Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Yes, We like It - No, We Don't: Mission at WCC Assemblies

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Yes, We like It - No, We Don't: Mission at WCC Assemblies

Article excerpt

For mission people, it is always nice to see how historians tackle the story of the 20th century ecumenical movement.(1) Normally, three 'mothers' of the modern ecumenical inspiration are mentioned: the missionary movement, the movement for faith and order, and the one for life and work. Often mission is quoted first. That certainly has become clear also in the life of the World Council of Churches (WCC), as reflected in discussions of the assemblies of that most important ecumenical organization. Nobody in its circles therefore could or would deny the intimate relation between the missionary vocation of the church and its search for unity. Even before the integration of the International Missionary Council (IMC) into the WCC at the assembly in New Delhi (1961), mission was an integral part of the thinking and deliberations of WCC meetings. You only have to read the reports of the different assemblies, as I had to do once again to write this article, to be convinced of that.


That 'nice' observation does not mean, however, that the relationship between the ecumenical movement, as embodied in the WCC, and mission has only been a beautiful and romantic love story for the past fifty years. As has been said above, nobody (or perhaps, almost nobody) in the ecumenical movement would dare to deny that mission is a central task of the church in any given part of the world, in any given situation. Nobody (or perhaps...) in the missionary movement would deny that Christian unity is a fundamental condition for effective mission. But that is not the complete story. In the life and at the assemblies of the WCC, a certain uneasiness has been experienced when mission came to the fore. From the mission side, at times there was some ambivalence when the relation to the ecumenical movement was at stake. Ecumenical people, although affirming the missionary mandate of the church, were at the same time very hesitant, to say the least, to confirm all that was going by the word 'Christian mission.' They did not want to be associated with any colonial spirit or reminiscences thereof in the missionary movement nor did they want to be labeled Christian imperialists or cultural barbarians - to mention just two of the accusations against mission that were heard in the fifties and sixties and still are quoted sometimes today. So, mission was OK for the ecumenical spirits - but as a pure, almost ideal mission, not a mission that did suffer from all the shortcomings which are inevitable once you actually start working and getting your hands dirty. On the other hand, mission people often were somewhat suspicious whether the ecumenical movement was really serious in its (theoretical) recognition of the missionary vocation of the church it sounded so often as a 'yes, but' with more stressing the 'but' than the 'yes'. Many evangelicals (at least that was the name they were going by later on) therefore decided already before the merger of the IMC with the WCC that they wanted to stay out - and afterwards thought that they had taken a wise decision. But others in the missionary movement, who did not want to give up their ecumenical birth rights, were also asking themselves sometimes whether the WCC was in fact not more interested in other assets than missionary action.

This ambivalent position of mission in the great realm of the WCC can also be encountered in the discussions and reports of the different assemblies of that body. Reading through those reports and adding some of my own (limited) experience, I would affirm that there are at least three fields where it appears that mission was considered as a vocation and a danger at the same time. To sum it up, one could state it as follows: Mission - we all have to be engaged in God's mission in this world; mission - we all have to beware of abusing others by our religious fervor.

Evangelism and proselytism

The first of these fields relates to evangelism versus proselytism. …

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