‘Bridging the gap’ between ecumenical and evangelistic groups discussed during Theologian-in-Residence lecture session
Efforts to bridge the gap between the ecumenical and evangelistic divisions in the western Christian church were the focus of the second session of the Theologian-in-Residence series at Tusculum College on Tuesday.
Key factors in building bridges between ecumenical groups and evangelical groups include study of the Scriptures, decentralization of the mission movement and receptivity of a new generation of church leaders, said Dr. Marian McClure, the featured speaker if this year’s series. The Theologian-in-Residence series, co-sponsored by Tusculum College and the Holston Presbytery, is held annually at the College during each Tuesday in February.
McClure has served as the director of the worldwide ministries of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and is serving as the associate director and North America representative of “Edinburgh 2010: Witnessing to Christ Today,” the centenary celebration of a pivotal world mission conference that challenged Christians to greater ecumenical and evangelistic collaboration.
“The best bridge building has been that which has emerged out of deep Biblical study and mediation,” McClure told an audience of about 85. “If we go back to Scripture, we can heal this divide.”
In the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism, there were Bible studies of the Great Commission from each of the gospels, she said, and one of those studies has had a strong influence on efforts to reach others with the gospel. For example, its influence is reflected in a major paper issued by the World Council of Churches about missions and evangelism, which in turn influenced those who crafted a statement of a call to evangelism by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
During the meeting, Anglican clergyman John R. W. Stott presented the study of the Great Commission from John 20:19-23, in which Jesus told the disciples “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
McClure played a recording of a portion of his presentation in which Stott said Christians have a tendency to want to proclaim the message of the gospel from a distance and Christians sometimes appear like a man who shouts advice to a drowning man from the safety of the shore rather than diving in to save him because of fear of the possible dangers in the water.
“But, Jesus did not broadcast salvation from the sky,” Stott said. “He did not throw a lifebelt from heaven. … He visited us in great humility. By birth, life and death, He became one with us.”
Stott noted the weakness and strengths of the ecumenical focus on sharing the gospel through life witness and of the evangelistic focus of sharing the gospel through word (preaching).
“Proclamation is the essence of evangelism,” he said, “and yet true evangelism, evangelism modeled on the ministry of Jesus, is not proclamation without identification anymore than it is identification without proclamation. True evangelism involves both together. Jesus Christ is the Word of God. He is proclamation of God, but that proclamation is not shouted from heaven. In order to be proclaimed, the Word was made flesh. And that is what we need to do.”
Another factor in building bridges is the decentralization of mission movements, which has resulted in a many more people involved in missions, she said. As Americans go to other nations, they learn from the Christians there where churches are involved in both proclaiming the gospel and addressing social issues.
She gave examples of two men, one from the evangelistic-minded Assemblies of God denomination who learned the importance of addressing social ills as part of mission work in a trip to El Salvador and another, a Presbyterian, who discovered his gift for proclaiming the gospel in Brazil.
Another major factor in bridging the gap in today’s church is the receptivity of a new generation of church leaders who are more open to a holistic vision of the church, McClure continued.
On the evangelistic side, leaders such as Rev. Joel Hunter and Rev. Rick Warren have spoken of ecology, poverty, illiteracy and other social ills as important moral issues to be addressed by the church, but have received opposition to those ideas, McClure said.
She also told of the National Association of Evangelical’s statement about missions that embraced a more holistic vision of missions that “for a few statements, could be a Catholic or Presbyterian U.S.A. document” in that it speaks not only of the importance of personal conversion but also addressing social injustices.
In one of the ways God sometimes unexpectedly works, conservative Catholics and Evangelicals “found each other” and have began to work together, McClure said. For example, Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus formed a project focusing on bringing those from the two denominations together to focus on issues. McClure said it was her hunch that the influence of this project can be seen in the wording of the National Association of Evangelism’s statement.
On the ecumenical side, leaders and progressive projects bridging the gap are not as well known because they don’t receive as much media coverage as the evangelicals, she explained. She noted Rev. Harold Kurtz who tirelessly proclaimed to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. the vision of the Frontier Mission Movement, an effort to reach every ethnic group with the gospel. The denomination has since committed to reaching people groups who have never heard the gospel. In a continuation of that work, McClure said, while she was director of Worldwide Ministries for the church, the denomination held a conference about worldwide mission and also crafted a vision statement about evangelism.
Programs have also been created that model leading people into the full spectrum of Christian life, McClure said. One of these is the Presbyterian Hunger Program, she continued, which takes people from their point of interest in the program to a deeper, fuller walk of faith and has included projects working with other denominations.
Creation of new groups to bring has also brought ecumenicals and evangelicals together. She told of the efforts for the Edinburgh 2010 celebration in which denominations have not formed a temporary legal entity to organize the celebration because one denomination would not participate if it was in an organization with the World Council of Churches. It is an administrative nightmare, she said, but it is worth it to have that denomination participate.
During next week’s lecture on Feb. 17, McClure will explore area where bridges still need to be built. The lecture begins at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum campus. The session concludes at about 1:30 p.m. and lunch is included. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling (423) 636-7319 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Marian McClure introduces her topic during the second session in the Theologian-in-Residence series at Tusculum College.