On 6 June 2010, there will be a gathering in the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh to remember the famous World Missionary Conference which took place one hundred years ago. It will also be a celebration of the fact that, partly as a result of the efforts of the missionaries of 1910, we recognize today that the Church is global.
A Look Back at 1910
The delegates in 1910 were overwhelmingly of European descent, mostly male, gray-haired, and Protestant. They were missionaries and leaders of what they called the “world missionary movement.” The watchword at Edinburgh in 1910, inherited from the Student Volunteer Movement, was “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” and the Bible verses most commonly used to justify mission were Matthew 28:19-20, often referred to as the Great Commission.
This was used to support an understanding of mission as the Church’s obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. The impression was of Jesus Christ on the mountaintop directing the apostles to take the gospel into the nations laid out below in a top-down, organized, and systematic way.
The conference neglected a very important aspect of mission theology: the missionary nature of the Church. In 1910, Western missionaries were the unquestioned means of mission. The commissions of Edinburgh 1910 studied the churches in Europe and North America as “the home base” of missions.
Their primary role was to send more funds and personnel overseas. Their own missional nature and potential to reach out to the people of the West was neglected because Europe and North America were understood to be Christendom, and missions were directed to the “non-Christian world.”
“The Church in the mission field” was also the subject of research, and it was discovered to be “by far the most efficient element in Christian propaganda.” However, this was not so much because of its own outgoing mission activity, but because of its potential to serve in the Western missionary enterprise.
The Vital Importance of Local Christians
As we look back over the last century, we see that although the Western missionary movement provided an important catalyst for the growth of Christianity worldwide, the actual work of world evangelization has been achieved mainly through local people in local churches. This is suggested by the fact that churches in the former mission fields grew more rapidly after they were freed from colonial control than they had done before.
At Edinburgh 1910, there were only seventeen “national” Christians among the missionaries. It is apparent from the records of the conference that the prevailing relationship between them was not friendship or partnership, but paternalism. The delegates at Edinburgh failed to see that the future of Christianity would be more determined by the initiatives of local churches than by their global organization and planning.
Projections of church growth made at Edinburgh turned out to be wildly inaccurate. In 1910, they expected that Japan and India could soon be Christian nations. In fact, the percentage of Christians in those nations has hardly changed in a century.
The greatest growth in East Asia has occurred among the Koreans, whose nation the Japanese annexed in 1910 as part of their imperial expansion across the Asia-Pacific region. The greatest church growth of all has been in what the leaders of 1910 regarded as the “darkest” and “most heathen continent”: sub-Saharan Africa. The grand plans of Western leaders were thwarted by the wars that broke out in the supposed evangelized countries of Europe. Messy, haphazard, and uncontrolled though it appeared to be, through the work of local churches in different parts of the world amazing growth came about, and in unexpected places.
Grassroots Christians and the Holy Spirit
To demonstrate that Christianity is a global religion, it is the intention of the organizers that a majority of delegates at the June 2010 gathering will be representatives of local churches from the global South. The theme of the conference, “Witnessing to Christ Today,” calls to mind the promise to the disciples that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would become witnesses (Acts 1:8). This was first fulfilled at Pentecost when 120 of Jesus’ followers suddenly found themselves speaking boldly of what they had seen and heard, and gathered a community of representatives from across the world into a sharing community (Acts 2:1-11, 41-47).
The emphasis of the theme, which may be said to represent a broad consensus in Western mission thinking at the present time, is on God’s initiative in mission and the spontaneous, joyful participation in it of grassroots Christians all around the world. Mission is understood as “finding out where the Holy Spirit is at work and joining in.”
There was a striking lack of reference to the Holy Spirit in Edinburgh 1910—a fact remarked on at the time by missionary Roland Allen, who argued that if mission is understood as the activity of the Holy Spirit, missionaries would respect national Christians as having received the Holy Spirit just as they had, and would be able to trust them to lead and grow their own churches without missionary oversight.
He envisaged Christians around the world recognizing the distinctive mission of each and finding ways to cooperate in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work in local churches, and the Holy Spirit moves over the whole creation connecting local and global, and working in surprising and unexpected ways (Genesis 1:2; John 3:8). To experience the fullness of the mission movement of the Spirit of Christ, we need to be both part of the local witness of our church and also connected into the Church globally.
In our locality, we are already part of what God is doing in the whole world through the Holy Spirit, whether we realize it or not. Most of our churches are part of confessional families or world organizations which cross national boundaries. And we are all affected by global events and movements.
If we travel, we have opportunities to meet fellow Christians in other places and enter into their particular witness to Christ by the Spirit. If we stay at home, we can forge links with other churches in our locality, some of which may have migrated recently. From them we can learn about how God is at work in other places and gain new perspectives on our own mission context.
Global communications offer exciting possibilities in our age for linking Christians across the globe. We do not necessarily need to move our location, but we do need to open ourselves up to our existing global connectedness.
Only a small fraction of the world’s Christians will be present in Edinburgh this June 2010, at Lausanne’s Cape Town 2010, or at any of the other events being held this year. Indeed, the smallness of the gathering at Edinburgh makes the point that Edinburgh 2010 is not the centre of world Christianity.
Christianity is polycentric, and local churches in different parts of the world are invited to have their own celebrations on 6 June 2010 linked electronically in a wide network. Nor will Edinburgh 2010 be decisive for the future of world Christianity—that depends upon the Holy Spirit inspiring and sustaining faithful witness to Christ in local churches and new movements around the globe.