It may well be asked if the ecumenical beginnings of the twentieth century, held at Edinburgh in 1910, were really all that successful in terms of the stated purposes of those founders. I have spent a good deal of time reading about Edinburgh 1910 over the past three years and I think the answer is mixed; i.e. it is yes and no. It all depends on how you understand the goals of the conveners in 1910 and the subsequent history of missions and the global church over the past one hundred years.
Edinburgh 1910 was, rightly understood, a world missions conference. Eight different commissions dealt with issues like getting the gospel to all the non-Christian world, the church in the present mission fields of that time, the missionary message in relationship to non-Christian religions, the preparation and sending of missionaries and the relationship of missions and missionaries to governments. The most remembered goal, which is often misunderstood, was to promote unity and co-operation in mission. All of this prompted me to popularize the term missional-ecumenism in my book, Your Church Is Too Small, which mentions the key figures and events that were influential at Edinburgh 1910.
But Edinburgh 1910 did not occur in a historical vacuum. It clearly was in succession with similar gatherings that took place in New York and London in 1854, in Liverpool in 1860, and again in London in 1878 and 1888. It finally came back to New York in 1900. Edinburgh 1910, however, blazed new trails in evangelism and unity. It put forward real ways to pursue unity and co-operation in the years ahead and thus prepared the church for the events that would come in World War I and II in a unique way. It also succeeded in inspiring and enlisting men and women (women began to play a prominent role more than ever before) who would become the great leaders of the ecumenical movement that followed.
But Edinburgh 1910 was overwhelming Anglo-American and Protestant. Very few young churches were represented and the spirit of missional-ecumenism, made clear and advanced in the writing that followed, did not immediately grip churches outside the United States and Britain. And no Roman Catholics or Orthodox leaders were present at all. (In fact, they were not even invited yet!) So, in this very important sense, Edinburgh 1910 failed.
Dr. Risto Ahonen, of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, has reflected on this same question quite helpfully. Reading his comments helped me to see again the true legacy of Edinburgh 1910. They also made me aware of how much evangelical Protestants need to know this history if they are to seize the present moment for missional-ecumenism. Here is Dr. Ahonen’s analysis of Edinburgh 1910:
The 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, in spite of its failings, left a valuable legacy to succeeding generations: the vision of Christianity as a global faith, with the spread of the gospel among all nations and the contribution of each of those nations to a more profound understanding of Christian faith.
It may be asked whether this vision or any part of it has been fulfilled. In my view, much has indeed been fulfilled. Admittedly, with the forces of evil raging in the very heartlands of Christian faith during the two world wars, the vision seemed to be failing completely. We had to comprehend the superficiality of human-centered religion before we could find the one sure foundation for mission, God’s mission.
The Edinburgh 1910 vision of global Christianity has begun to be achieved ever more practically in geographical, cultural, theological and also ecumenical terms. . . . The astonishing new rise of Christianity and the shift of its demographic center of gravity to the South have brought with them significant changes, which no one anticipated. As yet unanswered questions have arisen concerning the nature of the global church and global theology, the new division of labor between North and South, the power of the whole gospel to bring about transformation in society and the content of the witness of faith.