Early Christians spread the gospel in the shadow of the Roman empire—and Christians today are called to meet a resurgence of fascism and racism with something more powerful: the good news of God’s love.
This was the message leaders of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on World Mission and Evangelism brought Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ecumenical and world mission staff at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville on January 19.
“Perhaps we are living in a time of many King Herods,” said the Reverend Dr. Jooseop Keum, director of the commission and a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Korea.
Keum noted that the wise men’s visit to the baby Jesus—often romanticized by storytellers—ended with the brutal killing of babies by King Herod. “He killed whoever was trying to steal his power.”
“In many ways, the twenty-first century is similar to the first century,” said Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, moderator of the commission, who is a bishop in the Syrian Orthodox Church, based in India. “We have a new Caesar.”
How should the church respond to today’s “Caesar,” to the emerging “empire” of discrimination, sexism, authoritarian governments, and extremist ideologies? Not with fear or anger, Keum and Coorilos insisted.
“Anger is not able to overcome the hatred created by empire,” Keum explained. “Love is more powerful. Our mission is life-affirming, bringing good news to the suffering and poor.”
The two World Council of Churches (WCC) leaders were visiting the United States to plan and promote the 14th World Mission Conference sponsored by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. The event is scheduled for March 8–13, 2018, in Tanzania.
“We want this to be an African conference,” said Coorilos, adding that conference planners hope to have at least 200 participants from countries across Africa. While European and U.S. churches are in decline, he said, churches are growing in numbers and vitality across Africa and the Global South.
“In Africa, we see signs of hope,” Coorilos said. “The Holy Spirit is breathing new life into Christianity. Our hope is that the conference will be challenged by the African context.”
Another goal, Coorilos said, is that the conference be “truly ecumenical,” reaching beyond the WCC-member communions to involve evangelicals, Roman Catholics, charismatics, and Pentecostals.
Both Keum and Coorilos stressed the importance of involving a “new generation” of younger mission leaders. Events under the conference umbrella will include an educational program for young missiologists.
The conference theme, “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship,” is based on Galatians 5:25.
The theme of “transforming discipleship” has many dimensions, Coorilos said. “The whole notion of discipleship needs transformation”—too often it has been associated with otherworldly, pietistic understandings of Christian faith.
“We, as disciples of Christ, need transformation,” he added. A third dimension is that “we are called to transform the world into a world of justice and peace.”
In the face of empire, the church is called to a “radical discipleship” that is “costly, self-denying, cross-bearing—even to the extent of martyrdom,” Coorilos said.
The World Mission Conference will reflect the themes of a new affirmation on mission and evangelism adopted by the WCC at its 10th Assembly, in Busan, South Korea, in 2013. Titled “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,” the paper looks at mission in the context of globalism, market ideology, religious pluralism, and other contemporary challenges.
The paper affirms “mission from the margins,” rejecting an approach dating back to colonial times in which mission was always one-directional—from those at the center of power to those in need. It says that “people in positions of privilege have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginalized conditions.”
Keum pointed out that the role of the Holy Spirit in mission is a focus of both the paper and the 2018 conference. “The mission of the Holy Spirit can be disturbing to those of us who are used to acting in organized ways,” he said.
We don’t bring the Holy Spirit with us when we go somewhere to do evangelism. “The Holy Spirit is already present before our arrival,” Keum said. “Marginalized people demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit.”
The Reverend Robina Winbush, director for ecumenical relations in the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly, noted that the 221st General Assembly (2014) commended the WCC statement “Together Towards Life” to the church for study and guidance. The conversation with Keum and Coorilos, she added, “provided an opportunity for the PC(USA) to connect our own commitment with that of the WCC—to live out the gospel in ways that bring healing and transformation in our church, nation, and world.”