Pentecostals participate in expanded World Mission Conference
By Theodore Gill
Dialogue between Pentecostals and others active in the ecumenical movement is still in an early stage of development as the constellation of participants expands.
"I think there will be a time when my church may join the World Council of Churches," says Dr Yong-Gi Hong, a Pentecostal scholar and senior mission executive of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in the Republic of Korea. "There are already Pentecostal member churches, and my church is a full member of the national council in Korea."
Degrees of participation in the ecumenical movement surfaced as topics in group discussions and press briefings at the 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. Of the approximately 650 conference delegates appointed by their churches and mission agencies, 40 are Roman Catholic and 15 Pentecostal. Additional advisors and observers have come from these bodies and from evangelical communions and mission alliances that are not formal members of the World Council of Churches.
The Catholic Church and several Pentecostal and evangelical bodies participate in the international Faith and Order Commission that is coordinated through the WCC, and cooperate in a number of particular projects and ecumenical committees. However, the prospect of full membership in the Council raises questions that have not yet been settled by all parties.
"The Catholic understanding of the doctrine of the church, of ecclesiology, makes complete mutual accountability complicated," comments Bishop Brian Farrell of the Vatican's council on Christian unity, leader of the Catholic delegation to the Athens mission conference.
The Rev. Dr Opoku Odinyah, rector of the Pentecostal University College in Ghana and an advisor to the conference, adds that "there would have to be change" before his Church of Pentecost could seriously consider full WCC membership. Even Orthodox churches that have been Council members for decades have posed fundamental questions of ecclesiology in the recent work of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC.
Hong describes the main source of reluctance on the part of Pentecostals as an aversion to "hyper-institutionalism". "In our tradition, charisms - the gifts of the Holy Spirit - are to be found at the local level," he continues. "If we are to work in ecumenical organizations beyond the local community, we must find the proper way to balance the Spirit and the system."
Professor Michael Kinnamon, a Protestant theologian at Eden Theological Seminary in the USA, observes that this conference has been characterized primarily by "expanding participation" in comparison to preceding conferences. As a result, the findings of previous gatherings are being reviewed and challenged. "I think we should embrace expansion as a positive phenomenon," says Kinnamon. "At the same time, we have to recognize that it complicates things. We are revisiting some subjects. Other important matters, most notably interfaith dialogue, are noticeable by their absence from the agenda. This conference has not reached the place where it can deal with them. It will take time for our new relationships to mature."
Letting go of prejudice
Conference discussions and press briefings dealing with Pentecostalism have demonstrated the clash of worldviews in dialogues between Pentecostals and other churches. Suspicions linger. Speakers have had to defend Pentecostal churches and missionaries against charges of aggression, proselytism, irrationalism, charlatanism and posing "a threat to a reconciled world".
Mission theologian Dr Kirsteen Kim, who lectures at the University of Birmingham in the UK and who describes herself as "an evangelical who has been touched by the charismatic movement", responds, "Most churches that have grown have been accused of aggression at one point or another. But Pentecostalism has one great strength that helps it to avoid posing a threat to others. Most of the evangelism is spontaneous, it is not part of a plan, it is not achieved through a human strategy. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit."
Odinyah says, "There are charlatans in any group. But in fact, Pentecostals encourage people to be very practical and real. Unfortunately, some do go to the extreme side." Conversations at the conference have begun to explore commonalities among varying traditions of Christianity, old and new, for better and worse. Odinyah speaks of conference participants letting go of prejudices and "learning to have respect for one another".
What do Pentecostal communities have to offer the 21st-century ecumenical movement? For Kim, it is a renewed and profound sense of "a power beyond ourselves". Hong supports her response, "Christians need to learn to rely more deeply on the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit." Odinyah argues, "Pentecostalism brings back spirit to Christianity. You find this in the way we worship, in our music, in our prayers. Emotion is very important for human beings, but it has been separated by many people from their Christianity."
The Athens world mission conference has been an early chapter in this story of expanding participation in the ecumenical movement. The next chapter will be written as the WCC convenes its 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2006. The history of Christian mission is a work in progress. [864 words]
(*) Theodore Gill is senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).