Toward a Fresh Affirmation of the Ecumenical Commitment to Mission in Unity

Article excerpt

Most scholars will agree that the ecumenical movement originated in the missionary movement, and many will point to the mission conference in Edinburgh in 1910 as the start to the contemporary search for Christian unity, which crystallized some decades later in the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The concern for a new and more comprehensive style of mission and evangelism related to the unity of the church was raised for the first time within the framework of mission endeavour. For centuries, the scandal of Christian division has constantly affected the very being of the church and the credibility of the gospel in the world, but it was more acutely felt in the so-called mission fields. The missionaries were among the first to be confronted by the hindrances of denominational division and rivalry that so greatly affected the impact of their message.

The concern for mission and evangelism in unity has been on the ecumenical agenda constantly, especially after 1961 when the International Missionary Council joined the WCC. Within this context, the statement Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation was issued in 1982. It was a comprehensive summing up of the different aspects and facets of mission, its diverse understandings and its biblical and theological bases. Appropriating the understandings already reached in the debates of the 1970s and enlarging them into a wider perspective, that document articulated the ecumenical affirmations on mission and evangelism in the context of the world of the early 1980s.

The 1982 ecumenical statement on mission and evangelism was received warmly and widely by the churches. It has been used by mission agencies, theological schools and local congregations. Since its publication, it has fermented a new understanding of mission and evangelism and has inspired, provoked and strengthened the longing for witness in unity. It has reached far beyond the frontiers of the member churches of the WCC.

Since 1994, when a review of the 1982 statement was undertaken, several member churches have requested that a new statement on mission and evangelism be elaborated in order to deal with the new realities with which the world and the churches are being faced.

In 1995, therefore, Unit II embarked on a study of the emerging missionary challenges all over the world. A representative group of people approved by the Unit II Commission analysed the information gathered and drew up a document that initiated a hearing on new challenges to mission and evangelism at the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism held in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, in 1996.

The debates in Salvador on the proposed new statement were lively. They brought a rich variety of inputs and contributions but they also raised questions. Certain issues became very clear and the direction for the elaboration of the future document was set firmly.

It became evident that the new document will not replace the 1982 statement, which will remain valid. Neither will it promote a "new" theology of mission different from the one agreed upon ecumenically in the previous document. Nor will it be a supplement to the 1982 document, having an identity of its own. It will rather try to articulate anew the commitment of the churches to mission and evangelism in unity in the context of the challenges facing them today.

The present challenges, as described by the churches in diverse parts of the world, are manifold and differ from one context to another. New situations confronting the churches require new missionary attitudes and actions. Some churches lack mission experience in the contemporary sensitive situations and are asking for help and advice from the ecumenical family on how and what to do. Others, who have more experience in dealing with contemporary issues, nonetheless require assistance and expect that the churches worldwide will approach together the new challenges and, with a common mind, identify a more relevant and credible missionary style and ethos, that promote Christian unity. …