A hundred years ago, leaders of the major Protestant denominations and missionary societies met in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the World Mission Conference. Historians of the church mark this conference as the beginning (or rather, the formal recognition) of the modern ecumenical movement. Churches had come to see that if they could cooperate on the mission field overseas, they should also be able to do so back home.
The theme of the 1910 World Mission Conference was “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation.” Everyone in the world would have the opportunity to learn about Jesus and choose whether to become a follower before that generation had passed away.
Well. Two World Wars later, after a Cold War and a Great Depression, after decolonialization in the developing world and societal upheaval in the developed, that goal may be somewhat closer, but we seem, a hundred years later, to be in no danger of attaining it in a single generation.
One thing has changed for the better. Today, we know who the target is. A hundred years ago, they said “the world” but they meant “distant lands full of heathens.” Today, we know better: Christendom is dead-if it ever existed-and the mission field is just as ripe next door as it is across the planet.
During that same year, 1910, the United Presbyterian Church of North America (a predecessor of our denomination) adopted what it called the Great Ends of the Church:
The great ends of the church are (1) the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (3) the maintenance of divine worship; (4) the preservation of the truth; (5) the promotion of social righteousness; and (6) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
It’s not a bad list, but we sure can be selective in advancing those ends. For example, the greatest part of our budget goes to #3: divine worship, led by myself and our choir director. The bulk of your volunteer effort goes to #2: fellowship and congregational care. The 4th and 5th ends — truth and social righteousness — need not be in conflict, but it’s a very rare church (or denomination) that is able to hold the two in balance. Generally, what we do is choose one or the other, and then say bad things about Christians who pick the other one.
And that leads us to #1 and #6. How serious are we about proclaiming the gospel to people who’ve never heard it? How much thought to do we give to exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to the world?
Especially since we now realize “the world” is next door. It’s across the street and down the block. It’s the grocery store and the gas station. It’s all over. “The world” is everywhere. How well are we doing in evangelizing it? Does it even know we’re here?
Those conferees in Edinburgh a hundred years ago wanted to evangelize the world. They didn’t realize how much of the world needed to be evangelized, but they were willing to try.
Let’s try, too. Let’s not let our church be defined by just one or two of the Great Ends of the Church. Let’s maintain divine worship and nurture the children of God, by all means. But let’s not forget to tell people about Jesus, or to exhibit his Kingdom to them, either.