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A Short History of Campus Ministry

December 12, 2016

NASHVILLE – Several months ago, I was invited to speak at our Every Nation Campus Staff Summit. I was supposed to inspire our 130 campus missionaries in attendance to embrace a vision to reach the world, not just their campuses. I am not a last-minute “wing-it” preacher. I plan ahead. But a few hours before my talk, I mentioned to my son William what I had planned to say. He responded by suggesting that I add some info about the Oxford Holy Clubs, the Student Volunteer Movement, and other significant student movements throughout history. William is a PhD candidate who lectures on Islamic History at Vanderbilt University and has taught church history in our schools of ministry in Nashville and Manila. For a brief moment, I attempted to add his history insights to my message before finally saying, “What are you doing tonight? Maybe you should just be the speaker, and I’ll introduce you.” After running that idea by our Every Nation Campus team, they all agreed that William should speak, and I should listen and take notes. Because so many campus missionaries asked for William’s notes, I prevailed upon him to post them here. 

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About a year ago, I (William) was asked to develop a church history course that would be taught in our schools of ministry around the world. Aware that a large portion of our School of Ministry students would eventually be campus missionaries, I thought that it was important to prepare a session that gave a short history of campus ministry.

After a few months of research, I was struck by one overwhelming fact: historically, campus ministry and world missions have been inextricably linked.

Here are just three examples.

1. The Oxford Holy Clubs: In 1729, Oxford students John and Charles Wesley founded a small group with other Oxford students that focused on Bible study, prayer, fasting, and the pursuit of holiness (hence the nickname “Holy Clubs”). In addition to their “acts of piety,” the small group of Oxford students also regularly engaged in “acts of mercy,” spending significant time ministering to people in the local prison. Though the group never grew beyond twenty-five members, the disciples who came out of that small campus ministry would have a massive impact in England and beyond. Perhaps the most famous member of the Holy Clubs was George Whitefield. After being converted and discipled as an undergraduate at Oxford, Whitefield traveled with the Wesleys as a missionary to the British colonies in North America. Whitefield spent many fruitful years preaching in the colonies and was a key leader in a revival that would later be known as the “First Great Awakening,” This revival transformed the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution and set the historical trajectory of American Evangelicalism for many centuries to come.

The 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.

2. The Student Volunteer Movement: In 1886, evangelist D.L Moody led a summer conference for Christian college students in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts. Though world missions was only a small part of the conference agenda, the call to world missions captured the hearts of the students attending the conference, so much so that 100 (of the 251 in attendance) committed their lives to serve in foreign missions. One of those who responded was a Cornell student named John R. Mott. After graduating, he was part of the founding of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM), a group whose purpose was to mobilize college students to give their lives to world missions. Though the SVM was closely affiliated with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), they linked arms with a wide variety of campus ministries and churches all across the United States and Europe, as they traveled from campus to campus recruiting for foreign missions. Their battle cry, which later became the title of Mott’s first book and the slogan of the famous Edinburgh World Missionary Conference in 1910, was “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Between 1888 and 1946, over 20,000 college students committed their lives to foreign missions through the work of SVM. This was and is still one of the greatest movements for mobilizing missionaries in the history of Christianity.

3. CRU (aka Campus Crusade): In 1951, Bill and Vonette Bright founded Campus Crusade on the UCLA campus. Their aim from the beginning was to reach the world by reaching college students. With a strong focus on campus evangelism and small-group discipleship, the campus ministry started at UCLA and quickly spread to other campuses around the United States, and eventually, around the world. One of Bright’s most effective tools for campus evangelism was the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet, which has been translated into over 200 languages with over 2.5 billion copies in print. Another tool developed by Bright and his team is the Jesus Film (1979), which has been dubbed in over 974 languages and viewed by over 5.5 billion people! Just 65 years after their modest beginnings in Los Angeles, CRU has a presence in 190 countries around the world.

This short history of campus ministry should remind us that what we are trying to accomplish at Every Nation Campus (ENC) is not new. We are committed to rigorous small-group discipleship on campuses—so were the Holy Clubs in the eighteenth century. We are committed to engaging students in world mission—so was the SVM in the nineteenth century. We are committed campus evangelism—so was CRU in the twentieth century (and still in the twenty-first century).

The real question is this: will we keep our focus?

After sixty-five years, CRU is still going strong. And though the Oxford Holy Clubs do not exist in the same form, the larger fruit of that ministry was the Methodist and Weslyan church movement, which is still active today almost three centuries after its founding.

The one group that is no longer active is the Student Volunteer Movement. There are complex historical reasons for why an amazing movement like the SVM unraveled. But one moment in the story is particularly telling. In the 1920s, the SVM abandoned the slogan “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Some thought the mission was unrealistic. Others thought that instead of evangelism, they should focus on social issues. Though the movement had momentum for a few more years, by the 1930s, the SVM was little more than a memory.

What happened?

They forgot that campus ministry and world mission are inextricable. Once they lost sight of the mission, they lost their reason to exist.

These examples should serve to inspire and caution a young movement like Every Nation. We want to reach every nation and every campus, but in order to accomplish our goal and pass the mission on to the next generation, we need to learn one thing from those who have come before us…

College students are not only our mission field, they are our mission force.

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