Edinburgh 1910 to Everywhere 2010: Deja Vu All Over Again?

by Gary Corwin

Few today would disagree that 1910 was a major turning point for the world Christian movement.

Something about big number anniversaries make them an ideal time to review, reflect, renew, and recommit. That certainly seems to be the agenda for the many international gatherings scheduled during this centennial anniversary year. So what was so special about Edinburgh 1910, and what should we reasonably expect of all these looming commemorations? Will baseball great Yogi Berra’s famous line, “Déjà vu all over again,” be the summary statement—or will there be something more?

There were several special things about the World Missionary Conference (WMC), held in Edinburgh in 1910. First, the WMC provided a marker for the enormous progress that had been made in global mission during the nineteenth century. Perhaps more important, however, was its role as the fountainhead for the twentieth-century march of the ecumenical movement, and its impact on many of the key figures who helped pace that movement during the early years of the twentieth century. Second, from an evangelical point of view, not everything that came in its wake can be considered positive developments; however, neither were all of them negative. One very helpful thing that it achieved was to bring the younger churches around the world into view for the older churches, thereby helping them to recognize these churches as an integral part of the world Christian movement.

Few today would disagree that Edinburgh 1910 was a major turning point for the world Christian movement. It was really the first international, inter-denominational conference, and the cause of Christian unity was certainly stimulated by it. Although its focus was mission(s), the possibilities of cooperation and even merger were never far from the minds of the participants. Clearly, the most significant fruit borne in the years following Edinburgh 1910 was the new momentum for unity and the downplaying of theological barriers. Unfortunately, much of this fruit led in subsequent decades to a siphoning off of energy from the kingdom extension aspects of biblical mission. This impact could be seen even in the International Missionary Council (IMC), but was certainly true in a more pronounced way with the emphases of the World Council of Churches (WCC) into which it was ultimately subsumed.

The course that Edinburgh 1910 set in motion had enormous impact, resulting in a focus change that unfortunately also led to the ultimate demise of missions in theologically liberal circles. And, yet, ironically, it also seemed to play a role in supercharging the cause of missions in evangelical circles, perhaps largely by broadening the exposure of many young leaders (such as John R. Mott and J. H. Oldham) to the churches of the wider world. The emphasis on unity also had another positive impact—it ultimately influenced evangelical inter-denominationalism and its accompanying spirit of cooperation.

Perhaps the most important prior decision of those planning the WMC in Edinburgh was to limit invitations only to those who were involved in mission to “non-Christian” lands. This was done primarily to assuage the concerns of High Church Anglicans and European Lutherans. The result, of course, was a total lack of participation by those working in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America. It was also true, however, that neither Roman Catholics nor representatives of the Orthodox churches were invited. Taking the long view of this development, one might say that Edinburgh 1910 marked the beginning of the ascendancy in international conferences of a particular point of view—one favoring a focus on methodology and cooperation over the much harder work of seeking common biblical and theological commitment.

The result, as alluded to above, was an evolution that led first to a continuing committee, then to the establishment of the IMC (1921), then to a merger of the IMC into the WCC (1961), and concurrently, a long-term withering of evangelical and missionary zeal among the mainline churches that form the backbone of the WCC. Will this pattern continue? Will the healthy evangelical ecumenism that found a new birth with the Wheaton and Berlin conferences of 1966, and more significantly still with the Lausanne Congress of 1974, also become a casualty of methodological fixation at the expense of clarity about commitment to biblical and theological essentials? We certainly pray not, but the challenges to biblical and theological clarity have seldom been more serious for evangelicals. In fact, what it means to be an evangelical has never been more in doubt for so many who claim the name.

Salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and trust in the Bible as the totally reliable and authoritative word of God in all that it affirms have long been the essential benchmarks of evangelical faith. But are they still? Or, is that understanding only one legitimate understanding among others? Is sharing in the concerns of Jesus for the needs of people in a horizontal plane an adequate substitute? Or perhaps a commitment to reconciliation and inclusion? Or perhaps sharing one’s journey with other like-minded souls in an ongoing “conversation?” Or any of a hundred other good things that have always been understood to be part of the product of true salvation, rather than a prerequisite to it?

Will the conferences and commemorations that mark this centennial year address these essential issues—or will they simply muck around in pleasant platitudes about unity, task, and method? That is the question, and the future of evangelicalism and gospel extension to the least reached and the least interested is sure to be impacted by how it is answered.

Gary Corwin  is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

Copyright  © 2010 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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