The WSCF is a federation of national ecumenical student movements, most of whom are called Student Christian Movement (SCM). Such movements affiliated to the WSCF are found in 61 countries. Some 24 denominational student and youth movements and organizations have associate status. Both affiliate and associate movements participate fully in the programmes and work of the WSCF, but only affiliate movements have voting rights.
The WSCF was established in 1895 at Vadstena Castle, Sweden, by students and student leaders from ten North American and European countries. Key founders included John R. Mott (USA) and Karl Fries (Sweden). There is a close historical connection between the WSCF and the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations. Mott, for example, was leader of the YMCA, and with the help of YMCA colleagues he developed the vision and strategies for forming an international federation of autonomous and self-directing ecumenical student movements. Much of the subsequent work of establishing and linking SCMs was done with done with the assistance of YMCAs and YMCAs.
The WSCF was a primary pioneer of the modern missionary and ecumenical movement. It encouraged and inspired students in the late 19th and early 20tb centuries to engage actively in the work of spreading the gospel by committed discipleship. It provided a forum for students to meet and work closely with those of other national and denominational backgrounds. Its ecumenical vision and commitment emphasized the importance of mutual communication, co-operation, and challenge with the mainline institutional churches. The WSCF worked for unity in the church and in the world.
The WSCF was instrumental in the formation of the International Missionary Council* (1921) and the WCC (1948). The federation –provided for these ecumenical bodies the leaders who had found their training and inspiration in the free atmosphere of the federation. For example, Mott became honorary president of the WCC, and W. A. Visser’t Hooft moved from being WSCF general secretary. William Temple, Madeleine Barot, Suzanne de Dietrich,Valdo Galland, T. Z. Koo, Robert Mackie, D. T. Niles, K. H. Ting, M. M.Thomas, Philip Potter and many other ecumenical leaders of the 20th century began their ecumenical career with the WSCF.
The exclusively European and North American representation at the first gathering in 1895 reflects its first-world origins. Immediately afterwards, Mott toured through Southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
His journeys led to the federation membership’s extension to India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan. Today there are member movements on every continent and in the islands. Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific are regions where the federation has been striving to strengthen its work in recent decades.
Until the late 1960s, the international staff of the WSCF were based in Geneva. A major structural change in 1972 decentralized the WSCF into six regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and North America. The Geneva headquarters became the inter-regional office. Programmatic and decision-making work shifted to the regions, reflecting the new mood of self-determination in third-world countries and the search for contextualization in theology and politics. The WSCF continues to examine critically its structures, both politically and administratively, especially as its constituency is now looking for ways to strengthen programme and solidarity links that go beyond the regional boundaries.
In its long history, the WSCF has lived through several phases, influenced by both internal and external developments. In the early years, mission and ecumenism were the federation’s raison d’etre and these still serve as the basis of identity, though their manifestations continue to change with the times. From 1895 to 1910, WSCF member movements were, in most countries, the only Christian organization run by students and for students in educational institutions. In 1910 the Inter-Varsity Fellowship broke away from the British SCM on theological and political grounds, and this split led to the formation in 1947 of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). Accordingly, in many countries an unfortunate polarization developed between Christian students on the basis of an artificial distinction between “ecumenical” and “evangelical”.
During and after the world wars, the WSCF played a key role in refugee work in Europe and strove to keep communication and solidarity links open between Christians divided by nationalism and war. After the first world war, the WSCF established European Student Relief. For four years, students of 42 nations provided over £500,000 for the relief of starving students in 19 countries. At that time close working relationships developed with Pax Romana, the student organization of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1926 European Student Relief became an autonomous body, International Student Service, later to be called World University Service, which continues to this day. During the second world war, women leaders of the WSCF and YWCA played a major role in creating CIMADE,* which worked with refugees.
When the WCC was formed in 1948, it was decided not to incorporate the WSCF into its structures; the federation should maintain a degree of autonomy from institutional church structures, as this was an important ingredient of its creativity. However, as the WCC now embraced the missionary and ecumenical goals, the WSCF focused more sharply on its role in educational institutions and its analysis of education. The WCC included a youth department in its structures which became a natural working partner for the WSCF, though its establishment also introduced some areas of overlap in constituency.
In the 1960s and 1970s, WSCF movements, especially in North America and Europe, were closely involved with the radical political movements. Their political solidarity and their critique of education convinced them that them mission filed was no longer in educational institutions but on the streets and in the villages. The theme of the WSCF in the 1970s – Christian Witness in the Struggle for Liberation – sums up the political commitment of the WSCF at the same time it moved to a regional structure. The political debates in the WSCF were painful, at times divisive.
The commitment to justice* and peace* issues remains strong in the WSCF and indeed has influenced the mainline churches to rethink their own missionary policies and political analyses. Some WSCF people in some parts of the world have become martyrs (e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Member students in South Korea, Philippines, El Salvador and Sri Lanka continue to suffer arrest, imprisonment and death. The WSCF is often called upon to use its extensive solidarity networks. The worldwide fellowship provides a key support and inspiration for students who face unjust powers.
By the 1970s the organizational base of SCMs in many countries had become critically weak, and even disappeared completely in some countries, such as the USA. This decade saw the rapid rise of conservative evangelical (at times, fundamentalist) groups on compuses around the world, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Inter-Varsity. These groups emerged in critical periods in both the first and third worlds. In the first world, cynicism and disillusionment followed the “political 1960s”, and the student population became increasingly conservative, preoccupied with jobs and security. In the third world, students living under increasingly militarized and repressive governments were disillusioned when hopes for justice and peace failed to materialize under “independent” governments. The soil was ripe for more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist groups to flourish, backed by big money and glossy publicity and with the support of governments and business. The SCM’s organizational base was not strong enough to provide an alternative to these groups in many cases. Also some mainline denominations, sensing the vacuum left on campuses where SCMs have diminished or disappeared, and spurred on by their own anxiety about the fundamentalist groups, started their own campus ministry organizations.
Hence in the late 20th century the WSCF lives in a much more complex environment in the educational institutions, and this poses a new challenge to its missionary and ecumenical task. Its member movements have been consolidating their presence in educational institutions again, giving specific attention to conveying the unique ecumenical character of their work and life. As a result, some movements that almost disappeared in the 1970s have re-established their organizational base. However, many movements remain vulnerable, with little financial support and strong competition from conservative groups.
There is a strong, renewed interest in theological work, honouring the contextual theologies as well as seeking global visions. Leadership-development programmes from the basis of most WSCF regional programmes. The 1980s saw a marked increase in women’s leadership at the international level. Women from all regions are half of the executive committee. In 1986 the post of general secretary and associate general secretary were replaced by two co-secretaries general, one man, one woman. Women’s programmes exist in most regions, and women’s pre-assemblies precede general assemblies.
The ecumenical vision and practice of the WSCF is also under continuing scrutiny. Since its inception, the WSCF has drawn most of its membership from Protestant students. Roman Catholic students have also been members, especially in Latin America and some parts of Asia. In 1911 Orthodox students joined the federation as a result of a conference in Constantinople. This paved the way for the involvement of the Orthodox churches in wider ecumenical relations. Bilateral relationships have remained healthy between the WSCF and Roman Catholic student organizations, particularly Pax Romana, and also Syndesmos* (world fellowship of Orthodox youth). Within the WSCF itself, the impact of Orthodox students in particular continues to challenge the predominantly Protestant ethos of worship and world-view. The WSCF continues a good degree of co-operation with its historical ecumenical partners – the World Alliance of YMCAs, the World YWCA, and the WCC Youth sub-unit.
The WSCF inter-regional office is housed within the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Regional secretaries are based in Nairobi, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Quito and Beirut. The North American regional structure is currently in abeyance, pending developments in ecumenical student work in the USA.
S. de Dietrich, Cinquante ans d’historie: La Federation universelle des associations christiennes d’ etudiants (1895-45), Paris, Semeur, 1948. C. Howard Hopkins, John R. Mott, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1979. R. Rouse & S. Neil eds, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517-1948, WCC, 3rd ed. 1986. R. Rouse, The World’s Student Christian Federation: A History of the First 30 Years, London, SCM,1948. W.A. Visser’t Hooft, Memoris, WCC, 1973.