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To the Ends of the Earth

Discussing missional differences at the WCC conference.

“The Church…is not so much an institution as an expedition sent to the ends of the earth in Christ’s name.” 

Lesslie Newbigin made this bold declaration in his 1960’s work, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission. I thought often of Newbigin while attending the World Council of Churches Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) in Arusha, Tanzania, March 8 to 13. After all, it was Newbigin who helped bring the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1961. The English-born, Church of Scotland-sent, Church of South India-consecrated bishop became the first Director of the Division of World Mission and Evangelism in Geneva that organizes the CWME held over the years in such diverse locations as Mexico City, Melbourne and Athens. There was a sense at this gathering, however, that the time was right, if not overdue, to recognize the growth and vibrancy of the global church through the African continent.

To that end, Tanzania was the perfect place to host this latest gathering of the CWME with its theme, “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship.” The vibrancy and diversity of the Christian church and its witness in Africa was evident to the 1,000 participants who gathered to worship the Triune God, participate in study of God’s Word, hear from inspiring plenary and workshop speakers, discuss and debate the concepts of mission and evangelism and affirm the “Arusha Call to Discipleship.” Images were shown of the first global gathering of this kind – the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh where only 17 participants of the 1,400 came from the “third world.” In 2018 Arusha, however, the global diversity and shifting influence of the Christian church from North to South and West to East was evident as former franchises of the old Christendom powers emerge to re-evangelize the secular west. Newbigin’s expedition that was “sent to the ends of the earth” is quite different than the founders of the world mission movement imagined in Edinburgh in 1910. Decade by decade, the CWME gatherings have reflected the shifting influence and vitality of the global church and Arusha followed this trend. 

As a missiologist, I found it interesting to listen carefully to how participants from various parts of Christ’s church defined mission. When sitting in table groups with delegates as varied as The Church of Sweden, The Presbyterian Church in Ghana or the Javanese Christian Churches, the difference of opinion at times regarding mission was stark. Mission for many from the West clearly echoed the movement away from personal salvation of social gospel to social justice, using language of confronting dehumanizing institutions and structures at work in the world today. 

In contrast, mission for many in the global south included a strong need for evangelism as witness in a context engaged in spiritual conflict between the goodness of God and the reality of evil, within a world oriented toward an eschatological hope of Christ’s return. In fact, I found myself paying (praying?) attention to how many times speakers, when referring to the conference, edited the title and simply described our gathering as the “Conference on World Mission.” As a professor in a mainline seminary who regularly teaches a course on evangelism, it was interesting to note that for many westerners the concept of witness for the sake of conversion (always the work of the Holy Spirit!) continues to be unseemly. 

In part, the struggle comes from those of us in the West who live daily in the reality of what Charles Taylor has helpfully described as “the imminent frame.” The African context of this CWME helped to stoke the imagination of participants and reframe for many the assumptions that we brought with us as we engaged in reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit in that place. Added to the somewhat divergent worldviews of Protestant global south and western participants was the helpful and notable presence of Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders, including delegates from these traditions in Africa. Reflection on mission as “the liturgy after the liturgy” and the solid Trinitarian framework that those traditions embody helped anchor, especially when in the broader African context, the missional conversations at the gathering. Such conversations gracefully avoided most of the arguments often found in our usual western denominational clusters. For example, it was noteworthy that the highly divisive question of human sexuality was profoundly muted at the conference in a way that would not be true in most western gatherings.  

In the end, the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism produced the “Arusha Call to Discipleship” document. That epistle was worked out ahead of time by the World Mission and Evangelism Commission of the WCC which meant delegates had minimal opportunity for input. The “Call to Discipleship” names themes of the conference confronting the global church and its witness regarding wealth and poverty, war and peace and the stewardship of the human creature in creation. The call ends with a prayer that invites us to take up our cross and become “pilgrims of justice and peace in our time.” As the expedition of the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, continues towards the consummation of God’s mission, it was encouraging to see the “ends of the earth” animating and articulating the gospel across a vast diversity of time, space and context in order to be the sign, foretaste and instrument of the Kingdom that Lesslie Newbigin once imagined.   

  • Ross is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver, and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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