A Participant’s Account of Edinburgh 2010

by Frampton F. Fox

A wide-eyed teenager on a trick bicycle approached me on the sidewalk in front of the parliament building where the diverse collection of Edinburgh 2010 delegates had gathered for a reception. The youth questioned me intensely, “Who are these people!?” What he had seen was a motley collection of ethnicities, cultural clothing, languages, and priestly garments. What he did not see was that under the apparently incongruous trappings were even more diverse theological and philosophical distinctions.

This made me think…what would he see today that he would not have seen one hundred years ago if he had been standing outside the Assembly Hall?  

Character of Edinburgh 2010    
Instead of 1,200 mostly Western, white, middle-aged, male delegates present in 1910, participants at Edinburgh 2010 included 300 women, youth, and men from 60 nations and 50 denominations. Furthermore, an associated multiple-year process of polycentric meetings led up to the conference and will continue worldwide.  

At Edinburgh 1910, the dominant figure was Lord Balfour; in 2010, it was Ugandan Archbishop of York, Sentanu, representing a group uninvited in 1910. According to Walbert Buhlmann and Andrew Walls, “Unity with diversity and the hemispheric shift in the gravity of Christianity” were manifest. Even the worship was carefully scripted to celebrate the global diversity. The highlight was the pan-African choir, which on the final evening rocked the stately Assembly Hall of New College, where the 1910 World Missionary Conference was held.  

Content of Edinburgh 2010

The following paragraphs summarize the nine study themes of the conference and give a quick guide to the major outcomes. These are based on officially published summaries of study materials, participation in the conference as a study delegate, and the “Common Call”1 arrived at during the conference.

Foundations for mission study documents emphasized that mission no longer stands just on the Bible, but on three foundations: (1) experience or context, (2) diverse understandings of the Bible, and (3) new theological frameworks (Balia and Kim 2010, 10-31). The “Common Call” document speaks of the Trinitarian God’s mission with special concern for liberation and justice. It was here that the word “evangelism” was later inserted since it was missing from the document’s initial draft. One delegate received rousing applause while pointing out the general lack of mention of the metaphysical and eschatological aspects of mission which stands in stark contrast to the popular watchword of 1910: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.”

At Edinburgh 2010, mission was understood inclusively—incorporating many models, but giving particular focus to three: mission as liberation, dialogue, and reconciliation (Ross 2010, 24-25). A traditional evangelical understanding of the foundation of mission was incorporated among strange bedfellows, which may have a positive effect. It seems that evangelical mission is already taking greater interest in contextual issues and contextual readings of scripture without surrendering an authoritative core of biblical theology.

Mission among other faiths was a controversial concern at Edinburgh 1910; similarly, 2010 sought to hold together divergent views of mission (Balia and Kim 2010, 39). Whereas World Council of Churches statements on mission can sometimes be vague on how to relate to non-Christians (Matthey 2008), the “Common Call” mentions the uniqueness of the work of Christ as a component of our responsibility to provoke authentic dialogue and humble witness in an ethos of friendliness and reconciliation. This would differ from what some have termed the “triumphalism” of Edinburgh 1910.

The study documents were generally careful in using language which acknowledged that God may indeed be at work among people of other faiths in ways beyond our understanding (Ross 2010, 57). They also hinted at a delicate balancing act between Christ as the only ground of salvation and a belief that all will receive sufficient revelation to bring about the potential for saving faith (Balia and Kim 2010, 51, 54). From Lesslie Newbigin’s “committed pluralism,” the discussion arrived at seemingly contradictory constructions of unified mission using models that we might term “exclusive inclusivism” or “pluralistic exclusivism.” The question remains, If God will really not leave anyone without enough revelation to be saved, why should missioners “insult” those of other faiths with unique claims of Christ?    

Mission and postmodernities revealed the complexity of differences within study groups vis-a-vis foundational issues such as the nature of the church and mission (Balia and Kim 2010, 79). In this contemporary ethos, where exclusive truth claims are suspect, concerns for the stewardship of creation were suggested as an apologetic for the authenticity of the Church (Ross 2010, 65, 67, 81). In a context where mission is suspect and worthy of interrogation, the “Common Call” speaks of postmodern themes such as “reconnecting creation,” “authentic life,” “community,” “sharing of power,” and “zeal for justice, peace, and the protection of the environment.” Perhaps the most searching conclusion which comes from this topic is the recognition that postmodernism is itself a very Western category which the conference may not have fully treated in a global sense.

Mission and power reviewed how, historically, the gospel has become connected with suspect systems of exploitation and hegemony (including colonialism and racism). These need to be repented of and eschewed. In such cases, the study group called for five priorities.

• Repentance and atonement
• Restorative justice
• Anti-racism and interculturalism
• Giving voice to the voiceless
• Mission as transformation (Balia and Kim 2010, 111)

In all of these priorities, reconciliation and healing are sought in an ethos suspicious of power and cultural imperialism (Ross 2010, 45).

Thus, the “Common Call” directs us to repentance and critical reflection on the “asymmetries of power,” which prevent us from living as one body within the Holy Spirit’s power as evidenced in vulnerability and weakness.   

Forms of engagement was used by Kenneth Ross in his summary of the nine study themes to attract church groups who desire to become more missional. The study group narrowed the focus to several key issues.

• The role of the witnessing church
• Vulnerability in mission
• Children in mission
• Partnership in mission
• Reverse mission
• Media and mission
• Challenges for the future

One notable difference between 1910 and 2010 was the shift from a “mission society focus” to a “local church focus” (Ross 2010, 141). The “Common Call” coming from this study theme is very simple, affirming the manifold expressions of gospel witness worldwide with particular mention of two themes: the mission effects of migration and the calling of children and youth.

An additional emphasis to the final draft was celebrating God’s equipping “by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Although this was missing from the study material summaries of this theme in the two volumes consulted, there was a strong Pentecostal representation at Edinburgh 2010 and the brief “Common Call” contains at least eight mentions of the Holy Spirit’s ministry (two mention gifting specifically). This is a good reminder of how not only Edinburgh, but world Christianity has changed in the last one hundred years.     

Theological education is an abiding theme, which in 2010 was more focused on the role of education in various world Christian contexts than on an imported Western understanding.  Among the many problems mentioned, primary was the ecumenical desire for unity expressed in cooperation at all levels in order to reduce further fragmentation and better “introduce people to what it means to be the whole body of Christ…” (Balia and Kim 2010, 170).

Another recurring theme was how to make theological education financially viable and equitably accessible for those in the Global South. Ross emphasizes dialogue as a means of encouraging “world peace and theological integrity,” noting the need for “missionary theology” to move from the periphery to the core of theological curricula, particularly in the North (Ross 2010, 74). He also points to the need for balance between the tensions to make theological education available at the grassroots level and yet academically respectable. The “Common Call” weaves together concern for four things.

• Modern diversity
• Spiritual gifts
• Economic disparity
• New forms of education delivery

The largest hope toward a solution was the suggestion of a continuation committee in this regard.

Christian communities in contemporary contexts limited their focus primarily to the Church’s responsibility toward poverty, socio-political injustice, identity, and migrant communities.  While the concerns of the group as seen in the study summary are important, the ecumenical bias seems quite evident—as in the preoccupation with power, identity, community, and defining the nature of mission (Balia and Kim 2010, 193). The need to further affirm the Majority World nature of Christianity was emphasized. In particular, the concerns of the African delegation and those of migrant Christian communities were highlighted.

Old ecumenical themes, such as “God’s preferential option for the poor,” were evident and seen in statements such as, “It was quite clear that working to improve people’s, not just Christians’, contexts is the priority in the contemporary world, rather than conversion” (Balia and Kim 2010, 193). However, the East African study group apparently contradicted this with a strong call: “…the Church in East Africa has to go out to all corners of the earth to make disciples as per the Great Commission” (2010, 189).       

Mission and unity harkened back to Edinburgh 1910 as the birthplace of the ecumenical movement and with it the vision that the visible unity of all Christians is organically connected to the mission of the Church. This notoriety carried with it the great irony that this was also the watershed event which eventually precipitated the third2 “Great Schism”—that of the Ecumenical-Evangelical divide.

The 2010 study materials evidence a growth in unity at some level, but perhaps gloss over the modularity of the modern Church in its global expression(s). In this regard, Edinburgh 2010 was a “success,” since an amazingly diverse group of representatives that were not given a voice in 1910 met. Among these, evangelicals were solidly represented.

The “Common Call,” however, seems to be based on the ecumenical platform; that is, that structural unity is part and parcel of the essence of church and mission, even in the presence of gaping doctrinal diversity. In fact, when one Orthodox voice criticized what he considered dubious evangelical mission practices in certain parts of the world, he was quickly rebuffed by several people, but visible unity was maintained.  

In such a diverse unity, even terms such as “evangelism,” “conversion,” “reconciliation,” and “healing” may carry very divergent meanings. The most visible dissonance at the conference was from a small group of protestors outside handing out leaflets and holding signs that proclaimed “No Unity without Truth.” Their protest raises the question:  Is this divided unity the missional key for which Jesus prayed “so that the world might believe”?

Mission spirituality is summarized in the final section of the “Common Call” by a focus on following the way of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, anticipating his coming, and participating in his reconciling and transforming “mission of love.” In this simplified summary (2010, 36), Ross titles this spirituality and authentic discipleship section as the motivation for mission. The study materials tried to answer the question of mission motivation by showing what discipleship and spirituality looks like through examining case studies from groups whose voices were not heard in 1910: African, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Philippine, and Mexican (Balia and Kim 2010, 224). Various cultures of global Christianity have much to offer in terms of interpreting and applying spirituality and discipleship from their own perspectives.   

As I tried to see Edinburgh 2010 through the wide eyes of that young Scot on the bicycle, I reflected on how vague a concept visible mission unity really is. What is communicated and understood by disparate Christians uniting is in itself open to multiple meanings. The unity of believers is given meaning when it follows the task of “the evangelization of the world.”

The prayer for ecumenicity in John 17:20-21 seems intentionally set in the context of evangelism (“for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one”). The conference theme of Edinburgh 2010, “Witnessing to Christ Today,” and the ecumenical dream of visible unity, may best be accomplished by rediscovering the evangelistic spirit of Edinburgh 1910.      

1. Accessed at edinburgh2010.org/fileadmin/files/edinburgh2010/files/conference_docs/Common_Call_final.pdf.

2. (1) Catholic-Orthodox, circa 1054; (2) Catholic-Protestant, circa 1517; and (3) Ecumenical-Evangelical, circa 1910.

Balia, Daryl and Kirsteen Kim, eds. 2010. Edinburgh 2010 Volume II: Witnessing to Christ Today. Oxford: Regnum Books.

“Common Call.” 2010. Accessed August 4, 2010 from edinburgh2010.org.

Matthey, Jacques, ed. 2008. You Are the Light of the World. Geneva: World  Council of Churches.

Ross, Kenneth R. 2010. Edinburgh 2010: New Directions for Church in Mission. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Publishers.

Sun, Jasjit S., ed. 2005. You Are the Light of the World Statements on Mission by the World Council of Churches 1980-2005. Switzerland: World Council of Churches.  


Frampton F. Fox, PhD, is a consultant in the field of intercultural studies and education. He has lectured, researched, and lived in various parts of South America and Southeast Asia. Research and writing interests include the intercultural aspects of motivation, contextuality, economics, dependency, and pilgrimage. He may be contacted at frfox@eroam.net.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 88-93. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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