among others, led them in the theme "Jesus Christ: Lord of the Universe, Hope of the World," based on the Epistle to the Colossians.(3) Twenty-eight percent of the delegates were nonwhites, including 1,200 Korean-Americans. Forty-nine local churches provided seven hundred volunteers to assist in the massive task of providing for the delegates' needs.(4)

Nineteen hundred small groups provided for daily morning prayer and Bible study; these groups also met in evening sessions to discuss and integrate the day's events.(5) Students crowded out two hundred seminars as they sought information on the world mission of the church and their place in the total scheme of divine redemption in Christ.

Many delegates participated in a Saturday lunch-fast, netting more than $80,000 for hunger relief.(6) They also gave $216,000 in cash and $94,000 in "faith promises," a total of $310,000, to the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students for its program of worldwide student evangelization. The traditional New Year's Eve Communion service concluded Urbana 90 with 19,000 voices worshipping and praising Jesus Christ as Lord.(7)

An aggregate of 159,902 have attended the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student missionary conventions at Urbana, Illinois, since the initial gathering in 1946 in Toronto. What is the impact on world missions after almost fifty years of Urbana conventions? The statistics of a survey conducted in 1988, based on randomly selected attendants at Urbana 84, suggest an answer.(8) Of the 15,000 decision makers, 2,400 (16 percent) indicated that they had begun long-term missionary service, or were making plans to do so; 1,800 (12 percent) had begun or were making plans to begin short-term service; 2,250 (15 percent) had completed or were making plans to spend a summer overseas in cross-cultural ministry; and 6,450 (43 percent) had begun or were making plans to begin some form of missionary service.

How did such a phenomenon develop? How does this third student missionary movement relate to the two previous student movements of 1806 and 1886? These questions bring us to the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship. …

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