Global Collaboration: The Birth of World Christianity

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A special event that helps to capture something of the vibrancy in the nineteenth century is the first World Missionary Conference, which was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 14–23, 1910.

The climate that led to the Edinburgh conference in 1910 can, perhaps, best be summed up by the publication of John Mott’s The Evangelization of the World in This Generation. John Mott (1865–1955) was a great mission mobilizer, having founded and chaired the Student Volunteer Movement from 1888 to 1920, as well as serving as the traveling secretary of the YMCA (1888–1915). Thousands of students came through these movements and joined the ranks of the mission societies to serve cross-culturally. Over the course of his work, Mott traveled nearly two million miles, gaining a great deal of firsthand knowledge about the work of missions around the world. Mott became convinced that with better coordination and strategic thinking, the entire world could be evangelized in one generation. This led to the publication of Mott’s book in 1900, which sparked a wave of optimism about fulfilling the Great Commission in that generation. The book also highlighted the need for greater cooperation among the many mission agencies and more strategic thinking about the entire missionary enterprise. The conference in Edinburgh was designed to organize the final push for world evangelization. John R. Mott was named the chair of the event.

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From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it would be easy to dismiss the conference as overly audacious in thinking they could plan for and organize the evangelization of the entire world. However, from the perspective of the early twentieth century, it was meticulously planned to be the most globally representative event in history. Rather than inviting delegates from churches, with their potential endless theological debates and ecclesiastical divisions, the invitations went out to every known mission society that was working with non-Christian peoples. The societies were invited to send delegates based on a strict proportionality to the size and scope of the work of the missions organization. Thus, although the ethnic origin of most of the delegates was of European descent, they came, quite literally, from all over the world, bringing extensive, firsthand experience of the mission field.

The conference was organized thematically, with each day of the conference centered on one of the following themes:

1. Carrying the Gospel to All the Non-Christian World
2. The Church in the Mission Field
3. Education in Relation to the Christianization of National Life
4. Missionary Message in Relation to the Non-Christian World
5. The Preparation of Missionaries
6. The Home Base of Missions
7. Missions and Governments
8. Cooperation and the Promotion of Unity

(See W. H. Gairdner, Edinburgh 2010: An Account and Interpretation of the World Missionary Conference [Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1910], 48–49.)

These eight themes shed light on what were considered the most important issues and concerns of the day. Themes one, four, and six highlight how dramatically the world has changed in the last century. In 1910 it seemed entirely plausible to divide the world into the “Christian” and “non-Christian” spheres, with the West representing the “Christian” world, and the Majority World the “non-Christian” world. In 1910, the “home base” of missions was, undoubtedly, the Western world. Today, such assumptions are no longer tenable. Theme two (“The Church in the Mission Field”) reflects the hunger for accurate information about the state of the church in the Majority World. Themes three and five reveal the long-term value of education in Protestant missions. Themes four and seven highlight the importance of understanding the challenges and issues raised by followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as the political contexts into which religion is embedded and that dramatically influence the missionary encounter. The last theme highlights the need for cooperation and collaboration as we collectively understand our shared roles in participating in God’s mission.

In conclusion, from the perspective of 2016, looking back on the legacy of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, there are several key features that capture the legacy of the conference. First, Edinburgh 1910 initiated an entirely new structure and constituency for reflecting on Christianity in the world. By focusing on delegates from the mission societies rather than the churches themselves, they were able to bring together people who were personally engaged in missionary work and who understood the challenges that faced the church at that time. By making it a “working” conference, rather than a motivational or inspirational event, the delegates were required to read and prepare a considerable amount of material before arriving at the conference. Therefore, those who came were prepared for a serious engagement of important issues.

Second, Edinburgh 1910 marked the real birth of mission studies as a serious thing the church gives thought to. Today, for example, we have very detailed books, such as the Atlas of Global Christianity, or the World Christian Encyclopedia, which gives very detailed information about the world and where Christians are located, and so forth. Finally, over the course of the ten-day conference, there was a growing realization and recognition that Christianity was a truly worldwide movement. Never again could the Western church think honestly about the Christian movement in isolation from vibrant currents of indigenous Christianity around the world. Edinburgh 1910 was truly a turning point in the history of world Christianity. It is one of the great ironies of history that at a conference held in the heart of old Europe, the church, for the first time, captured a glimpse of a worldwide church.

As problems in the Western church seem to mount, it is encouraging to remember that we are part of a worldwide fellowship of Christians from around the world! It is not unusual for delegates from the countries of Africa to lovingly remind Western pastors of the gospel and the heritage we commonly share. This is one of the great strengths of being a part of a global movement.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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