One of the most significant modern events in Christian history, at least for the mission of Christ’s church, occurred in 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Well-known contemporary author and missiologist Andrew Walls has said of the events at Edinburgh in 1910:
The Edinburgh Conference of 1910 was the high water mark of the missionary movement from the West. Now we are in a new phase of Christian history, with Africa, Asia and Latin America at the centre. The Conference of 1910 fostered Christian co-operation across confessional and national boundaries; brought a renaissance of mission studies (Statistical Atlas, International Review of Mission, Muslim World, etc), saw a compelling vision of God's Kingdom, and let to crucial initiatives, even (e.g. in Latin America) where the conference itself was silent.
In celebration of the centennial of this important event in church history over 1,000 Christian leaders were invited from around the world to come to Edinburgh 2010, convened in the historic Scottish city June 2-6 of this year. The hope and prayer was that this celebration would help lead the worldwide church to embrace a new moment for Christ’s mission exactly one hundred years after the historic beginning of modern ecumenism in Edinburgh.
Professor Samuel Escobar, another well-known writer on missions, and a strong evangelical Protestant, wrote of this recent event:
Edinburgh 2010 is an evidence of the vitality of the Christian missionary movement. During the century since the great event of 1910 the Christian Church has become a truly global community. The Spirit of God has been in action. Not everything happened the way those present in 1910 dreamed and planned but this has been a century of advance. The process of reflection that has been taking place for a couple of years, as a preparation for the 2010 meeting, shows that there is a commitment to reflect on experience. I hope and pray that the meeting will be a time for thanksgiving and dreaming.
Beyond any doubt I believe Edinburgh 1910 has been correctly identified as an important event. I am not sure Edinburgh 2010 will have the same impact. I am not sure the current situation demands the radical “new” attempt of 1910 since we have progressed so far in the past one hundred years. At the same time one could easily make the case that we’ve made very little progress since the church is even more divided, at least outwardly, than ever before. Jonathan Bonk, the executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in America, provides what I think is a sober and accurate analysis of what happened after 1910 and where we are in today’s world:
For Western Protestant missions, Edinburgh 1910 was rightly deemed to be an epochal event, pointing to things to come. But most of those things never came—at least not in ways that convention and history had taught them to expect. What actually happened could not possibly have been forecast. In the one hundred years since, the growth of Christianity has been exciting, exponential, and bewildering—a far cry from the checkered outcomes of human missiologies. Who could have predicted that Africa would become Christianity's new demographic heartland; that Korean churches, among the “least of these” one hundred years ago, would emerge as today's most dynamically enterprising and spiritually vital missionary force; that Christianity across the continents, irrespective of ecclesiological pedigree, would be infused and revitalized by charismatic movements; that the faith’s venerable European heartlands would cede to secularism? And so on it goes. The Edinburgh 1910 centenary events this year provide a splendid opportunity for all of us—whatever our vantage point—to take stock of where we are, and to give humble thanks that no human agency can take the credit for what the Holy Spirit has done and continues to do throughout the world.
I profoundly share Dr. Bonk’s perspective. I do not understand how any alert, missions-minded disciple of Christ, who knows anything about the present world and the church’s role in it, could think otherwise. Edinburgh 1910 had dreams that did not come true. What happened, in God’s time and way, was both different and far better. But, at the same time, the story is still perplexing if unity is to be achieved in any meaningful sense. I believe we must keep trying and laboring to this end.
Among evangelicals there are those who think that all such discussion of unity is pointless. They argue that since we are already one (spiritually) with all our brothers and sisters in Christ the scandal of our many divisions is no real scandal at all. I am numbered among those evangelicals who believe the growth of the church over the last one hundred years should be celebrated. What followed Edinburgh 1910 was truly a century of God on the move in ways that no one could have imagined one hundred years ago. But it was also a century in which the church in Europe retreated under the onslaught of secularism. At the same time I am also one who believes that we should work harder than ever at the stated goal of unity that came out of the historic events of Edinburgh 1910. I am convinced of this based upon my reading of John 17:20–23, a text that has transformed my life permanently.