From Roberta Winter's New Book, I Will Do A New Thing
July, 1986 was the hundredth anniversary of a month-long Bible conference for college students which had been called by D. L. Moody in 1886. The Mt. Hermon conference became famous because, by the time it had finished, 100 young, elite college men had pledged their lives to missions.
More importantly, the organization they founded two years later, the Student Volunteer Movement, eventually turned America and the world upside down. Twenty thousand collegians went to every corner of the globe and founded hundreds of universities, thousands of colleges, tens of thousands of hospitals and clinics, and hundreds of thousands of churches. Literally!
For at least the next two generations almost every leader, secular or Christian, in most of the countries of the world had trained in those schools, been treated in those hospitals, or had been profoundly influenced in some other way by those Student Volunteers. In all of history, no other mission effort has been so massive and so influential.
Ralph is well known for his interest in their record. No doubt that is why he was asked to speak at all four Mt. Hermon celebrations that summer. But he wanted more statistical facts, so, in May, he sent Tricia and Todd (our youngest daughter and her husband) off to Yale Divinity School to do research in the SVM archives housed there. It took four people almost three weeks to put on computer all the data they brought back.
"Bruce," Ralph said when they had finished, "can you get the computer to draw a couple of graphs for me? I'd like to compare the attendance at the Student Volunteer quadrennial conventions with the Urbana conferences that InterVarsity puts on today."
Ralph knew that at their peak, the SVM meetings had only 6000 in attendance as compared to Urbana's 17,000. But there are a lot more students in college today, and to see the impact of these conventions he needed a graph showing the relative proportion of college students who attended. It took a little while for Bruce to get the graph, but when he came back, we were all shocked by the picture. "Why, proportionally, they're not even half as big today!" he gasped. "The Urbanas look like midgets by comparison. I wonder what this means."
Because of this one graph, Ralph began to rethink all his basic assumptions. For years he had known about the constant upswing in the number of students attending Urbana and, even more important, the very striking tum-around in the percentage of students signing the decision cards indicating they were willing to be missionaries.
Attendance had risen steadily during the '60s, but the percentage of those deciding for missions dropped until, in 1970, only 8 percent of the students signed. Then, suddenly, three years later, 28 percent signed. In 1976, 50 percent signed, in '79,75 percent and then 85 percent in 1981. By 1984 so many signed that InterVarsity didn't even bother counting.
"I was convinced we were in the beginning of another Student Volunteer movement," Ralph sighed when he saw Bruce's graph. "But now I wonder."
For several days he pondered all this. Then one evening he burst out, "Of course! That's the answer!"
"What?" I asked.
"I've been comparing what's been happening in the last twenty-five years to what happened after the Student Volunteer Movement exploded. But I've completely overlooked the period leading up to that 1886 explosion. It just may be that now, in 1986, we're still in the buildup period and the real explosion is just ahead!"
Within the hour we had shifted gears.
Now we were looking at what had happened before 1886, not after. And we were especially interested to see if there were any parallels to the buildup in our time.
We were surprised and delighted by all the parallels, even in secular society.
America's self assurance in her overseas role in the years prior to 1886 caused them to be called "the confident years." She had the answer to the world's problems.
Also, at that time there was a sudden rash of new millionaires who spent their money lavishly, so much so that another term for the period was "the gilded age" which in the 1890s became "the Gay Nineties." Affluence and lavish spending is again a part of American culture, even in evangelical churches.
Cults sprang up in the 1800s, many with a basis in Hinduism or pseudo-science and emphases on health foods. The names of many new cults today are strangely reminiscent of those back then.
Our population rolls swelled with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most of them refugees from political or economic oppression. Then they came mainly from Europe, now from South East Asia, the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Because of Ralph's topic, however, we were particularly interested in parallels within the Christian world. Again, we were amazed.
The students who launched the Student Volunteer Movement followed at least three decades of revival in this country, led mainly by D. L. Moody. In a very real sense, the work of Billy Graham parallels his.
Naturally arising out of these revivals was an interest in Bible study÷also quite common today.
We thought of our international conferences on world evangelization, such as the Lausanne conference in 1974 and the Edinburgh and Pattaya conferences in 1980. The Christians in the late 1800s also had missionary conferences: two in 1878 alone (London and New York) followed by a very crucial one in 1888.
In the decades prior to 1880, a "Concert of Prayer" movement had spread all over the nation. Once a month it brought together thousands of Christians from all the major denominations to pray for a spiritual awakening and for missions. A similar movement, initiated just a few years ago by David Bryant of InterVarsity Missions, is already very strong in some of the major cities of this country and Canada. But it is only one of a number of prayer movements which are cooperating together.
These things were all fascinating to us. But we had to get more specific. What was it that caused the 251 students at the Mt. Hermon conference to be so interested in missions'! We knew that the college campuses had student Christian organizations that parallel Campus Crusade, Navigators and InterVarsity today. But we were unaware how strongly the YMCA in those days stressed worship, Bible study, and effective personal evangelism. Even more important, however, was the Intercollegiate YMCA started in 1877. It had missions as one of its core emphases.
When some mission-minded students at Princeton Seminary saw how fast the collegiate YMCA was growing, they called a meeting in 1880 of some 250 students from 32 seminaries and organized the Interseminary Missionary Alliance. Exactly one hundred years later, in 1980. the seminarians who went to the frontier missions consultation in Edinburgh, Scotland, did exactly the same thing. This time they called their organization Theological Students for Frontier Missions.
"I wonder if these TSFM people know about that earlier group?" I asked Ralph.
"I doubt it," he said. "Very few books even mention it."
In both Princeton Seminary and Princeton College (as the university was then called), a number of students were actively interested in becoming missionaries. There were several reasons.
The local chapter of the Society for Missionary Inquiry, founded more than fifty years before, was still strong on campus.
Then, too, in 1877, Moody began a series of meetings in Trenton, New Jersey, just a few miles away. A group of Princeton students went to hear him and insisted that he preach in Princeton. When he did, a major revival broke out.
Royal Wilder was also in Princeton at the time. Furloughed home from India because of his health, he became the unofficial sponsor for a mission group at the college. They met regularly in his house to pray!
"He sounds like Christy Wilson, doesn't he?" Ralph commented.
When Dr. Wilson returned from Afghanistan in 1975 and began teaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, he immediately started noon prayer meetings for missions. Within a few months 50 students came, then more. Many are now overseas.
In the last five years, similar groups have begun to meet at other Christian schools. When our third daughter, Linda, was a student at Wheaton in 1976, only a trickle of students came out to the missions fellowship. Late in the fall of 1986, we were told that between 300 and 500 show up every Sunday night to pray for missions. Now they have 200 mission prayer groups on campus. "It's almost like there's been a revival there," Ralph said.
Many other campuses are experiencing this same kind of mission renewal. For example, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, all the students÷and professors!÷ are now required to spend a year overseas.
This interest in missions extends to secular campuses, even as it did in 1886. In 1985, almost 2000 took our Perspectives on the World Christian Movement class, taught by extension in more than 70 locations throughout the U.S. Now that the text is in Spanish and being translated into Korean, Swedish and Chinese, the five overseas centers will no doubt greatly increase in 1987.
I looked for a direct parallel to this broad-spectrum "Perspectives" course in the years before 1886. The collegiate YMCAs reserved the first meeting of each month for a mission emphasis, but it was probably not until after the Student Volunteer Movement was organized in 1888 that a missions course, as such, was offered. And since the SVM quickly extended to practically every campus in the U.S., very rapidly such a course was soon available everywhere.
There is also a parallel in the traveling teams. The idea of sending a team of students to visit every college campus did not begin with the SVM in 1887 but more likely with the YMCA, which had been doing this for several years. Today, such teams have been started again.
Taking the lead is an organization called Caleb, which began with a group of five students who took the "Perspectives" course at Penn State in 1980. As a team they went to a Muslim country, but had to leave because of political problems totally unrelated to their work. It was at that point that Greg Fritz, the leader, embraced as their calling the mobilization of the student world for missions.
Besides those who man the home offices, three or four times a year Caleb sends twenty young people in four vans to canvass the college campuses of this country for three months at a time. Team members are young missionaries under appointment, assigned by their mission boards to work with Caleb for one year in order to recruit more missionaries. In the fall of 1986 the teams contacted 17,000 students. They expect to meet 30,000 in 1987.
Like their counterparts a century ago, the Caleb teams encourage students to sign a pledge which involves them for the rest of their lives in missions promotion or missionary service. Out of the 17,000 students contacted last fall, 700 signed, promising to send a report of their progress to the Caleb home office every month. The staff go over these reports carefully, then spend three hours every day praying for these students, one by one, and writing back to them.
There were two crucial areas where we felt the parallels were either non-existent or weak. We wondered if the SVM would have survived or even come into being without these two organizations. We wondered what the chances were today without similar groups.
One of the two groups of a century ago was the Christian Endeavor movement. Ralph grew up in CE, as did his parents before him, and he has a tremendous respect for all it has accomplished through the years.
Founded in 1882 by a minister's wife, CE already had 30,000 members by 1886. Churches everywhere had CE chapters.
Three standard practices of Christian Endeavor helped to produce the Student Volunteer Movement.
1) All of the youth on a regular basis were expected to be in charge of the CE meetings in the local church; adults attended only as sponsors. The result was a host of young, capable and experienced leaders.
2) The chapters of the various local denominations met together on a regular basis, often once a month. This inter-relationship bred a true ecumenism which had a profound influence on the mission field.
3) CE had a strong mission emphasis, so much so that "CE Day" came to be known universally as "Missionary Day."
Although Christian Endeavor is still very strong overseas, in only a few areas of the U.S. is it still influential. We do have other excellent interdenominational youth organizations÷Young Life and Youth for Christ, for example.
Unlike CE, however, they are not based in the local church and did not start with an emphasis on missions. In recent years, both groups have been involved in discipling Christian youth overseas. And in 1986, Youth for Christ made a monumental shift in policy, such that its overseas staff now focus on unreached peoples. This will undoubtedly affect the mission vision of the youth with which they work in the United States.
As I see it, however, the most serious lack of parallel between the early 1880s and today relates to the women of the church. In 1886, almost every local church had a Women's Missionary Society. There were tens of thousands of these, even as recently as the late 1940s.
As has always been true, the women were crucial to the success of the entire missionary enterprise. They kept the vision alive; they prayed earnestly and consistently for the missionaries; and they collected their coins, which together resulted in millions of dollars for the cause. Understandably, their sons and daughters became Student Volunteers.
Very few of those Women's Missionary Societies have survived to our time. Starting about 1950, their exclusive emphasis on missions was gradually dropped, and eventually the names were also changed to simply the "Women's Society."
Ralph and I once discussed why this happened and what could be done to reverse the trend. "I have a feeling most of the younger women consider missions to be out of date," I said. "After all, for almost a generation the churches haven't really stressed missions, so now those who are in their thirties and forties consider missions to be insignificant."
"But I think this will change, especially if young people continue to be so interested in missions," Ralph said. "Actually, all it takes to make mission promoters out of the parents is for their children to decide to go. When the young people start talking and praying about missions, going to mission conferences, and taking courses on missions the parents begin to ask what is going on. And then they are deeply involved."
At the U.S. Center for World Mission we don't often take the time to do extensive historical research. It was, therefore, an exhilarating experience for the few of us to delve into the old records and become friends with the students of the latter part of the last century.
Every few weeks Ralph wrote up all we had found so far and went off to deliver a commemorative address÷m Texas, Wheaton, North Carolina, and finally, at VISION '86, the student mission conference which met at Mt. Hermon, the very place where the Student Volunteer Movement was born.
Ralph's closing remarks at the last three conferences summed up why this study had so captivated those of us involved:
"We have come here to honor those students who started the SVM one hundred years ago," he said. "Those students back in 1886 were convinced they could evangelize the world by 1900. And they just might have, if the church had been ready to back them fully.
"But what about us? Can we truly honor those students if today, with all our benefits, we are unwilling to believe that we can finish the job by the year 2000?
"How can we honor their faith and not share it today in circumstances that are a hundred times more optimistic?"
By comparison to the road ahead of the students 100 years ago, we have an eight-lane freeway. We can get to any country of the world in just a few hours by jet; it took them weeks, if not months, for the boat trip. Even if there had been no other barriers at all, it was physically difficult to evangelize the world in 1886.
We have loudspeaker systems, slide and movie projectors, video tapes, transistor radios, television, communication satellites, and three major mission agencies with extremely powerful transmitters exclusively dedicated to communicating the gospel behind the political and religious barriers of our day. They had none of these.
Many of the missionaries in the last century died within a few months of reaching the field÷from malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery, diphtheria, smallpox, polio, pneumonia. Today we have a broad range of antibiotics, sulfa drugs, and modem vaccines. Our main worries about health are related to the kinds of illness we are just as likely to contract at home÷such as cancer or the diseases caused by organisms resistant to modern drugs.
Those young people of long ago went to countries where the church was non-existent or still quite weak. At best, there was only one Christian per 150 non-Christians. Today the ratio is one to fifteen. Today there are at least a million Christians in most of the countries of the world.
Back then, the burden of evangelizing the world rested almost entirely on the shoulders of the Western nations. Today, there are more than 350 non-Western mission agencies sending thousands of their own missionaries all over the world. And they are just beginning to move.
Ever since the 1980 conference in Edinburgh, Ralph has been talking about the significance of the year 2000, now just 13 years away. The years come and go, as do the decades. Few humans have ever lived to see the change of a century.
I admit I was startled, however, when late last fall Ralph pointed out that January 1st, 2000 will be the very first time in history that the whole world will recognize the change of a millennium! Only in recent centuries, he reminded me, have most countries started to number from the birth of Christ.
For some years I have been teaching the history of the expansion of Christianity. I always start by reviewing God's concern for all peoples down through history, starting with Abraham. Two millenium before Christ, in 2000 B.C., God promised to bless him and to make him and his descendants a blessing to all peoples. Since then, four thousand years have passed. Right in the middle of that time span Jesus Christ appeared as our Redeemer.
As I was thinking about this, I realized with a jolt that 2000 A.D. might not be simply a nice round date to set as a goal by which to penetrate every people group on earth. Just possibly, in God's timetable, the year 2000 A.D. may be as significant as that night in Bethlehem when Christ was born, but few were expecting Him.
"He could return in my lifetime," my heart told me.
My mind answered: "That's always been true for everyone down through history. Yet it hasn't happened so far."
And my heart said, 'That's what Peter warned': People will say, 'Where is this coming he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation' (2 Pel 3:4). Jesus Himself warned us that He will come when least expected."
I gasped in awe at the thought. That was it, that sign in Matt. 24:14, where He said all nations and tribes and tongues would hear, and then He would return. That was the challenge which called those Student Volunteers a hundred years ago to give their lives in the far corners of the earth. And that is the one which is calling our students to go. And the students of Europe and Australia. And of Asia and the South Pacific. And Africa and Latin America. The sense of urgency they feel is not of our doing. God is in it. His time has come!
Some months ago, long before we had begun the research for Ralph's talks during the summer, I asked God to give me a special verse for the title of this book. I felt particularly drawn to Isaiah 43.
Throughout the chapter God speaks of the nations and of His determination to reach them through His people: "You are my witnesses and my servants, chosen to know and to believe me and to understand that I alone am God. There is no other God; there never ðwas and never will be. I am the Lord, and there is no other Savior" (vv. 10-11, italics mine).
The words reminded me of Peter's in Acts 4:12÷"There is no other name under heaven whereby we must be saved"÷and I realized again that no matter how presumptuous it sounds to modem ears, only those who follow Christ have the answer. 'There is no other Savior." And if God's people don't tell the nations about Him, who will? And unless they hear, how can they be saved?
Once again I felt strongly convicted that what we were involved in at the U.S. Center for World Mission was exactly in the center of God's will. In a unique way He had chosen us to witness about the unreached peoples and to encourage His church to finish the job.
That call, however, involved risk and hardship. Of course! Why wouldn't Satan fight against such a witness? Of course he would make every step of the way difficult. My eyes swept down the page. "For your sakes I will send an invading army against Babylon [the forces of evil], that will walk in almost unscathed. I am the Lord, your Holy One, Israel's Creator and King. I am the Lord, who opens apath right through the sea...."
I thought of the struggles behind us, and those still to come. I thought of the $8 million balloon payment due in the fall of 1987, and the intervening quarterly payments until then. I thought of the miracles He had done for us in this place, and the miracles we would still need in order to survive and Finish all He had given us to do.
We were witnesses of His grace and of His provision. What joy!
"But forget all that," God told His people in verse 19. "It is nothing compared to what I am going to do."
Forget all that! It is nothing by comparison!
I found it hard to comprehend just what He might mean. Our churches are Filled with hurting people. Our pastors have little time to even consider the world beyond their parish. Our society struggles with terrorism and greed.
But God looks beyond all that. He has wonderful plans for our world÷plans for renewal and healing of His people, plans for a worldwide awakening, plans for the final harvest of the nations.