My first exposure to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910) was almost by accident. I was a mission practitioner whose academic training was in Biblical study. Even the second Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in Manila (1989) was not of interest to me, even if it did take place in the same county where I was working. Only when I was invited to participate in the preparatory conference for the Edinburgh centenary (2005), did I become aware of this historic event and its enduring effect since then. As a Pentecostal, this was a new discovery. The following is a story of the two global missionary movements of the twentieth century, the Edinburgh Conference and the Pentecostal movement, born in the same decade (1900s) and but with very little contact with each other. Yet both have exerted an enormous influence on Christianity today, like a tale of two siblings who never met each other.
The Edinburgh gathering in 1919 was the first concerted effort to bring Christian mission agencies and churches together, resolved and devised plans to finish the job in “this [their] generation.” This primarily western “mainline” Christian gathering was filled with optimism that this was at last achievable, not only because of the corporate efforts, but also through the progress of western civilization and colonial powers which controlled most of the “heathen” world. The conference adopted well-prepared documents to guide Christians to complete the Great Commission soon. As it explored critical mission themes over the first half of the last century, the two world wars shattered the optimism that prevailed at the conference. Soon after the second war ended, many “heathen” nations gained their independence, and the tradition crystallized into an ecumenical movement so giving birth to the WCC, although a mission commission, the heir of the Edinburgh Conference, joined the body a few years later. The second half of the century was a story of ecumenism but by the end of the first fifty years of its existence serious issues had surfaced.
The WCC was born out of a missionary movement, which recognized that church unity is an integral part of, or prerequisite for, mission. To an outsider, it is an unfortunate development that the WCC should have been a mission body with the ecumenical unit under its wing. To be truthful to the original idea, church unity should have been explored always in the context of mission, but in reality, mission has been truncated into the discussion of church unity. Some believe that this is one reason why the traditional “mainline churches” (particularly in the West) have steadily lost its influence, membership and resources.
By contrast, the Pentecostal movement began as a marginalized fringe Christian phenomenon in the downtown of Los Angeles. Although mockery from the society was harsh, the most unbearable attacks were lodged by fellow Christians. In every aspect, they were the powerless, as the Azusa Street Mission was headed by an African-American preacher William J. Seymour. The marginalized and “poor” were attracted to the message of God’s immanent presence by manifestations such as healing, miracles, and religious ecstatic experience (or “baptism in the Holy Spirit”). With its missionary fervor instantly recognizable, the Pentecostal movement was predominantly a revival phenomenon. This “religion of the poor” survived through its endless divisions and doctrinal controversies and also never-ending external marginalization and criticisms. Thus, for the first half century of its existence it remained as a fringe movement.
However, its adherents hold a strong conviction that the “best thing” (Christ) in their life was even bettered by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and they were extremely eager to spread the good news to the fellow “poor.” This “fired-up poor” brought the movement during the second half of the last century into a global expansion in various shapes and forms. This movement of “primal spirituality” has had a particular appeal to those who are “poor” in many ways (economically, socially, politically etc.), and who live in the developing countries. Many “indigenous” types of Christianity, closely resembling the Pentecostal spirituality, but without any historic tie to the North American “springhead,” have been “discovered.” This spiritual and renewal movement, without any global structure or umbrella organization, has become a powerful missionary movement, evident in its exponential growth. In its zealousness for mission, however, church unity was completely ignored, even though the Azusa Street Mission demonstrated the powerful potential of the Spirit for church unity.
These two most powerful mission movements of the twentieth century are in good contrast in their birth stories. What is equally noticeable is their ethos of mission: the ecumenical initiative is a “gathering into” movement (centripetal), while the Pentecostal-charismatic movement is a “spreading out” movement (centrifugal). Now with a century of experience behind them, each one has begun to reflect on itself: recognizing its own strength and achievements as well as being self-critical about its weaknesses and mistakes. Understandably the WCC views one in a more organized way, while the other one is still in a “spontaneous” way. The recent general assemblies of the WCC highlighted the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and took steps to intentionally include some Pentecostal delegates. Its latest Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Athens (2005) is another case in point: its theme was “Come Holy Spirit, and Heal and Reconcile.” The presence of Pentecostal Christianity in the gathering was evident not only in the plenary speeches, but also in the workshops and worship programmes. The creation of a more neutral and new space such as the Global Christian Forum is an indication of this growing awareness.
From the Pentecostal perspective, some churches, particularly from the “southern” continents, have slowly joined various gatherings of the WCC or its national councils. Often this move comes with much criticism from their fellow Pentecostal churches, sister organizations and their own constituencies. Ecumenical dialogues are in progress with the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed Churches, Lutherans as well as the WCC at the global level, while growing national or local dialogues take place. Unlike their dialogue partners, Pentecostal delegates are all individuals without any representing authority from their Pentecostal churches.
This self-critical reflection and growing awareness of each other through various (some times courageous) contacts has led the two siblings much closer to each other than was possible decades ago. As the Edinburgh centenary celebration is being planned, this may be a historic opportunity to bring the divided church together for its mission. Even the 2010 Edinburgh conference is correcting its mistakes by becoming as inclusive as possible, ecclesiastically (as now Catholics, evangelicals and Pentecostals are included) and geographically (with an intentional effort to reflect the current global Christian status with the “southern” majority). We have to confess that this divided history was not the Lord’s intent, but human short-sightedness and failure to recognize the divine intent. In spite of human failure, the Spirit with his creativity and graciousness brought forward God’s mission and now brings his church together for the same mission.