In early November I attended the first-ever Global Christian Forum as one of 10 participants from the Lutheran World Federation. We gathered outside Nairobi, Kenya, for a historic meeting that was almost 10 years in the planning-250 people from 72 countries, five continents and almost every Christian faith community imaginable.
Why did it take 10 years to plan a meeting?
The answer is simple-there has never really been a meeting like this before. This meeting brought together people who call themselves Christian but don't generally have anything to do with each other. In addition to the churches who are regularly part of the ecumenical movement, the conference brought together those from a host of other Christian faith traditions.
The morning after I returned, I went to the Montana Lutheran Youth Organization fall gathering to preach at their final session. Their theme was "Big Sky, Big World, Bigger God." I got there early enough to see some of the skits the teens put on. They were very clear that people in God's world need to do a better job of talking with each other, a better job of understanding each other, a better job of getting along. They used the example of nations, but the very same could be said of faith communities.
The Global Christian Forum was an attempt to break down some of the barriers of misunderstanding and suspicion that have existed among different expressions of the Christian faith. It originated in the vision of Konrad Raiser, former secretary general of the World Council of Churches, who realized that the WCC represented only a portion of the world's Christians. Raiser believed there needed to be another way for Christians of all traditions to get together for prayer, conversation, Bible study and sharing of faith stories.
The planning group for the Kenya gathering was ecumenical and international. It included church representatives who spent their professional lives in ecumenical dialogues, as well as representatives of churches who were deeply suspicious of the whole process. While being ecumenically engaged is hardwired into many of us as part of our understanding of Jesus' high priestly prayer "that all may be one," it is problematic for others who feel that theirs is the only right path.
There were Pentecostals who participated in the planning and in the conference who risked being defrocked and excommunicated simply for being among others who call themselves followers of Christ. For them the risk was extremely high.
But they came. As did the Evangelical Free, the Alliance, the Student Christian Movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Disciples, the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Lutherans, the Quakers, the Salvation Army, the Moravians, the Mennonites and on and on.... And someone said, "It's like a second Pentecost." And it was.
The forum didn't bring an end to world hunger, poverty or violence. It didn't bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Nor was it intended to. Rather, the event brought together a disparate group of Christians, some of whom were suspicious of each other based on decades-perhaps even centuries-of misunderstanding, some of whom were totally ignorant of each other, but all of whom were willing to set aside their fears and prejudices for the sake of understanding the neighbor in Christ.
This wasn't a conference that produced papers. We prayed together. This wasn't a conference that debated doctrines. We shared our faith stories with one another. This wasn't a legislative body that voted, creating winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, righteous and heretical. We listened to one another. That is why we were gathered.
Did the forum accomplish its mission? I think it did, with the help of God. I think deep and holy conversations took place that would never have taken place were it not for this gathering.
I love remembering that Bishop Leggate of the Assemblies of God (arguably the most powerful Pentecostal in the U.S.) and the representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found themselves sitting together day after day. These aren't people who regularly drink coffee together.
People who had never seen Pentecostals at prayer got to see them at work and survived the experience. Representatives of churches that don't allow women to be in leadership roles got to experience women as leaders.
The world has changed since the seeds were planted that resulted in the ecumenical movement of the 20th century, which culminated with the post-World War II founding of the WCC.
Established ecumenical groups such as the WCC still have a very important role to play. These groups know how to work together to address difficult issues. They have a commitment to working together, and a repository of trust built up over the years. And they are made up of church bodies with structures that are compatible enough to be able to find ways to work together.
The majority of the world's Christians are no longer in the mainline denominations that make up the WCC. Nor are the majority of the world's practicing Christians in Europe and North America. Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in the global south, and it isn't an exact replica of Christianity in the north. In fact, it is quite different in structure, practice, emphasis and self-understanding.
The Global Christian Forum is a concerted effort to bring together Christians from north, south, east and west; from historic Protestant churches and newer denominations; from Roman Catholic and Apostolic Catholic to older Orthodox denominations; from groups, movements, organizations and associations; from churches that are offended at being considered a denomination.
My hope — and that of others gathered at the forum — is that conversations like the ones in Nairobi will continue on the global, regional, national and local levels, and that Christians might diligently find ways to continue to be in conversation, prayer and dialogue with one another as a witness to the world, and as faithfulness to Christ's command, "that all might be one."
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers