Feature: A Closer Look at the 2005 World Mission and Evangelism Conference

With only six months remaining until the launch of the historic World Mission and Evangelism (WME) conference, the World Council of Churches (WCC) released a featured interview with the vice-moderator of the WME, Dr. George Mathew Nalunnakkal.

The WME, sponsored by the WCC and slated for May 9-16, 2005, in Athens, Greece, will be the first conference that will bring together representatives of Pentecostal and evangelical churches, WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church, to draw “common visions for the future of Christian missions.”

The WME is a tradition that began in 1910 in Edinburgh. According to the WCC, the world mission conference in Edinburgh “is considered as the symbolic starting point of the contemporary ecumenical movement.” The central theme of the conference was the traditional conservative approach to mission, linking the proclamation of the “Gospel to the heathens” with the spread of Western civilization.

The last WCC conference on mission was in 1996, in Salvador de Bahia.

The upcoming WME conference in Athens marks the 13th international conference on missions and evangelism, and is the first of such gatherings of the new millenium. The event is expected to attract at least 500 participants – by invitation only. Four hundred of the 500 official participants will be members of the conference, appointed by or on behalf of the WCC Central Committee.

Reflecting the change in the landscape of world Christianity since the Edinburgh conference, the focus and theme of the 2005 consultation is “Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile -- Called in Christ to be healing and reconciling communities.” In the past 100 years, most of the growth of Christianity has come in the Southern hemisphere as opposed to the North. The theme of the conference “reminds us that mission does not belong to us, but is the mission of God, who is present and active as Holy Spirit in church and world,” according to the WCC.

The theme fits the situation of today’s mission approach, where the once-strong Christian nations that in the past century sent out the majority of missionaries to the “heathens,” have now become "secularized" places in need of missionaries.

"I am very concerned about the changed situation in which we now find ourselves world-wide,” explained Nalunnakkal – a priest in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India, during his interview with the WCC.

“What strikes me is that you can stay at home and still be a missionary. That is a new concept of mission which hardly existed before. "Mission in one’s own home town", being a home missionary, is an important consequence of the changed global context in which we live,” Naluunakkal said.

Naulnnakkal gave the interview during a consultation in Germany in preparation fro the WME earlier this month. At the consultation he gave an introductory lecture on the theme of the World Mission Conference: "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile! Called in Christ to be healing and reconciling communities".

The following is the full text of the WCC interview, which was released on Dec. 17:

--- You came from India to Hamburg especially for this consultation. Was this long journey worthwhile for you?

Yes. I was glad to accept the invitation from the The Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany (EMW) to give the keynote speech at this consultation. For me, as one of the organisers of the World Mission Conference in Athens, it was a good opportunity to get an overview of preparations in Germany. I am quite impressed by the seriousness of the preparations here. It is very reassuring for our work. The next preparatory consultation at which I will participate will be in Bangalore, for Asia and Africa, and I hope many other member churches will hold such consultations as well.

Besides, for me personally, the trip to Hamburg was a good opportunity to really go into the Conference theme theologically, to study the issue. Through my own study as well as through the discussions in Hamburg, I am much clearer about the subject now. I have listened to responses to my paper and become aware of important aspects of the theme which it did not cover. As someone from the Syrian Orthodox tradition, the responses of Christians from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions really widened my horizon.

--- At this consultation there was a lot of talk about Germany having become a mission field. What do you say to that, from your Indian perspective?

I am very concerned about the changed situation in which we now find ourselves world-wide. What strikes me is that you can stay at home and still be a missionary. That is a new concept of mission which hardly existed before. "Mission in one’s own home town", being a home missionary, is an important consequence of the changed global context in which we live.

In India, the challenges are actually similar to those here in Germany, with very advanced secularisation. My Syrian Orthodox Church is unfortunately not interested in mission. In my context, mission would mean having discussions with the Dalits, the outcasts, and accepting them as members. The Dalits long for liberation within Indian society. That should challenge my church.

--- The Holy Spirit as the theme for a World Mission Conference: what does that mean to you?

As I said in my paper on the theme of the World Mission Conference, as an Orthodox I always see the Holy Spirit in the context of the Holy Trinity. That can become a problem, especially in dialogue with Charismatics. We heard it said at this consultation that "dogmatics don’t matter". But I do care! Dogmatics are very important to me.

If you isolate one aspect of the Trinitarian God, you will have a very narrow idea of God and thus be in danger of Christian triumphalism. The Holy Trinity always tells me, your understanding of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is always limited. There is always more than just Christ or the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.

In the Indian context, that helps me in a very practical way in interreligious dialogue; the Spirit is good for dialogue. It makes it possible for me to welcome other understandings of God. On the other hand, in other religions they have no concept of Christ. But the Holy Spirit is a concept which people of other faiths can also relate to. When we speak of the Holy Spirit it’s not a question of using sexist language or being anthropocentric, but about opening up an ecological perspective.

--- What are you especially looking forward to, in regard to the World Mission Conference in Athens?

I am excited about the unique possibilities of interaction with Christians from all these other theological and church traditions. There has never been anything like this before. Not only the WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church will be represented, but also Christians from Pentecostal and evangelical mission organisations. And they will all participate as equal partners in the World Mission Conference; all together as pilgrims. That has not happened before, in this form. It will be happening in a country where an Orthodox Church is the host church. That is a breakthrough and a big challenge for the Orthodox Church.

For more information on the 2005 World Mission and Evangelism conference, visit:
www.mission2005.org.