Bridging the Ecumenical-Evangelical Divide

The World Council of Churches is opening its doors to Pentecostals and Evangelicals, and at no better time. The Christian landscape is rapidly changing and the once-dominant mainline churches that make up most of the Council’s membership are diminishing in strength and influence around the world. The Council is therefore wise in tapping the network of fast-growing Evangelical-style churches while it still has the chance. But dialogue alone will not be enough to bridge the rift that has already formed between the liberal-ecumenical and conservative-evangelical movements.

Organizers of the ninth World Council of Churches Assembly, which began yesterday in Porto Alegre, Brazil, said it “will mark the beginning of a new phase in search for Christian unity.” With dozens of Christian heavyweights scheduled to attend – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the International Director of the World Evangelical Alliance, Geoff Tunnicliffe, to name a few – this ambitious ecumenical effort has the potential to become the new Vatican II for Protestant Christendom.

However, for true dialogue to take place, the WCC must convince the Pentecostal/Evangelical community that it has changed, and that it is sincerely focused on what Evangelicals are most concerned about – evangelism.

These evangelism-driven churches have now grown to a force so powerful and large that according to some statistics, they make up a third of the world’s Christians at an estimated 800 million members. This may explain why the WCC general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, said he will meet privately with prominent Pentecostal pastors throughout the week to find areas of common ground.

But as in the past, Evangelicals are still critical of the Switzerland-based Council, whose membership includes those who support homosexual marriages, euthanasia, and abortion. Furthermore, many Pentecostals still regard the Council as a threat to their independent worship, preaching style and fund raising methods, and are unlikely to jump on a bandwagon of aging, traditional, denominations that seem to take more interest in the world of politics than the mission field.

As the ceremony began Tuesday, the Council set several themes for this week’s assembly – economic justice, Christian unity, overcoming violence, interreligious dialogue, Latin America and the assembly motto “God in your grace transform the world.” The Council also said it will make public statements “on such issues as nuclear disarmament, United Nations reform, terrorism and counter terrorism, and water.”

While these politically-charged issues are important from a holistic standpoint, for true transformation to occur and for the WCC to be representative of the whole ecumenical world, the Council must first clarify its identity as a Christian movement and focus on taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Unless this underlying theme of evangelism is firmly set, all dialogue between the world’s largest ecumenical body and the rising evangelical movement will remain as nothing more than mere conversation.

Therefore, as the assembly progresses and as evangelical finally meets ecumenical, the WCC should direct all its attention on Jesus Christ and the gospel. Only then will this assembly truly become everything organizers hope it will be – the launching pad for a modern ecumenical movement of Christ’s solidified Church.