Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Church in the Contemporary Ecumenical-Missional Moment: Together towards Life in Dialogue with the Cape Town Commitment and Evangelii Gaudium

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Church in the Contemporary Ecumenical-Missional Moment: Together towards Life in Dialogue with the Cape Town Commitment and Evangelii Gaudium

Article excerpt


The doctrine of the church has always been important to developments in mission and ecumenism--a fact that has been true since the birth of the modern ecumenical movement and is no less so today. This article compares three recent documents--the WCC's Together towards Life (2013), the Lausanne Movement's Cape Town Commitment (2011), and Pope Francis' exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2014)--in light of the rise of a prominent new way of expressing the role of the church in the mission of Christ (missio Dei). This theological development has significantly impacted mission and ecumenical thinking and practice in recent decades, requiring us to consider the church's relationship to mission in a new and important way. The article reveals various aspects of missio Dei theology at work in all three of these documents, and finally looks at the visionary leadership of Pope Francis in calling the Catholic Church to a joyful expression of the gospel of Christ through both words and deeds. EG does not so much address the doctrine of the church as it assumes it. Its concern is far more pastoral: "How do we more effectively and powerfully communicate the gospel in our time?'


If there is one thing that can be said regarding evangelical Christianity it has to be this: If you get three evangelicals in the same room you will likely have four different views of the church. One wag told me the story, when I was teaching and preaching in Wales (UK) some years ago, of some missionaries who came upon a remote and almost abandoned Welsh village. They were surprised to discover three well-kept chapels. But there were only two single men who remained in the village. When the missionaries asked what prompted these two Welshmen to keep open all three chapels, the answer expressed something of the evangelical dilemma clearly. "Well, one of the chapels is for me and the other is for my neighbour. The third is for the one we will need if one of us separates from the chapel he attends."

While Roman Catholics generally have an idea about what the church is, and is not, evangelicals debate and divide over a plethora of doctrines and practices that define and guide the life of their churches. Such ecclesiology is often implied but rarely articulated. While serious evangelical theologians have worked out the meaning and practice of the church, at least within their various Protestant traditions, most members of evangelical churches have acted out their beliefs without statements and clear doctrines. Rare is the occasion, at least in my experience, where I meet an evangelical who has strong views about specific characteristics of the church.

Bruce Hindmarsh, professor of spiritual theology at the highly regarded evangelical school Regent College (Vancouver, Canada), expresses what I have in mind: "One might even suggest, given the history of schism among evangelicals, that 'evangelical ecclesiology' is an oxymoron, like an 'honest thief or 'airline food.'" (1) Hindmarsh says this is very odd given "the way evangelicals have proclaimed and appreciated the spiritual unity of all those who are truly 'born again' while at the same time have so often separated from one another in practice." (2) He rightly argues that this was not always the case.

This has been my experience of evangelical Protestantism as an insider for well more than half a century. The pleasant surprise, at least for me, is that an increasing number of evangelicals have become highly engaged in global concerns for Christian unity in mission the last five years. Though ecumenism has always occupied a small place within evangelicalism, a new generation of leaders is asking, "Why must we continue to divide the church?" It seems abundantly clear that Evangelicals are now speaking about mission and evangelism in language that is remarkably similar to that of other (non-Evangelical) Christians. I call this a missional- ecumenical convergence. …

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