A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Global Christian Forum

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Ecumenism, Pentecostalism, and Evangelicalism are all roughly the same age, but the latter two have often had little to do with the former. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the longstanding distrust between Protestants and Catholics, the one group not infrequently doubting whether the other even qualifies as Christian; added to this is the estrangement between “mainline” Protestants on the one side and Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants on the other—ecumenical organizations have tended to be dominated by mainline Protestants.

One concern Evangelicals and Pentecostals have often had is the loss of the missionary spirit among ecumenically-minded Christians—a terrible irony, considering that ecumenism was born at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. The International Missionary Council that was formed as a result of the Edinburgh conference eventually joined the World Council of Churches in 1961; many Evangelicals left in protest. 1974 saw the formation of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, following a Congress in the same place and year, at the initiative of the American evangelist Billy Graham. There 2500 Evangelical leaders from 150 countries recommitted themselves to world evangelization in signing the Lausanne Covenant. Clearly enough, they weren’t impressed by the WCC’s ability to keep up the missionary task of the church.

This noninvolvement of up to half a billion of the world’s Christians in the official channels of the ecumenical movement was a matter of particular concern to Konrad Raiser, who was the general secretary of the WCC from 1993 to 2004. In the mid-1990s Raiser began to explore the idea of a “new initiative”—definitely not a new institution, nor a “front” to draw new churches into the WCC, but a place for conversation and building friendships with special attention to Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Independent churches, and also parachurch-type organizations that have been ecumenically significant, like the YMCA, national councils of churches, and so on.

Nearly annual consultations took place from the late 1990s into the early years of the new millennium, eventually developing Raiser’s idea into the Global Christian Forum. The Forum has its own distinct methods and strategies that are distinctly different from the WCC. For instance, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Independents are deliberately “overrepresented” to comprise at least half of the Forum’s participants, compensating for their “underrepresentation” elsewhere, as well as to demonstrate the willingness of “ecumenical veterans” to be in the minority.

The Forum also focuses largely on personal narratives, a style of discourse more natural to the Pentecostal and Evangelical world, often uncomfortable for mainline or traditional Christians. Yet this has been remarkably effective in revealing the shared Christian faith across boundaries previously thought to be impermeable. It is too early to tell, of course, but the signs are promising that Evangelicals and Pentecostals are becoming ready to commit themselves to the reparation of the broken church.

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