Dr Mathews George Chunakara in conversation with youth participants at AEYA. Photo: Jebasingh Samuvel/CCA

Dr Mathews George Chunakara in conversation with youth participants at AEYA. Photo: Jebasingh Samuvel/CCA

*By Claus Grue

When the Asia Ecumenical Youth Assembly (AEYA) kicked off in Manado, Indonesia on the 6 April, it was the first such gathering in 34 years. More than 350 youth from 23 countries across Asia came together to address pertinent issues in today’s globalized world.

When they left, six days later, they brought with them new insights on interfaith dialogue, digitalization, spirituality, artificial intelligence, gender issues, HIV/AIDS and social issues, such as poverty, human trafficking, migration, family values and marginalization. They had come together as disciples of Jesus to contemplate, worship, learn from one another, create networks and make new friends.

“It turned out well, we provided a platform for young Asian ecumenists to meet, speak their minds and contemplate. Hopefully, the deliberations of the AEYA became eye-openers for them to understand the emerging issues better and reflect about them from Christian perspectives. We want young people to understand Asia’s diversities and to think in terms of unity within such diversities. We tried to equip them to think in a more sharp way, beyond their traditional orbits”, says Dr Mathews George Chunakara, general secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), the main organizer of the assembly.

Engaging more young people in the ecumenical movement is a clear priority for the CCA. Its current strategic plan includes several programmes aimed at ecumenical formation, training and leadership development of youths. Opportunities provided to young people for year-long internships at CCA’s headquarters in Chiang Mai, Thailand are part of developing youth leadership.

“Our youngsters are the future and we must find creative and innovative ways to engage them. This is not an easy task because in general, today’s youths are less engaged in the ecumenical movement than the young generation was 20 years ago. Today, youth movements are becoming weaker, and that is why we have to renew our efforts and attract more young people”, Chunakara explains.

His passion for youth work got a new injection at the AEYA, where he was impressed by the vast knowledge, the wider visions and the spirit of today’s young generation.

“They are well-versed, extremely knowledgeable, confident and independent; no one can influence them unless they are convinced. We cannot underestimate these young Asians and we have to nurture them properly, encourage their positive spirits and give them more opportunities”, says Chunakara.

He observes the trend of what he calls “digital nomadization”, which enables young people to carry out their tasks in different locations of the world via the internet, as they move from place to place or country to country, instead of being physically present in one particular work station in a fixed work environment.

Chunakara sees that as a challenge facing the youth of today, hence the churches around the globe. The question he asks is whether this lifestyle brings young people closer to – or further away from – the church? And how the church can cope with such situations?

“We should not allow the young people to cut off their roots from the church. It is time to think about an appropriate strategy to engage these people”, Chunakara points out.

The AEYA is meant to be a stepping stone in that direction, to engage the youths through ecumenical networks, along with other programme initiatives at both national and regional levels.

In recent years priority has also been given by CCA to Asian countries where the ecumenical movement is weak and where new churches have emerged. The former closed-door countries, once isolated, such as Cambodia and Laos, as well as Nepal, Bhutan and Timor-Leste, are examples. In these countries, the number of ecumenical activities has been increased step-by-step in the past few years.

“In the wake of civil wars and isolation, these countries were not opened for churches or missionaries, but today they have become missionary battlefields with divided and confused local churches. The churches and members need keen attention with consistent accompaniment to build up leadership and ecumenical formation,” Chunakara explains.

An important objective of larger CCA-gatherings, such as the Asia Mission Conference (AMC), which was held in Yangon, Myanmar, in October last year, and now the AEYA, is to inspire member churches and ecumenical bodies throughout Asia to engage in existing CCA programmes and to motivate them to launch own local initiatives.

This is beginning to materialize. In the Mekong sub-region, a youth conference involving six countries is being planned and in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh national youth programmes are being organised.

Within ten years, Chunakara envisions a more vibrant ecumenical movement in Asia with participation of new generation of people from all walks of life in church and society.

“If we are consistent in our efforts, it will help us overcome a lethargic approach or attitude towards reaching the goal of ecumenism in its real sense: to work for and with all God’s people in Asia”, he concludes.

Determined to make a difference (WCC press release of 18 April 2018)

“Asian Ecumenical Youth inspired and equipped to face challenges” (WCC news release 13 April 2018)

Flowers of the church and agents of change gather in Indonesia (WCC press release 10 April 2018)

*Claus Grue is communication consultant for the World Council of Churches