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Reformed Mission in an Age of World Christianity
WCRC Pre-Assembly Conference
June 15-17, 2010

The Opportunity

Christianity has become a world religion.  Faith in Jesus Christ is celebrated today in more languages and in more lands than any other living faith because of a seismic shift in patterns of belief and commitment.  A century ago, 80 percent of all the world's Christians lived in Europe and North America.  Today, more than sixty percent of all Christians live outside these regions, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific islands. 

The main implication of this shift, says the eminent church historian, Andrew Walls, is that these non-Western lands "seem set to be the principal theaters of Christian activity….What happens there will determine what the Christianity of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries will be like….That in time means that the most significant Christian developments in theology,…or ethical thinking, or the Christian impact on society, will be those that take place in the southern continents….Much will depend on the quality of the theological leadership received from the non-Western world; it will be in the non-Western world that the future of Christianity will be determined; it is there that Christian witness will be made or marred."1

In many places around the world, the growth of Christianity or the rise of Christian revival movements has come to a new point of departure.  Their participants have experienced personal conversion or renewal, and they have shared this good news with many others.  Signs and wonders have appeared, and hundreds of millions have responded in faith.  Churches have arisen and grown.  Many good works and the institutions to drive them have resulted.  But Jesus has not come back yet.  So now what?  More of the same won't do, for these Christian movements have a new salience and significance in societies where they were once marginal and nearly invisible. With new status come new responsibilities.  In many places worldwide, Christians are rediscovering the full gospel mandate: that the good news of personal salvation is inseparable from a vision for all things made new, for God's reign of justice, peace and full flourishing, what the prophets called shalom.  Deepening shalom will have import in sustaining a Christian witness in this century.

We see the global rise of new Christian schools, seminaries, universities, community development agencies, businesses, media outlets, health clinics, women's associations, youth groups, and, indeed, political movements and parties.  Yet frequently this new Christian activism is very short on theory and principle.  That is where Reformed Christianity may have a strategic opportunity because of its passion to linking personal faith with the frameworks and actions of institutions.

Reformed Christianity was founded in a "now what" moment.  Luther, it is often said, gave an answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved?"  John Calvin's main question, arguably, was "Now that I am saved, how then shall I live?"  Through the centuries, this attention to cultural engagement, to thinking theologically about life in the world, and to making a principled, sustainable approach to various contemporary arenas has been a great strength of Reformed Christianity.  We should explore its historic strengths and weaknesses to learn more from their lessons.  Then in the wake of Christianity's rapid shift to the Global South and East, Reformed Christians may have a fresh strategic role to play. 

In June 2010 the World Communion of Reformed Churches begins to emerge as a new level of worldwide Reformed church partnership at a time when the world is witnessing this, one of the greatest religious changes of all time.  In that month the Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meet on the campus of Calvin College to consider merger of their two membership bodies.  Over 1000 delegates, official representatives and guests of global Reformed church bodies will gather.

This is a substantial opportunity for members of the Christian higher education community to create a mutual relationship of common faith, teaching, learning and hospitality with global people representing the broadest range of global Reformed church circles.  A Calvin College-sponsored conference is being planned for June 15 (evening) through June 17 (noon), 2010 on the Calvin College campus to respond to this special one-time opportunity.  This conference is designed to strengthen the contribution of Reformed Christian faith to the global influence of world Christianity.  Conference sessions will be created and hosted by each of the Centers and Institutes of Calvin College; Calvin College endowed chairs, interested Calvin College academic departments and educational leaders from the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education (IAPCHE).

The conference is being developed with four overarching themes.  They are:

  • Living roots for living water.  Every theological tradition has historical and contextual roots.  Within the reformed Christian tradition what roots are the wellspring for refreshment and renewal for the future of this tradition’s contribution to global Christianity?  How might we most effectively understand and encourage the connections between the past and future of this tradition?  Doug Blomberg, Australian citizen and Professor of Education at the Institute for Christian Studies, notes, “A tradition develops through dialogue that stretches across time.  A living tradition has within itself the resource for self-correction, because dialogue remains vital—full of vitality.”2   How do we water the still-living roots of Reformed tradition so that they bear fruit for many cultures?  How do we encourage conversation about the Reformed tradition that is open and permeable so that the great gifts of global Christianity nourish Reformed futures? 
  • Translation across borders.  Each of us is a bounded contextual person whose life is a unique confluence of faith, knowledge and experience; and then together we constitute small affinity groups based on theology, culture, ethnicity, practice or some other factors that bind us.  So all of us, both individually and as small human sets, have borders, boundaries to belief, and limits to understanding and barriers to response.  This is the nature of human finitude.  But we live in a world of global Christianity and multiple non-Christian faith traditions.  In it we cross such borders, with curiosity, boldness and regularity to discover multiple and intersecting global cultures.

    Ongoing crossings require us to learn more about Christian guidance and norms for cultural translation as we traverse global boundaries.  What ought we to nourish as our root Christian identity?  What ought we to receive as faith-filled gifts from others?  What ought we to give in return?  How do we aptly communicate Christian intentions in the translation of this receiving and giving?  How can we exemplify Christian faith in the mediation of misunderstandings and conflicts that inevitably arise in crossing cultures?

    Some translation projects are more difficult than others.  When borders are thick, the challenge is more substantial than when they are easily permeable.   There are some universals that all Christians share in the foundations of Scripture, the centrality of Christ and the fellowship of the church.  There are also distinctives more thickly shared within the Reformed Christian network of affiliation.  Are shared elements of the Reformed Christian community becoming thicker or thinner?  Should we encourage their thickening or thinning in relationship to global Christianity?   How should Reformed Christian circles cross boundaries with non-Christian faiths?
  • The covenantal community.  In baptism we are united with Christ, baptized into his death and resurrection.  But within the Reformed Christian tradition we place special emphasis on baptism as a reminder of the sovereignty of God.  As Mary Hulst, Calvin College chaplain, notes, “…it reminds us of the covenant, it reminds us of the long history, the deep heritage we have as the people of God, stretching back to Abraham, reaching back to the Garden.”3   Christians now are part of God’s ongoing story of redemption begun long ago but still new every morning.  We are all part of God’s much larger narrative; but this One who calls allows us freedom to also covenant with each other in scripting details in his next chapter.  What does it mean to be a global reformed Christian community that responds to God’s covenant and then covenants with each other?  About what should we covenant at this juncture in the 21st century?  How should those covenants be framed?  We share one baptism.  We share common confessions.  About what should we create common covenants of understanding and engagement?  How do we do so?
  • Roles at the table of the church.  Participation in the church is at the core of our Christian calling.  Yet in the Reformed family the church is one institution among many with overlapping responsibilities; and other institutions are not seen as subsidiaries of the church.  We affirm the building of institutions in the social sector with their own differentiated Christian contributions.  But because of this we must wisely discern which tasks and responsibilities should be most appropriately led and governed by each among these multiple institutions.  We must differentiate the church’s responsibility for foundational Christian commitments and principles from other roles and the array of contingent strategies.  The table of the church must provide a place for pastors and theologians but also for those with academic and practical expertise.  How do we provide for beneficial differentiation at this “now-what moment” of global cultural engagement while keeping multiple Christian institutions tethered to the embodied church?  How do we balance differentiation and integration among the church and related Christian institutions so that the table of the organic church is laden with a rich harvest produced by multiple hands?

Within global Christianity this may indeed be one of those Reformed Christian moments.  But to make the most of this moment, the fellowship of Reformed churches must be discerning and articulate about lively roots, boundary crossing, covenant-keeping and effective collaboration.   These four themes form a rubric within which we will address these themes in creative ways.   Following an opening keynote address by Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, five breakout times will be scheduled with multiple sessions in each of the breakout times.   For a complete schedule of breakout sessions, click here. (Link forthcoming.)

Conference Registrants

Conference registrants will be invited from several circles that have a substantial investment in the themes described above.  Those invited will include delegates and official representatives to the emerging World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) assembly, Calvin College faculty and professional staff as well as vitally interested alumni, and members of the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education. 

The joint planning committee for the WCRC uniting assembly has enthusiastically endorsed the concept of this June 2010 pre-assembly conference on the proposed dates.  This Calvin College-sponsored event will run concurrently with other conferences being planned by WCRC-related networks.  The hope is that simultaneous venues encourage a  number of assembly delegates to travel together to conjoined pre-assembly events.

Conference Style and Tone

The conference is designed to be “friendly” to the great variety of registrants from many countries and cultures.  Most will desire to make new acquaintances across the Reformed Christian network.  Some participants will come from academic and professional circles while many will hold different roles in their churches and societies.  Given the diversity of backgrounds and roles, the conference sessions will allow significant discussion among the participants themselves along with the contributions of expert speakers and panelists.  It will not be a conference at which academic papers are publicly read.  Instead it will be an event in which shorter briefs, paper summaries and panels are structured to engage conference registrants.  Breakout sessions will be 90 minutes in length to allow adequate discussion time.  While the principal conference language will be English, translation services will be available in multiple languages including Bahasa,  Korean and Spanish.

Conference Outcomes

Overall, the goals for this conference are three-fold: 

  • To create a richer network of affiliations across the global Reformed Christian community.
  • To examine historic Reformed Christian frameworks and articulate fresh approaches to some enduring Christian questions of faithful response in a new more globally-connected era.
  • To create and disseminate a set of reflective essays on key conference themes that is widely available after the conference.

Through this conference event we hope to contribute to Reformed Christian understandings of our global covenantal future in ways that live far into the 21st century.

 

 

Footnotes

1. Andrew F. Walls, "Christian Scholarship and the Demographic Transformation of the Church," in Theological Literacy for the Twenty-first Century, ed. Rodney L. Peterson and Nancy M. Rourke (Eerdmans, 2002), 173.

2. Doug Blomberg, Curriculum and Wisdom, (Dordt College Press, 2007), 78.

3. Mary S. Hulst, “Remembering Baptism”, Forum, Calvin Theological Seminary, Fall 2008), 4.

 

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