Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The History and Significance of World Mission Conferences in the 20th Century

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The History and Significance of World Mission Conferences in the 20th Century

Article excerpt

Missio Dei today-"God's mission today". That is the theme of this congress that we are holding to mark the 50th anniversary of the world mission conference in Willingen. I have been given the task of situating that conference in the overall context of the world mission conferences held during the 20th century, and outlining their significance. Obviously, given the limits of this paper, this will have to be done in fairly rough outline.

I shall begin by presenting certain features of these world mission conferences. Then, after a brief chronological account, I shall look at the issues dealt with at each of the conferences, and end with an attempt at a summary.

1. Salient features of the world missionary conferences

"Assuredly, then, we are called to make new discoveries of the grace and power of God, for ourselves, for the Church, and for the world; and, in the strength of that firmer and bolder faith in Him, to face the new age and the new task with a new consecration." (1)

This is the closing sentence of the message to the "Members of the Church in Christian Lands" from the first world missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910. I am tempted to put this paragraph up front as a motto, so to speak, because-using the language of its time-it seems to me to present in concentrated form much of what the world mission conferences are essentially about.

First, there is the certainty of the calling. All the mission conferences are marked by the participants' certainty of being called by God to engage in mission. It was left to the Willingen conference in 1952 to state that mission is always God's affair and that we therefore take part in God's mission. However, all the earlier conferences shared the conviction that the task of mission was ultimately laid upon them by God. Edinburgh's message, for instance, calls for "a deeper sense of responsibility to Almighty God for the great trust which He has committed to us in the evangelization of the world". (2)

All the mission conferences were anxious to pass this certainty on to the whole of Christendom, for the God who calls us is great, and greater than ever yet perceived or suspected. We have to make new discoveries about God's grace and power for ourselves, for the church and for the world. Though they may use different words, all the world conferences hope for the awakening of faith and the revival of the church, which means, a new dedication to mission. Mission is not just a side interest for a few highly motivated people; mission is part of the very nature of the church. That is how all the world conferences see it. To quote Edinburgh again: "That trust is not committed in any peculiar way to our missionaries, or to the societies, or to us as members of this Conference. It is committed to all and each within the Christian family; and it is as incumbent on every member of the Church, as are the elementary virtues of the Christian life-faith, hope and love. That which makes a man a Christian makes him also a sharer in this trust." (3) The aim of all the world conferences is to get the churches to understand this. That is what they pray for.

The conferences wanted to make new discoveries of God's grace and power for the world and in the world as well, in order to face the new age and recognize the new tasks that await them. When all is said and done, it is a matter of keeping pace with God's mission. In the American preparatory material for Willingen we read, "He is not only the Head of the Church but ahead of both the Church and the world ... The problem is to keep abreast of Jesus Christ." This is a concern that is popularly expressed in the following way: "Two documents lie behind the new effort to understand the missionary obligation. One is the New Testament; the other, your morning newspaper." (4)

That is why all the world conferences devote a large space to Bible study and the analysis of world events. …

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