Less than one month remains before nearly 500 representatives from all continents and all major churches and denominations and over 100 local representatives, guests and stewards gather for the first Conference on World Mission and Evangelism to be held in the 21st century.
The beginning of the highly anticipated international conference, convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC), will be marked by the reception of a large 4-meter-high wooden cross sent from Jerusalem to the beach of the Agios Andreas recreational center on the outskirts of Athens on May 10. The conference will gather around the theme "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile" and the sub-theme "Called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities."
"In our globalized and fragmented world, filled with much division and conflict, the gospel message of healing and reconciliation is vital," says Rev. Ruth Bottoms, a Baptist pastor from the United Kingdom who will moderate the conference.
Coming from WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church as well as Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and bodies, the participants include young people, women and men working at the frontiers of Christian witness, church and mission leaders, theologians and missiologists.
According to the WCC, the conference will offer, right at the outset of the 21st century, a unique opportunity for Christians from all continents and the largest confessional families to exchange experiences and to reflect on the priorities for mission and the future of Christian witness.
Daily plenary sessions will focus on the central elements of the theme and sub-theme: reconciliation, healing, the Holy Spirit and the Christian community. Moreover, one of the plenary sessions will be dedicated to the complex relationship between mission and violence given that the conference coincides with the mid-point of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010).
In addition to being the first time such a conference was held in a predominantly Orthodox context, it will also be the first time ever that the conference plenaries will be broadcast live via the internet.
Aside from the plenary sessions, about 70 workshops will offer participants opportunities to discuss a wide variety of issues in depth. These range from experiences of multi-dimensional healing to mission in war and conflict situations; from the role of women in mission to the relationship between healing, salvation and conversion; from the missionary challenge that people living with HIV/AIDS pose, to the way that indigenous people approach reconciliation and healing.
Specific case studies on, for example, the reconciliation process in Rwanda, joint mission experiences in Germany or Christian witness in China, will also form part of the workshops program. This also includes a series of workshops about counseling in specific situations such as terminal illness, violence and abuse, among others.
Prior to the conference, youth delegates, who represent nearly a tenth of the total participants, along with young people who will work as stewards, will participate in a five-day youth event. Ecumenical learning experiences and a series of visits to projects being carried out by local churches are on the agenda.
The unprecedented breadth of the spectrum of participants offers unusual opportunities, the WCC reports.
WCC deputy general secretary Georges Lemopoulos said the World Mission Conference in Athens "may become a new turning point in the history of both the missionary and the ecumenical movements," depending on whether a new convergence becomes possible and new efforts towards common witness are released.
According to the WCC, there have been 12 such ecumenical mission conferences since 1910. The WCC, which was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is a fellowship of 347 churches in more than 120 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. Its staff is headed by general secretary Samuel Kobia from the Methodist church in Kenya.