You may not know this, but history is going to be made this summer. It’s nothing new, though. It’s been happening for a long time.
Eleven years ago, I was preparing for my first overseas mission trip. As a college student, I was contemplating what kind of impact could I have. As a fairly new Christian with plenty of life experience but very little theological training, I wondered how God could possibly use me. During that summer of 2008, I saw nearly 100 fellow college students spending their summer living in villages with no electricity, traveling up dangerous rivers, venturing into the slums of major cities, and serving in orphanages for the purpose of intentionally sharing the gospel with village leaders, rebel military factions, prostitutes, drug users, and abandoned children. These students could have been at home working a job, but they chose to forsake the opportunity to build their resume for the sake of making disciples among the lost. I also learned that summer that we were all part of a legacy of student volunteer missions that stretched back over a century.
The Student Volunteer Movement
The Student Volunteer Movement did not start with a grand plan or structure. It started spontaneously during the summer of 1886 when 100 students committed to serving in international missions at a conference that didn’t even have missions on the agenda.1 Within a year, 2,106 students from colleges, universities, and theological seminaries in the United States and Canada had volunteered for service in the mission field.
Many people found the Student Volunteer Movement scandalous because young students, who were expected to start careers when they were out of college, instead volunteered to go to the ends of the earth. These young men and women volunteered to “waste” their lives in response to a call similar to the one the SEBTS community hears frequently: every Christian student should not ask themselves why they should go but rather why they should stay.
The Impact of Students
Many of the students around me were barely a year out of high school. A few of them had no idea what to expect and arrived with unwieldy bags filled until the zipper could barely close. Yet, like those who volunteered in the original Student Volunteer Movement, these students were fully committed to going to the unreached even if they had no idea what they were signing up for. Sherwood Eddy, a student volunteer who went to India in 1896, said, “We were considered fanatical by some, and we made numerous mistakes which we ourselves came to realize later in bitter experience. Many sacrificed early plans and ambitions for wealth, power, prestige or pleasure, to go to some distant country about which they knew little save its abysmal need.”2 Instead of working summer jobs or finding resume-building internships, the students who are going out this summer are often volunteering knowing little other than that there are people who have never heard about Jesus.
For better or for worse, students don’t ask the question, “Is it possible?” Once they commit themselves to a task, especially one that grips them with a sense of cosmic importance, they pursue it at a full sprint. This kind of passion is important in mission. As Rhyme and Reason taught in The Phantom Tollbooth, “[I]f we’d told you [the task was impossible] then, you might not have gone—and as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”3 The student volunteers were and continue to be some of the most dedicated missionaries who have ever served partly because they have not learned that some things are “impossible.”
History Will Be Made
As I was preparing to go out for a two-month summer mission trip that would take me to the Filipino jungle where I would personally travel up dangerous rivers and see communist rebels respond favorably to the gospel, I didn’t know that I was part of a legacy that began at a student conference 142 years earlier. At the end of the summer, I was handed a card very similar to the one given to those early student volunteers. I was both confronted with the global mission of God and given an opportunity to commit myself to serve as a foreign missionary and rallying others to respond to a similar call. I checked the box and signed my name at the bottom of the card and have never looked back.
This summer, approximately 800 middle school, high school, and college students will participate in an international mission trip with the International Mission Board. The number of students participating in trips in North America and around the world either independently or with other organizations may be impossible to calculate. Regardless of the length of the trip or the strategic focus, the pastors, student leaders, chaperones, and missionary partners should not miss the opportunity to continue the legacy of the Student Volunteer Movement. Ask the students the hard question boldly. Ask them, “Will you commit your life to making Christ known among the unreached and hard-to-reach in the world?” Do not miss the opportunity to raise up the next generation of missionaries. If you are one of the students going this summer, reflect on the legacy of which you are a part. Be bold. Do the “impossible.” But also see that God is calling you to a greater commitment—one that is longer than a week or a month. God is calling you to live the rest of your life for the purpose of making him among all peoples and all places.
1 K. S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity: Volume 4 The Great Century, 1800–1914, Europe and the United States of America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941), 96.
2 Sherwood Eddy, Pathfinders of the World Missionary Crusade (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1945), 5–6.
3 Norman Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 247.