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Everything ready for first World Mission Conference in the 21st century



A cross will arive by boat at the beach

By Juan Michel (*)

On the morning of 10 May, a large wooden cross sent from Jerusalem will arrive by boat at the beach of the Agios Andreas recreational centre on the outskirts of Athens, thus marking the beginning of the first Conference on World Mission and Evangelism to be held in the 21st century.

Summoned by the sound of African talking drums, nearly 500 conference participants and over 100 local representatives, guests and stewards will gather on the beach to receive the cross and pray together. This will be the beginning of an event whose spiritual and liturgical life is expected to be particularly rich.

The 4-metre-high cross was made of Olive wood by a Jerusalem craftsman. Brought from the Middle East and received by representatives from the other regions of the world, it is intended as a symbol of reconciliation and healing as well as of churches standing in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East. 

 Broad participation and in-depth discussions

Convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the conference will gather around the theme "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile" and the sub-theme "Called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities." It will offer, right at the outset of the 21st century, a unique opportunity for Christians from all continents and the largest confessional families to exchange experiences and to reflect on the priorities for mission and the  future of Christian witness.

"In our globalized and fragmented world, filled with much division and conflict, the gospel message of healing and reconciliation is vital," says Rev. Ruth Bottoms, a Baptist pastor from the United Kingdom who will moderate the conference.

The multiple dimensions of this message will be addressed in daily plenary sessions that will focus on the central elements of the theme and sub-theme: reconciliation, healing, the Holy Spirit and the Christian community. Moreover, given that the conference coincides with the mid-point of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010), one of the plenary sessions will be dedicated to the complex relationship between mission and violence.

Aside from the plenary sessions which, for the first time ever, will be broadcast live via the internet, about 70 workshops will offer participants opportunities to discuss a wide variety of issues in depth. These range from experiences of multi-dimensional healing to mission in war and conflict situations; from the role of women in mission to the relationship between healing, salvation and conversion; from the missionary challenge that people living with HIV/AIDS pose, to the way that indigenous people approach reconciliation and healing.

Specific case studies on, for example, the reconciliation process in Rwanda, joint mission experiences in Germany or Christian witness in China, will also form part of the workshops programme. This also includes a series of workshops about counseling in specific situations such as terminal illness, violence and abuse, among others.

Prior to the conference, youth delegates, who represent nearly a tenth of the total, along with young people who will work as stewards, will participate in a five-day youth event. Ecumenical learning experiences and a series of visits to projects being carried out by local churches are on the agenda.

Given that nearly a quarter of its participants are from Evangelical, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic traditions, the confessional universe represented at the conference will extend well beyond the membership of the convening World Council of Churches. It will also be the most inclusive in the long tradition of world mission conferences that began in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910.

The unprecedented breadth of the spectrum of participants offers unusual opportunities. Depending on whether a new convergence becomes possible and new efforts towards common witness are released, says Georges Lemopoulos, WCC deputy general secretary, the World Mission Conference in Athens "may become a new turning point in the history of both the missionary and the ecumenical movements".

A first of its kind

The conference will be richly liturgical and spiritual. Each morning, the participants, gathering in small ecumenical, multi-cultural "home groups", will begin the day with a meditation on biblical texts in the Lectio Divina tradition. Later, there will be a common prayer open to everyone. The "home groups" will meet again in the evening to share their experiences and prepare for the next day.

Five different healing services will be conducted according to different confessional traditions. A chapel, open nearly all the time, will offer a space for individual or group prayer. A team of counselors will be permanently available for pastoral care and spiritual orientation. On the last day, participants will attend worship services in local congregations.

This conference will be the first of its kind to take place in a country where the majority of believers come from the Orthodox tradition. The invitation to hold the conference came from the Church of Greece, whose head, Archbishop Christodoulos, affirmed it as "an historic event both for the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and for the missionary movement".

Among the first ecumenical fruits of the conference at the local level has been the creation of a host committee in which the Church of Greece is joined by four other churches: Roman Catholic, Evangelical Church of Greece, Armenian Evangelical and Armenian Apostolic Church.

In the afternoon on Sunday 15 May, the same cross whose reception marked the beginning of the conference will lead participants and members of Greek congregations in a procession to the Areopagos, on Mars Hill.

There, on the very spot where the apostle Paul preached to the Athenians nearly two thousand years ago, an open-air worship service will close the conference and send participants out into the world, to fulfill Jesus' command to proclaim the good news of God's kingdom as a testimony to all nations. [950 words]
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