Interview: Gary Edmonds of the WEA

The evangelical landscape has changed over the years as the balance of Christian influence began shifting from the Northern and Western hemisphere to the Southern and Eastern hemisphere. The World Evangelical Alliance, the largest assembly of evangelical denominations, organizations and individual churches, has also felt the repercussions of these changes, and have shifted its focus from intraocular church advocacy in the West to social justice advocacy in the South.

The following is the full text of a Dec. 14 interview with Rev. Gary Edmonds, the secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

How are the evangelicals networking together under the WEA, and what does the WEA do as an organizational structure to bind these churches together?

On a general level, my experience would tell me that there are many new and greater levels of cooperation taking place among evangelicals than during any time in history. At both the national and international level, independent churches and church groups are coming together in three areas.

One of these areas is their effort to articulate something of their Christian vision for the nation. They are trying to dream the concept that we are God’s salt and light in today’s society. Therefore, they try to foresee what the earth would look like if we together bring the grace, faith, peace and light of Christ.

On another level evangelicals are strengthening their voice for advocacy. I find that evangelicals have been coming together to try to speak out as one voice in new and fresh ways. Such examples include the Darfur, Sudan situation, the persecution of the church in Sri Lanka, and the anti-conversion laws in India. In all these cases, the church has been speaking out in a strong way to advocate justice.

The third area is related to social issues. There are numerous initiatives now where local churches are coming together not only for evangelism and church planting, but social response. Such social issues include poverty and the Millennium Development Goals, HIV/AIDS. In all these cases, the church has been brainstorming what it can do or should do to alleviate the situation, and change the hearts and minds of the people who place themselves in these situations.

What are the WEA-affiliated groups doing at the individual level?

Specifically, there are many instances where evangelical groups come together for greater dialogue and discussion.

One such case is in Easter Europe and the former Soviet Union, where evangelical groups have been coming together to foster prayer and to speak out at the national political scene for justice and free speech. We see this happening in Ukraine and in Hungary, where heads from diverse denominations have come together for days to pray about the role and responsibility of church.

These individual churches have also studied how more congregations can be planted in the remaining unreached areas. Through these issues, a new level of dialogues and discussions that have not taken place before have sprouted.

In terms of the poverty issue, developmental organizations, national evangelical alliances, denominational groups and individual churches have come together on all levels to commit to ministering the poor. Under the Micah Challenge, which has its foundation of Jesus’ teaching that says serving a neighbor is serving Christ, churches from Zambia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia have found their way to serve Jesus: by committing to the poor and becoming a voice of advocacy.

What changes are occurring within the Alliance, and what kind of organization is the WEA forming into?

There are a couple of great changes. The first change is the growth of evangelicals in the south; the concentration of the evangelical population has dramatically shifted to the southern hemisphere, so the mainstay is no longer in the United States. Consequently, the number of evangelical alliances has grown dramatically in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. The leaders of these nations are rising up and playing leadership roles on a global level; it is clear that these leaders have strong views and opinions on how the church should be.

One of the things that are coming out of the southern hemisphere, and specifically from these evangelical churches, is that the members see that the mandate for Christians is not solely or uniquely evangelistic. They believe the biblical mandate is to be wholly integral—meaning the church needs to minister to the whole person, in body, soul, and the social realms of life.

One of the verses these evangelical churches cite is Revelations 21:26, where there is an image of the holy city of God. The evangelical Christians say their hope is to see their nation transformed so that their whole nation can become a gift for God. This kind of thinking is new for those evangelicals.

Is this also the general direction the WEA is heading toward?

In the last 12 years, my processor, who was a Filipino leader, valued this holistic nature of the gospel. Part of what he did was to cast the vision that when the church worship is strong, the church will engage the holy light to all parts of society. I think this is simply a vision that is continuing to grow, and a vision that the people of WEA are embracing.

If you had a vision for evangelicals in 2005, what would it be?

If I would look at evangelicals in 2005, my vision would capture several components. One of the first is that we have been given the Scriptures and the mandate to encompass the whole of light. My desire is that evangelicals can embrace and wrestle with this integral nature of the gospel which we do find in the Scriptures.

The second thing that I would ask evangelicals is for them to rise up to even a greater level of commitment and understanding to what our responsibility is in resolving the HIV/AIDS crisis. I’m convinced that this is the greatest humanitarian crises at this point in history, and that evangelicals must seriously look at how we can shape the hearts, minds and behavior within nations that will bring about light, peace and wholeness to humanity at an individual and international level.

The third component is critical as well. We have come at a time of history where we live in a pluralistic society and a world that has been torn with conflict various forms, such as fundamentalism and political oppression. We, as evangelicals, need to rise up to see how we can be the peacemakers of the world, and how we can be respectful to all without compromising truth and Biblical convictions toward the truth. In other words, there must be a rise of evangelicals who can communicate in the public sphere, and who can look at issues of justice and religious liberties in this pluralistic world.

How can evangelicals embrace the pluralistic world while maintaining their clear identity? Wouldn’t there be clashes and conflicts of beliefs even within evangelicals?

There will be conflict, and the Bible speaks about trials and conflict. But nonetheless, I would ask evangelicals to look at issues that bind humanity together. For example, justice advocacy is something that can be upheld across the lines. Whether it is an advocacy for righteousness, gender, race or ethnicity, justice is a truth that we come to perceive as the truth beyond political parties. Evangelicals need to move beyond aligning with politics, and should speak more for justice and righteousness.

Justice advocacy, anti-poverty and the HIV/AIDS initiative are all social concepts adopted by the World Council of Churches as well. Do the WCC and the WEA cooperate at any level, at least in relation to these issues?

There is dialogue between the two groups, but it depends on what the issue is and where it is taking place. There are WEA-members around the world that have joined the WCC, and there are denominations that have historically been associated with the WCC that are now identifying themselves as evangelical.

When it comes to the matter of justice – whether it is of a political or social dimension, there have been levels of dialogue between the two groups. We found that in these contexts, there is a common heart for passion and sympathy for the plight of the afflicted and oppressed.

But within the States, denominations must choose to associate with either the National Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals, correct?

Yes. Several years ago, the NAE made a decision to not include members who align with the NCC. However, outside of the US, there are instances where a certain church group has relationships with both bodies. There are also levels of discussions between the WCC and WEA member churches. It all depends on the nation in which the discussions take place, and in what context the groups operate.

When we travel to some of these countries, we are seeing that there are those in the WCC who embrace the evangelical persuasion. These groups are saying that “we kept our distance from one another but we come now to embrace the common evangelical belief systems.”

You also mentioned earlier about the shift of evangelical influence from the North to the South. Do you believe this is a phenomenon observed only within the evangelical tradition, or is this a movement within Christianity as a whole?

There has been an incredibly rapid growth in the church in Latin America and in parts of Asia. As we’ve looked at Latin America and parts of Africa, we’ve observed that much of the tone and timbre of those churches are in the context of a Pentecostal or charismatic tradition. I’ve found that they have been much more active as far as holding a sense of social responsibility and engagement, and this has led to a greater openness the way to tackle and address the social and political issues within those nations.

What that has done is provide an environment where the hard-line distinctions between evangelical and ecumenical are beginning to dissolve and are no longer held in the same form and shape as previously upheld.

Despite the shift of global Christianity from the North to South, it seems the headquarters and the head figures of many global groups, such as the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance, still remain in the Western world. Why is this the case?

That is a correct observation. But as mentioned before, we are at a crossroads in Christianity, and we are at the beginning of this shift or change. It would not be surprising to see that in coming years—very soon—the number of evangelical leaders who will be taking a large role in global groups will emerge out of the Southern Hemisphere.

Finally, is there anything you would like to say to the Evangelical Christian audience?

I would say that this is a time where real courage and resolve is needed. It is not a time to shrink back and shrug off our responsibilities. We have been given truth and opportunity to be a force for the good health and well-being of society. So I would strongly advocate for the evangelicals to rise up and truly be that voice in society that seeks the well-being and the health of the nations.

Rev. Gary Edmonds began his term as the WEA Secretary General in July, 2002. Prior to his election, Edmonds served as the senior associate pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, European director of Christian Associates International, and as a leader in development and church planting in Eastern and Western Europe for 18 years. Edmonds and his wife, Tricia, have four grown children. He serves on the board of directors for New Life Ukraine Partnership, and Breakthrough Partners.