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On Sunday, Christians from more than 100 nations, representing churches in every geographic region and most of the historic traditions of Christianity, closed their conference on world mission and evangelism in a "sending service" in central Athens, on the site of Saint Paul's sermon to the Athenians.
Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), preached where Paul acknowledged the local context of the philosophers of Athens but also proclaimed the universal significance of the gospel. Standing on the Areopagus, or "Mars hill", Paul taught that God had created all nations "so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being."
Testimony to diversity
The 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, meeting from 9 to 16 May 2005 on the Aegean shore east of Athens, was a testimony to the diversity of the worldwide religion that grew from the apostolic message. While discovering many signs of unity in their midst, the 650 participants also sought to address the world's divisions when discussing the conference theme, "Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile! Called in Christ to be healing and reconciling communities".
Member churches of the WCC provided representatives of the Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, Baptist, Independent, United, African Instituted and Pentecostal traditions. In addition, a significant number of Pentecostal and evangelical churches not belonging to the WCC were in attendance and, for the first time at such a conference, a substantial delegation of 42 representatives from the Roman Catholic Church came not as observers but full members. For many, the conference was characterized primarily by its "expanding participation".
Marketplaces of ideas
The atmosphere of the conference differed from many ecumenical assemblies, allowing considerable time for common prayer, Bible study and small group discussion of matters relating to the themes of reconciliation and healing. Plenaries explored sub-themes such as building community, overcoming violence, confronting HIV/AIDS and promoting a church that is open to people of every physical and spiritual condition.
Marketplaces of ideas and experience, bearing the Greek name "synaxeis", gave further opportunities to examine issues not on the formal agenda.
A call to reconciliation
The conference participants recognized that divisions among Christians persist, but that changes affecting the world in the new millennium form an unprecedented challenge to Christian mission and witness, and call the churches to repentance and reconciliation. A "message", or formal letter from the conference to the churches, drafted by participants during the week, was referred to the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism for completion.
One striking symbol of the life of the conference was a five-metre standing cross, a gift of the Christian churches of Jerusalem. At the closing plenary, Rev. Ruth Bottoms, the moderator of the conference, announced that the cross will be taken to Porto Alegre, Brazil for the WCC's 9th Assembly in February 2006. There, it will aid in telling the story of the mission conference, and of those who suffer in the land of Christ's birth. Afterwards, it will be returned to Athens to be preserved by the churches in Greece.
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