Willingen (3rd of 3) The International Missionary Council, the World Council of Churches and the Lausanne Movement–A Timeline

Organizing for Missio Dei or Missio Ecclesiae

The World Mission Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910

Today we are featuring a timeline that begins in 1910, the year the World Mission Conference took place in Edinburgh. There had been previous mission conferences, but this was the first at which delegates were authorized by their mission agencies to make a plan to complete the evangelization of the world. For example, L.O. Fossum, attending the Edinburgh on behalf of the Lutheran Orient Mission Society, accepted the responsibility for the evangelization of the Kurdish people. For more than three centuries Lutherans had no “means” (William Carey’s term for mission societies) to send mis­sion­ar­ies. Lutherans owe to L. O. Fossum and his Lutheran Orient Mission Society a practical model for sending Lutheran missionaries to Kurdistan. In 1911 Fossum and a colleague arrived in Hamadan, Iran.

The First World War, 1914-1918, challenged the idea that Christians from America or Europe had any moral message that the rest of the world needed to hear. Nathan Showalter took up this topic in his frank assessment of the Student Volunteer Movement, The End of A Crusade. The same men who had organized the 1910 Edinburgh meeting—Robert Speer, Luther Wishard, John R. Mott, and Joseph Oldham—held rallies on American college campuses in the 1920s, only to be ignored or heckled by the audiences. But Speer and Mott and the others persevered, and regained a more sympathetic audience by 1929 at the second meeting of the International Mission Council (IMC) (the 1910 Edinburgh meeting being regarded as the first), held in Jerusalem. This was followed in 1938 by the third meeting, held in Tambaram, at Madras Christian College in India. The IMC continued to organize mission gatherings in the years following World War II, in Whitby, Canada (1947), Willingen, Germany (1952) (where delegates adopted Missio Dei in place of the popular missio ecclesiae), and Accra, Ghana (1958). At the Ghana meeting the IMC board of directors voted to dissolve the IMC and join itself to the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the 1961 meeting which took place in New Delhi. The World Council of Churches also looked back to the 1910 World Mission Conference for its inspiration, but from its start in 1948, the World Council of Churches determined that the WCC should represent denominations of churches, not mission agencies. Members of the World Council of Churches, then, are church administrators. The mission of the World Council of Churches, then, is primarily determined by missio ecclesiae, the term that the delegates at the Willingen meeting of the IMC steered away from in adopting a better term, Missio Dei.

At the 1961 New Delhi meeting the WCC established a Division of World Mission and Evangelism. However, as some had foreseen, the World Council of Churches was satisfied that “world mission and evangelism” was the same as promoting unity among Christian denominations. Sending missionaries to the non-Christian peoples of the world was not a concern of the World Council of Churches. The World Council of Churches is “all Lighthouse, no Flint.” So are many evangelical churches, so let’s not be judgmental.

Thankfully, Dr. Billy Graham established the Lausanne movement in 1974. At its opening meeting, Dr. Ralph. D. Winter gave his historic address on “The Highest Priority,” sending missionaries to the 16,000 unreached peoples of the world. The Lausanne movement re-established the purpose of the 1910 Edinburgh Mission Conference. Moreover, evangelicals in Latin America have established the “Comibam” movement to hold themselves accountable for sending Spanish and Portuguese speaking missionaries to unreached peoples.

Dear reader, pause before passing judgement on the World Council of Churches. Most overseas missionaries of an evangelical persuasion also serve national churches. Only one missionary in 30 lives among unreached peoples. Furthermore, most evangelical mission dollars get sent to the bank accounts of overseas Christians. What about your church’s missionaries and mission money? As the Bible says, “Examine yourselves to see if you be in the faith” in terms of getting beyond the gravitational pull of “church-to-church relationships.”