The ecumenical movement, at least as we’ve known it in modern post-Reformation history, has 19th century origins. These origins arose out of the context of mission. Christians went to unreached places, often to cultures where no one had ever heard the name of Jesus Christ, and there declared the good news. This good news they proclaimed was that God loves the world and sent his son to redeem the world. Christ came to reconcile all people to the living God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As this message was preached people came to love Jesus and followed him through baptism into the church.
These missionaries, and the numerous “foreign” mission societies, not only preached the good news and made disciples but they planted new churches. Before long these churches represented the various sending bodies and agencies of the missionaries who planted them thus they looked like the various Protestant churches–Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist and anabaptist (e.g. Mennonite, Brethren, etc.). Catholics were also sent to many unreached places and Catholic Churches were planted, and developed in time, to look very Western and Latin. Each of these churches brought with them unique gifts and challenges to the quest for a common proclamation of the gospel. As these churches grew in Asia, Africa and the far flung islands they took on the various distinctive differences of their sending churches.
Over time these missionaries and sending churches, as well as the new churches they planted, realized that their commitment to preach the gospel to the whole world was hindered by the “divided state” of the Christian Church. In India, for example, the caste system presented a huge problem, especially when it looked like Christianity was simply creating another caste system that would splinter people along cultural and familial lines. This reality, joined with a deep and growing awareness of the prayer of Jesus for the church to be one (John 17:20-23), prompted a growing interest in how the church could actually become one in gospel proclamation. The burning question then became: “How can we proclaim the good news to the world together, not simply in our divided condition?” This division was seen as seriously problematic to mission and their obedience to Jesus.
If this back story is not kept in clear view most Christians will move away from the word “ecumenism” believing that it represents the worst developments possible, namely relativism and the compromise of essential truth. This response is about much more than one word–ecumenism. This negative response to the word ecumenism causes those who oppose the word, which they generally do not understand in its historical context, to oppose joint prayer and real work for unity in Christ’s mission. But it was this back story that actually helped me to begin a journey in the early 1990s toward what I now call missional-ecumenism. When I put these two words together many years ago I wanted to stress two truths: (1) God is both a unity in himself and as such he is a sending God, and; (2) God’s revealed desire is that we would be (relationally) one with each other in this sending and being sent (missio) process–thus the hyphenated word: missional-ecumenism. The key text for the missional part of my argument is John 20:21. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Mission is God’s sending (first) and our going and making disciples (second). The Bible’s grand narrative is that of a loving, seeking and sending God who actively seeks to save the lost. He sends us, by the work of the Holy Spirit, to “go and make disciples.” This is more than personal evangelism, which is needed and valuable. It is the church, a human community created by the Holy Spirit and called by Jesus, being “all in” as the people of the Way. It is every Christian being a part of a sent community engaged in mission and discipleship using all the gifts that God has given to the body of Christ. It is all churches seeking the lost, in response to God’s seeking, and then doing it together (ecumenism) because the triune God is one God. This vision is much, much more than merely partnership, though it involves partnership. It is greater than sharing ideas and working on projects, though in most cases I think it will include this kind of work. It really is Christians, and their churches, being Christians together and sharing the common life they have in Christ with the world. By this love the world will then see that the Father loves the world and sent his son to save the world (John 17:20-23). Note in my my quoting the text below what I have highlighted.
20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me (Common English Bible).
I am still amazed when I read serious evangelical writers, even theologians and scholarly exegetes, who argue against ecumenism because they see it only as the joining of Christians and churches in relationships where they will necessarily compromise the faith. As recently as last week I read one of our most respected evangelical writers who labored to say John 17 has nothing to do with ecumenism as I refer to it above.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) once wrote: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
It strikes me that the majority of Christians still “refuse to believe what is true” about missional-ecumenism, regardless of what name we use for it. They would rather find creative ways to explain (and even defend) our divisions and constant tribalism rather than embrace the hard work of personal and corporate reconciliation. This work of praying unity is difficult. I am inclined to say that it is impossible except that “with God all things are possible.”
Over the last fourteen months I have come to know a magnificent Catholic movement called Focolare. The Focolare was founded by Chiara Lubich, a young woman school teacher in Italy during the Second World War. In an address that Chiara gave in 1950 she gets to the very heart of what I have learned in pursuing missional-ecumenism over the last two decades:
Those who enter the way of unity, enter into Jesus. They put themselves aside in order to live Jesus. Actually, because they can only do one thing, they do not even put themselves aside; they go straight to the living Jesus. And those who live Jesus do not find themselves on a way, but on the Way. It is the Way on which the other ways (purgative, illuminative, and unitive), working trinitarianly, are united to one another; they join into one. Those who live Jesus are purified by this very fact, and are so enlightened as to be his very same Light (Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings: Spirituality, Dialogue, Culture. New York: New City Press, 2007, 36).
Tomorrow: How ACT3 Network Is Seeking to Make a Difference