Diverse implications of world Christianity
“We must avoid stereotypes,” said Rev. Dr Nikolaus Schneider, chair of the council that coordinates relations and activities within the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). As diverse groups encounter one another in the contemporary dynamics of world Christianity, he added, the key questions are whether the calling of the church is being fulfilled by a given community, and whether Jesus Christ is to be found there.
Schneider made his comments during a wide-ranging discussion of Christianity in the 21st century during a three-day visit by EKD leaders to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. Taking part in the conversation were staff members and other representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).
Prof. Odair Pedroso Mateus, a Brazilian theologian teaching at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, observed that Western theologians of a century ago tended to experience Christian plurality “in a traumatic way,” in terms of dispute, disaffection and disunity. It was in the context of the global South that pluralism came to be seen in a positive light, providing an opportunity for diverse groups of people to confront common challenges.
Rev. Dr Martin Sinaga, an LWF staff member from Indonesia, noted that in many nations Christianity sees itself as “the little flock” that needs to embrace a wider religious pluralism in order to make an impression prophetically and politically. Even so, a distinctive Christian identity forms the basis for minority churches’ witness to the gospel through their life and work.
Kristine Greenaway, the WCRC communication secretary, warned that many promising opportunities for cooperation among Christians “are blocked by our stereotypes about one another,” separating the member churches of ecumenical councils from more conservative evangelical and charismatic bodies.
“Changes in our situations are being perceived through a lens of mutual misunderstanding,” she concluded, arguing that the so-called “ecumenical” churches need to communicate more openly and effectively, and to gain an institutional competence in languages beyond the traditional, European, “official” languages of the councils.
Rev. Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel of the Protestant aid agency Brot für die Welt, a member of the EKD delegation, noted that “plurality is threatening to people when they feel that they have to give up something important, or adopt beliefs that are not their own.”
Rev. Christoph Anders of the Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany (EMW) observed that new church movements tend to be less bound to historical traditions and more likely to want to join in common reflections on common problems.
Rev. Dr Fidon Mwombeki, a Lutheran leader from Tanzania, applauded recent dialogues and conversations that have opened their examination of issues with practical realities in today’s churches rather than with the finer points of theological doctrine.
Prof. Kathryn Johnson, a US theologian and assistant general secretary of the LWF, testified to exciting developments in inter-church dialogues among widely differing communities: “Christian world communions are very aware of growing diversity,” she said. “We live it all the time.” This is true not only on the global scale, but in every nation and city: “The world is coming to us.”
Rev. Dr John Gibaut, director of Faith and Order for the WCC, agreed that varying confessions, cultures and nationalities are living side by side, interacting, facing common challenges. “The most pressing ecclesiological question before us,” he asserted, “is migration. This is not merely a matter of practicalities; it is profoundly ecclesiological. It speaks to faith, unity, mission and local ministries. Today, the migrant communities in our societies, and in our own neighbourhoods, are where ecclesiology and pastoral responsibility meet.”
The Geneva visit by EKD leaders began on Wednesday 6 April and continues through Friday 8 April.