The world mission conference held in Edinburgh in 1910 in the mood of the student movement's watchword of "the evangelisation of the world in this generation" is considered the symbolic starting point of the contemporary ecumenical movement.
There had been earlier major mission conferences, but at Edinburgh, first steps were taken towards an institutionalized cooperation between Protestant mission councils. However there were no Catholic nor Orthodox delegates present. Out of the 1400 participants, 17 came from the global south.
The Edinburgh conference had been very carefully prepared in thematic commissions. Despite quite progressive debates in some of those commissions, the event generally reflected a traditional conservative approach to mission, linking the proclamation of the gospel to the heathens with the spread of Western civilization.
Edinburgh gave birth to the International Review of Mission and to a continuation committee which prepared the creation of the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1921.
The mood at the second world mission conference, held in Jerusalem in 1928,
was quite different. The first world war provoked by "Christian" countries had profoundly challenged the ideal of the Western civilization as embodiment of the gospel. The communist revolution of 1917 had made the dream of evangelizing the whole world within one generation unrealistic. At the Jerusalem conference, mission was strongly debated. Two major questions came up on which no real consensus emerged: the relation between the Christian message and other religions, and the theological interpretation of Christian social and political involvement.
The third mission conference took place in 1938 in Tambaram, near Madras, India. In a world where peace was increasingly threatened by fascist-type regimes (Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan), the discussions focused on the importance and centrality of the church, in particular the local church, in mission. Representatives from the so-called "younger" churches became a majority in Tambaram. While the conference defended the ultimate truth of the Christian message vis-à-vis other religions, it also advised missionaries to a listening and dialoguing approach in practice.
The IMC conference held in Whitby, Canada, in 1947, reflected on the fundamental changes in the world after the shock of the second world war. There was a need to rebuild not only countries, but also relations between peoples who had been in conflict. Whitby became famous for its slogan, "partnership in obedience". The term "partnership" had been used earlier, but now received a particular emphasis. Delegates abandoned the use of the language of "Christian" and "non Christian" countries, opening the way to new paths in mission theology.
The next enlarged meeting of the IMC was in Willingen, Germany, in 1952. As the communist revolution in China had put an end to the traditional mission enterprise in that country, the delegates rediscovered that mission depended first and foremost on God's own activity. Mission is the purpose and action of the triune God. The idea of missio Dei, which was taken up in the follow-up of the conference in Willingen, proved to be most creative. The strong emphasis on the centrality of the church in mission was replaced by an enlarged perspective which allowed to interpret events in the world as determining factors for mission.
In 1958, the IMC met in Achimota near Accra, Ghana, and debated the proposal to unite with the World Council of Churches, with which the IMC shared several programmes and had had intensive relations. The proposal was accepted by a great majority, while certain theologically more conservative mission councils refused the idea of an integration of mission and church. They wanted to preserve the missionary freedom and not become dependant on ecclesiastical authorities and agendas.
In 1961, the "integration" of church and mission, in practice of the IMC with the WCC, became effective at the assemblies of New Delhi. The mission councils affiliated to the IMC became affiliated to the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC (CWME). The Division on World Mission and Evangelism (DWME) and its Divisional Committee took over the programmatic work and responsibility of the IMC who ceased to exist.
From now on, the world mission conferences could really be called "ecumenical" because of the much larger denominational participation, including Orthodox churches and soon after the Second Vatican Council also Roman Catholic observers.
In 1963, the first CWME met in Mexico-City under the theme of "mission in six continents". The perspective of mission was enlarged to encompass every continent and not only those of the "south". Meeting during the first development decade, the conference dealt intensively with witness in a world understood as the place where God was active, inviting the churches to join in missio Dei. It was the time of a positive appreciation of secularization and of non-religious formulations of Christian faith and action, particularly in the West.
The world mission conference in Bangkok, at the turn of the years 1972/1973, became famous for its holistic approach to the theme "Salvation Today", encompassing spiritual as well as socio-political aspects in equal measure. The Bangkok conference acknowledged the need for contextual theologies and the recognition of cultural identity as shaping the voice of those answering and following Christ. The delegates struggled with the situation of exploitation and injustice also in the relations between churches. In order to enable local churches in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific to set their own priorities in witness, the proposal was made of a temporary "moratorium" on sending money and missionaries from the North. An alternative proposal for more justice in mission relations was seen in the transformation of the Paris mission society into a community of churches in mission (called CEVAA).
The next CWME took place in Melbourne, Australia, in 1980. Reflecting on the theme "Your kingdom come", the conference insisted on the particular role of the poor and churches of the poor in God's mission. Influenced by the Latin American liberation theologies, the delegates highlighted the radical aspects of the kingdom message and the serious challenge it threw to traditional missiology and mission programmes. At the same time, the conference's section dealing with the church's witness did remarkable work on evangelism and on the church as healing community. The conference also reflected how Christ's choice of vulnerability and way to the cross challenged the use of power, in political, church and mission life.
Much of Melbourne's insights are to be found in the document Mission and Evangelism - An Ecumenical Affirmation adopted in 1982, which remains the fundamental text on mission for the WCC. It is a landmark document which draws on insights from Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox and Roman Catholic mission theologies. After the tensions experienced during the 70s with the creation of a new international Protestant mission movement (the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation in 1974), the 1982 document can be seen as an attempt by CWME at recentring ecumenical mission theology with a clearer commitment to the proclamation of the gospel without losing the prophetic challenge of conferences such as Bangkok or Melbourne.
In this period, the already active involvement of Roman Catholics was enhanced when the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity appointed a consultant to the WCC, based in the team working on mission and evangelism.
The world mission conference of San Antonio, Texas, USA, in 1989 was the last in a world dominated by the conflict between two ideological and economic systems. Its theme was another of the Lord's prayers requests, "Your will be done", to which was added "mission in Christ's way", an expression taken from the 1982 affirmation. The San Antonio conference is remarkable for a consensus statement reached on the relation between Christianity and other religions. This question has always been controversial at WCC mission conferences. The consensus found can be summarized in three sentences: We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot put any limit to God's saving power. There is a tension between these affirmations which we acknowledge and cannot resolve.
Moreover, for the first time at such conference, the mission mandate was extended to the whole of creation.
The 1996 conference in
Salvador da Bahía, Brazil, was fully dedicated to the relation between gospel and cultures. After the change in world politics of 1989 and the increased influence of cultural and ethnic identities on violent conflicts, a renewed missiological reflection on culture was needed.
Reaffirming the Bangkok conference's position on inculturation, the CWME in Salvador insisted on the richness of cultural variety as God's gift, but also on the gospel imperative to link the affirmation of one's cultural identity with an openness to other identities. The Salvador conference recognized the fundamental equal value of all cultures, but also their ambiguity. In its relation with cultures, the gospel may be illuminated, but also obscured. Churches in mission may have to confirm elements of their culture but challenge others. In the face of the situation in the Eastern Europe notably, the conference reaffirmed the WCC's opposition to proselytism and the need for cooperation in mission and common witness.
In 2000, the CWME adopted the study document "Mission and Evangelism in Unity Today". A paper on "mission as ministry of reconciliation" resulted from the intensive study processes in preparation of the 2005 mission conference.
In 2005, the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism met near Athens, Greece. It was the first CWME in a majority Orthodox context and the first time representatives from the Roman Catholic Church and from evangelical and Pentecostal churches participated as delegates with full rights. The theme was: "Come, Holy spirit, heal and reconcile - Called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities". It invited a more humble approach to mission, reminding ourselves of the priority of God's the Holy Spirit's mission in the world, the only one able to really bring healing and reconciliation in the full sense of the term. Within that overall dynamic of God in the world, the churches have a specific calling, which is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and in particular to build, renew, multiply spaces where humans can experience something of God's healing and reconciling grace.
Preparations have started for the celebration of the centennial of the Edinburgh conference. A polycentric study process has been launched, calling for cooperation in North, South, East or West. From 2-6 June 2010, a commonly owned celebration and conference will take place in Edinburgh. WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism decided to be fully involved in this common experience of "wider ecumenism".