For 200 Years, Students Lead Way for Missions Outreach

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Americans have answered the call to spread the Gospel since the country's founding.

In the beginning, the mission field was the rapidly expanding Western frontier of the United States. Then, a series of revivals known as the Great Awakening broke out.

That led missionary pioneers like Adoniram and Nancy Judson to cast their vision overseas.

"In the first 12 years of his ministry in Burma, he (Judson) performed more funerals for family members and for colleagues than he did for baptisms for young believers," Dr. Doug Birdsall, missions expert and honorary chairman of the Lausanne Movement, explained.

"But today, there are over 5 million believers in that country and virtually all would trace their spiritual heritage to that one man and his wife," he added.

The Judsons and others paved the way for an incredible worldwide movement in the late 1800s.

"The Civil War was behind, the economy was growing and so the interest of the country began to turn to other parts of the world," Birdsall said.

It started when 200 college students met for a month at Mt. Hermon in Massachusetts. Their goal was to evangelize the world in their generation. 

Two years later came the birth of the Student Volunteer Movement, which would become one of the all-time great mission recruitment vehicles.

"Within 5 years there were 6,000 young people that had volunteered to go on the mission fields," Dr. Vinson Synan, visiting professor of church history at Regent University, explained.

During the next 50 years that force grew to 20,000. These students came from the finest schools like Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and Yale University. 

Their mission was nothing short of extraordinary: to reach the world for Christ by the year 1900.

"These young people were so idealistic," Synan said. "They felt so called of God. They felt such an annointing and were willing to sacrifice everything."

For many, that meant a one-way ticket and literally packing their belongings in a coffin, knowing they might never return.

Today, their impact is still felt in many countries like Korea. Less than two percent of the people there were Christian when Henry Appenzeller, a Methodist, and Horace Underwood, a Presbyterian, reached the country. 

"Today there are probably 2 million Methodists in South Korea," Synan said. "And maybe up to 5 million Presbyterians from these two very young college students."

By the early 1900s, the Student Volunteer Movement was in full force. More than 1,000 missionaries gathered at an Edinburgh conference in 1910 to further plan for world-wide evangelism. 

But those plans were cut short by WWII and a post-war distrust of Western culture and American missionaries.

Who could have guessed that WWII would actually pave the way for another missions miracle? During the 1940s in WWII, American G.I.s served across Europe, North Africa, and Asia.

Most were seeing the world for the first time and many returned home with a new heart for missions. 

"The American economy was growing," Birdsall said. "People had the opportunity to go to college like never before because of the G.I. bill and you had hundreds of thousands of people who had been given a vision for the world. And then you had a few key people."

Those people included Bill Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) at UCLA in 1951. 

Since then Cru has exposed millions to the Gospel and led thousands of students to Christ every year. 

In 1953 Bob Pierce founded World Vision to help Korean war orphans. 

Today, World Vision helps 70 million people a year in its quest to end poverty and transform lives.

The Urbana Missions Conference has also been a force. Since 1946 it has challenged more than 200,000 young people to commit to missions.

"In a short time, from the U.S. after WWII you would have over 100,000 missionaries of all denominations all over the earth," Synan said.

Today, missions leaders are looking to students again as the new face of missions. 

There's even a Student Volunteer Movement 2 that could make the history books, bringing even more into the Kingdom of heaven.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.