I don’t know what occurs to the average newspaper reader if one observes that 2010 marks a centennial. Whatever happened in 1910? Some international incident anticipating World War I? A revolution in China? As I’ve just discovered, the first congress of German sociologists? Hardly. But among Evangelicals the centenary significance is clear: A hundred years ago the World Missionary Conference met in Edinburgh. This particular centennial provides an interesting occasion to reflect on what has happened since then to the Christian missionary enterprise.
Edinburgh 1910 can be seen in retrospect as a culmination of the Protestant missionary impulse of the nineteenth century (which, culturally and politically speaking, did not end until 1914). Those who participated in it saw it as a preview to a century of missionary triumphs. It turned out to be not quite that, at least not as then envisaged. But it is useful to look at both the continuities and discontinuities since then.
The conference was attended by 1,200 delegates from Protestant missionary societies, almost all from Europe and North America. They met in a spirit of robust self-confidence. The slogan of the conference was “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.” There is no doubt what was meant by “evangelization”—converting non-Christians to Christianity, specifically to its Protestant (then strongly Evangelical) version. Catholic and Orthodox Christians were not invited. A Continuation Committee was appointed, which went on a study tour to a number of Asian countries. World War I interrupted these activities, but they resumed strongly after 1918. Edinburgh 1910 is now also seen as the beginning of the Protestant-led ecumenical movement. In 1921 the International Missionary Council was founded, and in 1948 the World Council of Churches.
The centennial is being commemorated by a number of events. These events are now much more inclusive. Catholics and Orthodox have been invited, and special attention is being given to Pentecostals (the most dynamic Protestants). In May 2010 there was a conference of mission leaders in Tokyo. Right now there is the most ambitious event, a gathering of some 4,000 Evangelical leaders in Cape Town, the proceedings of which can be followed online blow by blow (Evangelicals have never shied away from modern communication technology). There will be a follow-up conference in Boston, organized by a consortium of theological schools in the area (which, to my regret, I will miss because of travel). I don’t know what will come out of these events. But it is not too early to look at what happened to the idea and practice of missions since 1910.
The Cape Town event is organized by the Lausanne Movement, founded in 1974 by an international group of Evangelicals. Its motto has been “The whole Church taking the whole Gospel to the Whole World.” It has organized various events in the decades since its founding. I would say that its role as sponsor of the Cape Town conference is very appropriate: It stands in direct continuity with the spirit of Edinburgh 1910. As do Evangelicals in general. There is here an unapologetic purpose to convert non-Christians (and, I would think, among some to convert Christians of lesser fervor) to the Evangelical faith. On the opening day of the Cape Town conference this week a Palestinian Christian and a “Messianic Jew” (that is, someone who believes that one can stay a Jew while accepting Jesus as the Messiah) stood side by side, affirming that Christian faith can overcome all barriers. (I doubt whether Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas would be moved by this proposition.) Then a bishop representing the Anglican Church of North America—the group that has split from the Episcopal Church over homosexual issues—thanked Anglicans in the Global South for supporting the schismatic group in its opposition to “aggressive liberalism”.
There is an unbroken line (an apostolic succession, if you will) between muscular Evangelicalism in 1910 and in 2010. But now, of course, this community is much more multi-ethnic and, I daresay, less enthused about Christian evangelism being part of a civilizing mission on behalf of Western civilization. Evangelicalism too is now “postcolonial”. American missionaries are still most numerous globally, but Korean ones are a close number two. Evangelical missionaries and clergy from Africa and Latin America are moving into Europe and North America—see, for one, the African bishops now supervising breakaway Episcopalians in the United States. This of course reflects the great demographic shift of Christianity from the Global North to the Global South, which has been well described by the historians Philip Jenkins and Mark Noll.
What has changed most since 1910 is the attitude of mainline Protestant churches to the missionary enterprise. The old slogans may still be used, but their meaning has changed. “Proselytism” has become a bad word. There is no longer the intention of going out to convert people of different faiths—rather, one wants to engage in dialogue with them. In theological schools departments of “missiology” are now called departments of “world Christianity”. There is a widespread readiness to apologize for the alleged “colonial” sins of oldtime missionaries. “Mission” may now mean providing needed social services—such as hospitals, community development, disaster relief. And for some “mission” means working for “social justice” or “liberation” (however defined). I think it is fair to say that the Evangelical version of mission is on the rise, while the more limp-wristed mainline version is on the decline—at least, in part, reflecting the aforementioned demographic shift. As to the Roman Catholic Church, it never admits that it was wrong in the past and it holds on to a doctrinal commitment to evangelism, but in practice it is also much more polite in its relations with outsiders. The priority of Benedict XVI right now is the “evangelization of Europe”, going after ex-Christians rather than non-Christians. The Orthodox, by and large, have never been much involved in missions—not since they planted Russian churches in Alaska a long time ago.
I think I have given an objective account here. So as not to give the impression that I identify with the fervor of the rising Evangelical internationale, let me avow that, when it comes to missions, I too am decidedly limp-wristed. I have no interest in converting anyone to my own religious beliefs. Moral beliefs (for example, about the utter unacceptability of the death penalty) is another matter. But that is also another story.