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15.05.05 08:10 Age: 7 yrs

Ecumenists seek to recover evangelistic emphasis

Contrary to the image it often has, the World Council of Churches is committed to proclaiming the message of Christ's transforming love to the whole world. That was what Carlos Ham, the WCC's evangelism secretary, told a seminar held as part of the thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Athens, Greece, 9-16 May.

Dr Ham, formerly president of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba, has helped to coordinate a series of ‘schools of evangelism' in different parts of the world over the past few years. The WCC also publishes a worldwide Letter on Evangelism and seeks to create a conversation among Christians of different traditions about how the Gospel message can be proclaimed effectively and appropriately.

There is nervousness as well as enthusiasm about evangelism among the constituency of the World Council, which has 340 churches and families of churches in membership across the Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox spectrum.

The Catholic Church is an observer, but participates fully in the mission and evangelism commission - which meets next Tuesday to assess the CWME gathering and to prepare for the ninth WCC general assembly in Brazil next February.

One of the concerns about evangelism is that the word (which means both ‘good news' and ‘ambassador' in New Testament Greek) has often been hijacked by fundamentalist churches with American-inspired imperial designs.

Several plenary speakers at the world mission conference have made cautionary references to the "abuse of the Word" and to proselytism, the manipulative targeting of one church by another in order to steal members. The latter is a concern especially to the Orthodox, and the WCC has spoken strongly against violations of "common witness".

But a spokesperson for the World Evangelical Alliance said that it was important that the WCC should recover its evangelistic nerve. Catholics, mainline Protestants, Anabaptists, Pentecostals and some Orthodox are also calling for a renewed emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel's message of hope integrally with works of service, community-building, worship, peace and justice.

Dr Ham emphasized that the evangelism vocation is about a sensitive invitation for people to respond to God's initiative in Jesus Christ, and that it fits naturally with respectful conversation among those of other faith and no faith.

It should not be seen as a monopoly of evangelicals, he added - referring to the fast-growing section of the church that emphasizes a stricter interpretation of the Bible and the priority of personal conversion. Many of them are estranged from the WCC and organize independently through the Lausanne Committee and other bodies.

Later next week some British and Irish participants from different traditions will unveil a letter they have written to the WCC's mission commission suggesting that the time has come to re-focus on ‘talking the walk' that Christians of different traditions share together in witness and service.

They stress that their call is not a criticism of CWME, but a bold invitation. Among the signatories will be Canon Tim Dakin, general secretary of the Church Mission Society, one of the two large voluntary mission agencies in the Church of England.

CMS played a major part in the nineteenth and twentieth century missionary movement. It supported the growth of indigenous churches in Africa and elsewhere, and was associated with action against slavery as well as spreading the Gospel message.

Dakin told Ekklesia that he believes it is time for the global ecumenical movement to return to its evangelistic vocation in a world where the majority of the world's Christians are in the South, and Christianity has been seen to be faltering in the West.

"CMS is remodelling itself as an evangelistic movement in mission based on global partnerships," Canon Dakin explained. "We are committed to working not just with Anglicans but with new mission movements from the South. It is these, and people involved in fresh expressions of church in the North, whose voices have not really been heard here in Athens."

Dakin stresses that having "holistic evangelism as our cutting edge" does not mean retreating from CMS's concern for service in areas like health and education, or back-peddling its commitment to global justice. "It is about giving focus to what we do", he explains, rooted in the change God offers the world in Christ.

Others at the CWME agree with Dakin that word, deed and the life of the Christian community cannot be divided.

German Mennonite delegate and WCC central committee member, Dr Fernando Enns, earlier told a seminar that active non-violence should be an "identity marker" of the church and Christian discipleship in a brutal world.

He and Canadian Mennonite Janet Plenert said that churches which were themselves centres of healing and reconciliation had the capacity to grow, to attract new believers, and to be living examples of the Gospel message.

"Evangelism is not just about proclamation but about a way of life that witnesses to who Christ is", Tim Dakin of CMS told Ekklesia.

The World Council of Churches owes part of its own origins to the missionary movement that gathered in Edinburgh 1910. The vast majority of participants in that event were white, male, Western and Anglican. But world Christianity has now enjoyed a major demographic shift to the global South.

Christian mission is based these days in interchange between churches and cultures rather than simply ‘sending missionaries'. It also links the divine gift of freedom with liberation from oppression. But its image in the media remains stubbornly associated with colonial practices.

"Authentic mission and evangelism is essentially cross-cultural," says Canon Tim Dakin, explaining that listening, learning and acting together are as essential as speaking to the proper communication of the Gospel message.

The fourteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism is due to meet in 2010, the centenary of the Edinburgh conference. It will be a clear indicator of the radically changing face of world Christianity, including the massive growth of Pentecostalism.

The World Council of Churches, which assumed responsibility for these gatherings with the integration of the International Missionary Council in 1961, is in active dialogue with Pentecostals, evangelicals and others outside conciliar processes. It recognizes that it has to reconfigure itself as part of the wider ecumenical movement, and recognizes that there is still a long way to go.

A book called 'You Are the Light of the World: Statements on Mission by the World Council of Churches 1980-2005' has been published to coincide with the Athens event, which has drawn together 600 church leaders from 105 countries.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia