Commentary

“A mutilated body is not pretty,” Maria Eugenia Figueroa de Congora, from Guatemala, told the 251 participants from 55 countries who gathered in Bogota, Colombia. The Global Christian Forum had convened its third world gathering as a way of saying “no” to the endemic divisiveness in the global body of Christ. It’s not a pretty picture, with over 43,000 denominations, cloaked in narrow self-righteousness. Stereotypes and spiritual judgments between Pentecostals and Catholics, between Orthodox and evangelicals, and even between Presbyterians and Seventh-day Adventists, with hundreds more examples, persist in local settings, whether in Accra or Athens, and are magnified in global structures. The church’s witness suffers, severely.

Meanwhile, the growth of the worldwide church surges in the global South. Gina Zurlo, Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, explained today’s facts: Two-thirds of all Christians now live in the global South. During the lifetime of most those gathered in Bogota, Christians in Africa have grown from 134 million in 1970 to 621 million today, making that continent home to more of world Christianity than any other region. Almost as many Christians are in the continent of Latin America where we met. Pentecostalism drives much of this growth. But the complexity, divisiveness, and conflicts between churches in these regions as well as globally clouds the picture projecting Christianity’s future.

Yet, this encounter in Bogota filled the participants with hope. Richard Howell, a noted evangelical leader in India who has been a crusader for the vision of the Global Christian Forum, described the time like “opening a window.” He compared it to how Pope John the 23rd spoke of Vatican II, using the same metaphor. Beyond doubt, fresh breezes blew in Bogota. You could feel it. Thomas Schirrmacher, the World Evangelical Association’s Associate General Secretary for Theological Concerns, who has written and edited 102 books, made a passionate appeal to recognize how it’s experience, through the sharing of stories, that reshapes our relationships and theological understandings.

For the Global Christian Forum, that starts in the sharing the personal stories of our Christian pilgrimage in small groups. It’s a narrative window into one another’s lives, and the wind of the Spirit blows in our midst. When this initiative started 20 years ago, we had struggled with how to build trust between Pentecostals, Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox, Anglicans, mainline Protestants, and others. The barriers were geographical, cultural, historical, and theological. Experimenting with “testimonies” evolved into a fresh ecumenical methodology.

My group in Bogota reflected the mix of the whole gathering, with several evangelicals and Pentecostals, and others who were Catholic, Orthodox, and versions of Protestantism, from diverse regions. Some of the stories still haunt me, spiritually. A Pentecostal described reluctantly attending at a revival as a young man when an unknown preacher powerfully prophesied that he would be called into ministry and travel the world to build unity in the body of Christ. Decades later that has described his life. An Anglican priest told of being strangely overcome by an experience of God’s love, like John Wesley, while in an economics class. A Vatican official shared how as a boy he was stunned when a non-Catholic friend told him he wasn’t allowed to come into a Catholic church for a funeral. God spoke, and he works globally for Christian unity.

Half a day spent like that opened countless windows on our mutilated body. And that became the foundation for fresh vision and challenges shared when we all were together in plenary sessions. There, many moments were remembered like breaths of fresh spiritual air. We commemorated the historic theological agreement between the Catholics and major Protestant bodies on the doctrine of justification which marked observances of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But it was Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who powerfully asked what difference this would make in how our churches relate to one another. The Holy Spirit had worked something new, he said, but now we must discover the consequences. Indeed.

The Global Christian Forum’s non-institutional character keeps trying, at its best, to create spaces where fresh unifying experiences can be discovered, and then built into initiatives of healing and change. Some of these were demonstrated unwittingly in worship. As Pentecostalism has expanded in Latin America, charismatic impulses within the Catholic Church have also grown. When it was the Catholic Church’s turn to lead worship in Bogota, local groups offered prayers and songs, including a charismatic contingent who led in singing in tongues. (Later they confirmed with the presiding priest that they had kept this spontaneous expression to five minutes, as promised.) These unexpected epiphanies frequently broke out.

In another group, I met Robert Baah from the Church of Pentecost, based in Ghana. But for several years Robert has been in North America, and now teaches theology at Seattle Pacific University. The Church of Pentecost expanded through migration with its first U.S. church established in the Bronx some years ago. Now there are 167 congregations in the U.S., and Robert directs the expansion of this Ghana-based denomination in Latin America, where there already about 10 congregations. The group also included a female Anglican bishop and others from largely white, historic denominations in North America with a strong “progressive” tradition, but which are largely in numerical decline. One of the hopes is for spaces like this created by the Global Christian Forum to draw together these “younger” churches from the global South with “older” churches in the global North in ways that can be mutually beneficial.

Some examples were on display in Bogota, including when another member from the Church of Pentecost in Ghana joined a brother from the Taizé Community in France on stage to tell their shared story. Searching for what could attract youth to the practice of faith, the Church of Pentecost leader sought out Taizé, and was so drawn to it what this African Pentecostal made a two-week silent retreat there. And Taizé, in turn welcomed the gifts of this Pentecostal church into the growing relationships of its global expansion.

“Let Mutual Love Continue,” taken from Hebrews 13:1, was theme for this gathering. But if it’s God’s love, it can’t be contained, and certainly not confined to the fascinating and fresh relationships discovered in Bogota. World Council of Churches General Secretary Olav Fykse Tveit clearly emphasized this in his message, stressing that this love must flow out to the world, and never should be restrained by boundaries of denominations or church traditions. Its impact must be felt in ways that link the search for unity with the work for justice in the world. Tveit warned against a “polite ecumenism,” a phrase frequently echoed in Bogota, including in the final message of the gathering.

Ruth Padilla de Borst, the well-known progressive evangelical theologian from Costa Rica, gave a strong example of how this radical love impacts the world in a fascinating exegesis of the book of Philemon. In short, the radical shift in social relationships in the Christian community, recognizing the equality of all, is the impulse for extending this vision to the oppressed, and particularly to the 25 million people today trapped in a variety of forms of modern slavery.

The search for any expressions of unity rather than division in the global church includes embracing pain and persecution of others. That was powerfully brought home as we recalled the absence of Metropolitan Mar Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim, a member of our committee and a friend from the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo. He was abducted five years ago with his fellow Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazijy. No word of their fate has ever been discovered.

In one of those powerful unscripted plenary moments with comments from the floor, a Pentecostal pastor from the U.S. who has spent most of this time in Latin America rose to make a hesitant statement. He didn’t want to be political but was so deeply concerned by how many evangelicals and Pentecostals in the U.S. seemed coopted by President Trump, and how this deeply harms the church’s global witness. The plenary broke out in applause.

After two decades, the Global Christian Forum is in a transition to a new period. At the closing worship, Rev. Dr. Casely Essamuah was commissioned as its new Secretary, beginning July 1. A Methodist with strong and enduring roots in Ghana, he presently has been pastoring in a mega-church in Annapolis, Md. He replaces Larry Miller, whose exceptional service was lauded in Bogota. As the final worship was about to begin, a group of young Colombians came and sat on the floor toward the front. They were wearing shirts from Taizé, having obviously been there, and led the service in the powerful chants and songs originating in that small community oceans and continents away. The wind blew.

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