Dana Robert calls for common witness to Christ despite divisions
“We must not allow difficult theological, socio-cultural and political issues, or disagreements over theologies of religion, to discourage us from sharing God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ with all the world.” With these words, keynote speaker Dana L. Robert encouraged delegates to Edinburgh 2010 in their commitment to unity of purpose in Christian mission, evangelism and dialogue.
Professor Robert is co-director of the centre for global Christianity and mission at Boston University School of Theology in the USA. She addressed nearly 300 delegates and 100 other participants on the topic “Mission and Unity in the ‘Long View’ from 1910 to the 21st Century”. Edinburgh 2010 marks the centenary of a mission conference held in the Scottish capital in June 1910, an event considered a milestone in the missionary movement that is identified with the birth of the modern ecumenical movement towards closer inter-confessional cooperation. The theme of the 1910 gathering was “evangelising the world in this generation”, while the 2010 theme is “witnessing to Christ today”.
Within the lifetime of some members of her audience, Robert observed, “Christianity has undergone one of the biggest changes in its two thousand year history. It is now a multi-cultural faith, with believers drawn from every inhabited continent.” It has begun to reflect the vision of Revelation 7:9 in which the faithful constitute “a great multitude” of believers “from all tribes and peoples and languages”. She continued: “Participants in the World Missionary Conference a century ago attempted to evangelise the world in their own generation. We who are alive in 2010 must bear witness to our own generation.”
In contrast to the diversity of delegates today, participation in the 1910 event was overwhelmed by the percentage of white, Protestant men from Europe and North America. Among more than 1,200 delegates then, only one was a black African and an estimated nineteen were Asian. Even so, there was a vision for a different future. In the words of V.S. Azariah of India, a future bishop who was still a young man in 1910, “The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realized not by the Englishman, the American and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese and the Indians by themselves – but by all working together, worshipping together and learning together the perfect image of our Lord and Christ.”
Edinburgh 1910 raised another issue that has informed the churches’ journey over the past 100 years, an issue that Robert calls the challenge of “diversity within unity”. A report asked the question, “How is it possible to attain that unity for which our Lord prayed and yet to leave free play for the diversity which alone will give to the unity comprehension and life?” Robert described this issue as central to the interplay between unity and mission in 20th-century theology. In 1963, discussion on this point led to a World Council of Churches statement: “We therefore affirm that this missionary movement now involves Christians in all six continents and in all lands. It must be the common witness of the whole church, bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.” For Robert, this “marked the symbolic beginning of a postcolonial framework for mission – its liberation from captivity to western Christianity.” Evangelical mission theologians in the Lausanne Movement, too, have endorsed the formulation of “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world”.
Robert sees the churches today engaging in a global conversation, with an assumption of common witness deeply embedded in Christian consciousness. It is widely understood that proclamation and justice go hand in hand, that ministry to the “whole world” includes a concern for the preservation of God’s creation, that economic and technological globalisation poses new responsibilities and that rapid change in the world sets Christians to periodically re-conceptualising the methods of their participation in the mission to which the Triune God calls them. She concluded: “Even as we ask, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?”, united in praise, we confidently embrace God’s mission.”
Responses, affirmations and appreciations followed Prof. Robert’s presentation, offered by Bishop Brian Farrell of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Professor Tinyiko Sam Maluleke of the University of South Africa, Metropolitan Dr Geevarghese Mor Coorilos of the World Council of Churches’ commission on world mission and evangelism and the Rev. Bertil Ekström of the World Evangelical Alliance’s mission commission.