Faith in Jesus Christ: Shaping the Mission of the Church
by ROBERT J. HARMAN*
The testimonies of missionaries offer convincing evidence of wrestling with God’s call to bear witness to the Gospel that changed their lives. What about the church? How does the corporate community of faith read the signs of the times and receive the Word that sends its agents across the continents with the Gospel message?
The following is a brief review of significant events during the decades of the 20th century that produced dialog within churches and influenced their world mission. This history teaches one lesson: It is faith in Jesus Christ that underlies the movement of the church in mission. Only a community that has come to know Jesus and to love him, and desires to follow him in communion with other disciples in the universal church, is capable of engaging in the transforming mission of the church in the world.
Evangelization of the world in this generation: 1910-1920
At the turn of the century the guiding spirit of the international missionary movement was John R. Mott, Methodist layman and head of the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) for Foreign Mission of the Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Associations. Under his leadership hundreds of chapters were formed on college campuses and thousands of young adults were recruited and presented themselves for service in the ranks of denominational mission boards. Evangelization of the world in this generation was the mobilizing theme helping the SVM to interpret the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19: “Go and make disciples of all nations,” as the obligation of every Christian.
Mr. Mott helped Methodists define mission by drafting a statement that found its way into the United Methodist Book of Discipline: “The supreme aim of missions is to make the Lord Jesus Christ known to all peoples in all lands as their divine Savior, to persuade them to become his disciples, and to gather these disciples into Christian churches, to enlist them in the building of the Kingdom of God; to cooperate with these churches, to promote world Christian fellowship; and to bring to bear on all human life the spirit and principles of Christ.” The agents of “missions” (plural) were the missionaries to whom the church entrusted the realization of the coming of the Kingdom.
In 1910 the first International Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh. World church leaders gathered at the event and confidently expressed their commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel in every corner of the world to all those who had not heard, could not hear or even not asked to hear the Good News. They interpreted the biblical mandate as the imperative for Western churches and a priority of their mission resources, leaving younger and emerging church leaders to accept the status of dependency. During this period, Western missionaries continued to assume the role of authority in their places of service as well as within the life and influence of their denominations. Missionaries were not only successful at raising funds the mission efforts depended on, but also filtered the experiences of the churches in mission throughout the world for the supporting constituencies. As long as their reports included growing numbers of converted believers, donors would find evidence of success in fulfilling the aim of mission. Producing evidence of signs of the coming kingdom however, was subordinated to the primary task of converting unbelievers.
Save the world for Christ: 1920-30
In 1921, the International Missionary Council was formed. Missionaries began reporting on conditions prevailing in the world to which they were sent. Churches were learning firsthand about how missionaries were responding to superstitions, ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. The mission thrust began to focus on overcoming these maladies. A relevant biblical theme was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.”
Since many of the needs were created or complicated by the conflagrations of World War I, there was also an emphasis on avoiding war or at least realizing the war’s post-mortem theme: “the war to end all wars.”
Meeting the world’s needs: 1930-40.
It was soon realized that these compelling needs and objectives would require a higher level of cooperation among churches. The churches in mission soon learned that people in need of water didn’t really care if you were Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist. What they wanted and needed was a cup of water. Cooperation demanded recognition of the service capacity of indigenous churches. In 1928 the International Missionary Council convened the Jerusalem Conference. Reflections on the role of Christian nations in a world war and the rise of a world communist movement chastened earlier missionary expectations for converting the world in their generation.
Nevertheless with delegates attending from every continent, the conference members acknowledged a growing dependence upon a worldwide fellowship in answering the call to Christian mission with its full social and spiritual implications. God’s work in Christ was understood to be reconciling ministry in the world and among the churches. This recognition was soon followed by conversations and proposals for the formation of a World Council of Churches. In this period, Methodist world mission began experiencing the first movement of mission churches toward realizing independence, with autonomy granted to churches in Mexico, Brazil and Korea.
In the 1940s the world had the devastation of World War II to address. It was not only a time of rebuilding through major reconstruction programs, but also a moment for creating new instruments of world cooperation with the promise of creating lasting peace. Protestant churches became active proponents of the creation of the United Nations from which numerous international bodies were established for economic development, education and cultural understanding. The notion of Christian unity also gained momentum in this period and 1948 brought the first assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam. Jesus’ prayer of compassion for the disciples in John 17:11, “that they may all become one,” was a common theme in ecumenical literature before and after the assembly. It was a landmark meeting that brought together 101 churches, most of them Western and most of them Protestant, whereas today there are over 320 churches with the majority of representatives from the churches of the two-thirds world. WCC charter member churches are seated at assemblies by country of origin. So the Methodist Church, Evangelical United Brethern Church and later the United Methodist Church representation at WCC assemblies are always seated as a single delegation in the North American section of the plenary. Those United Methodist-related churches that chose autonomy join the WCC independently and are seated with delegations of other member churches of their country. The Orthodox churches joined the WCC at the New Delhi assembly in 1961. This was the beginning of a terribly optimistic period for the churches – finding their hope through a united organizational effort at witness and service to the world.
Christian presence: 1950-1960
In 1952 missionary representatives met in Willingen, Germany, to discuss the impact of the expulsion of missionaries from communist China. The delegates gave new consideration to the Missio Dei paradigm – understanding mission as belonging to God, not merely the agents of the church. The second assembly of the WCC met in Evanston, Ill., in 1954. The gathering met around the theme “Christ – the Hope of the World.” The assembly reflected on east-west tensions in the world and discussed the role of the Christian community in bringing a common witness of unity to the churches and the world community. In 1958 the International Missionary Conference was held in Accra, Ghana. A merger was proposed between the historic International Missionary Council and the WCC by creating a continuing body within the WCC known as the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. An emphasis on making the evangelistic witness of the church through the growing service components of mission was on the ascendency in most deliberations in this period. Conference themes often focused on Christ’s presence in the world through ministries of feeding the hungry and accompanying the afflicted.
Mission on six continents: 1960-1970
The most definitive decade for world church relationships was experienced in the 1960s. It was a turbulent time with the forces of nationalism successfully challenging colonialism and continuing struggles for human rights and racial equality dominating current events. Church events were geared toward facilitating participation, and empowering minorities within their memberships and beyond. Vatican Council II became the symbol of doctrinal and ecclesiastical renewal within Roman Catholicism. The Methodist General Conferences in 1964 and 1968 would be memorable for addressing and eliminating Methodism’s segregated juridical structures.
The third assembly of the WCC at New Delhi in 1961 included a theological address on inclusiveness in mission. If the church is truly the body of Christ, and all members of the body are equal, then the church in each place will not only bear the marks of the true church but offer the full witness of the whole church:
“We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and God’s gift to God’s Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and in all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls.”
In a follow-up conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Mexico in 1963, the council members interpreted the implications of the above statement for world mission. If the members of the one body have different functions then the distinctiveness of witness of each member must be honored. Consequently, the witness of the church carried out by all of the churches on all six continents could be celebrated for its gifts of diversity. Mission, God’s mission, belonged to the whole people of God. It was no longer the domain of a privileged portion of the church. God’s mission would be experienced in reciprocal giving and receiving across the whole church.
This was the recurring theme for churches organically related to mission agencies of denominations to seek greater self-determining authority for developing and implementing mission in their own country contexts. It was a movement that was embraced by the Methodist Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas at their Green Lake, Wis., Assembly in 1966 calling moves by Methodist churches for achieving autonomy a “welcome development.”
Confessing Christ today: 1970-1980
Embracing the concept of mission on six continents required much listening and learning on behalf of mission agencies and their missionaries. In the 1970s it required sensitivity to contextual theologies, i.e., the Gospel message interpreted in solidarity with communities living at the margins of societies who found therein a preference for the poor. It meant knowing when to yield positions of traditional missionary authority, and service to indigenous church members and leaders. Or, more abruptly, struggling with the call for a missionary moratorium from churches that believed a continuing missionary presence precluded their assuming full responsibility for their independence.
The notion of a moratorium was vigorously discussed at the 1973 World Mission and Evangelism Conference in Bangkok but without an endorsement. Discussion of implementation of the conference theme “Salvation Today” led to consideration of contextual influences in proclaiming and receiving the Gospel message. The Conference hastened the creation of alternative structures for achieving mutuality in mission relationships between established (sending) and emerging (receiving) churches. Local, national and regional cooperative church structures were encouraged. The conference concluded that the issue of empowerment of the churches was helped by organizational structures, but should be treated as a spiritual matter akin to Jesus’ prophetic proclamation of his liberating ministry in Luke 4:18-19.
Struggle, solidarity and resistance: 1980-1990
Church renewal in this period was experienced through an awareness witnessing to God in Christ called for immersion in a struggle against global injustices. In the face of troubling events and revolutionary struggles taking place God would not abandon the world and neither must the churches. Church leaders urged acts of solidarity and practiced strategies of resistance to oppressive forces at work on a global scale. Methodism heard a prophetic call from Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen of the Evangelical Methodist Church in Argentina to recognize the gift of its connectional nature in witnessing to political and economic systems that were dealing so much death and destruction on the people of Latin America and elsewhere. He called it conexionalidad a favor de la vida or “connectionality in favor of life,” bringing a vital dimension of solidarity with the sufferings of humanity to what for many was merely Methodist structural terminology.
In 1990, member communions of the WCC gathered in Seoul, Korea, focusing on combined threats of social and environmental injustice with the theme of “Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.” The conference called upon Christians to claim a higher moral responsibility in two realms: respectfully as but one of the species of a living community of creation and faithfully as members in the covenant community of Christ. In 1992, churches were a strong component of the United Nations sponsored Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Revisioning and retelling the story: 1990-2000
Throughout the final decades of the century, the world church community affirmed and celebrated the shift of membership strength and growing influence from the churches of the northern hemisphere to those in the south. Initiative and response to growing mission opportunities was also shifting. The vitality of Christian witness experienced by the churches of the south was in stark contrast to the ageing churches of the north with declining memberships. The growth of immigrant communities in the United States and Europe presented a challenge to established churches lacking pastoral leadership with cultural sensitivity and language skills needed to offer effective ministries. The connectional relationship to churches in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa responded, sometimes at great expense, in sharing trained personnel with United Methodist Conferences in the United States. In this gift of shared resources there was a growing realization of spiritual accompaniment within a global Christian community that fulfilled the promise of the resurrected Christ found in Matthew 20:16: “Lo, I am with you always.”
Transforming church and world: 2000-2007
With the fall of communism, mission in the 1990s and beyond have been refocused on Eastern Europe and Central Asia where restrictions on the ministry of the churches were lifted, and new opportunities for witness and service opened. An impromptu volunteer spirit emerged among established congregations in the West that were challenged to participate in forming partnerships for the rebuilding of churches and training of leaders for new and revitalized communities of faith. Conferences on joint mission opportunities were inspired by a text from Christ’s vision to John in Revelations 3:8, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.”
*Robert J. Harman is a retired chief executive of the former World Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.