When we gathered outside Nairobi last November—245 leaders of Christian denominations and organizations from 72 countries—church history was made. At the four-day Global Christian Forum meeting, all parts of the global Christian family were officially represented, including Pentecostal, evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic, and historic Protestant churches. As Assemblies of God minister Mel Robeck put it, “I am stunned—we have here what might be described as a new Pentecost.”
Let me try to explain what a unique breakthrough this was. For decades, judgments and prejudices have separated evangelicals from mainline churches, Pentecostals from Catholics, and Baptists from Orthodox churches—the list goes on. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches have worked to bring the hope of unity, but Catholics have participated only cautiously from the side, and evangelicals and Pentecostals have stayed away. In short, the global body of Christ persistently suffers from deep divisions, distrust, and even hostility between its various parts, seriously injuring its witness and mission.
Unlike previous ecumenical gatherings, which focused on papers and debate about doctrine and practice, the Global Christian Forum, from its first exploratory meeting in 2000, started by sharing the stories of each person’s journey of faith in Christ. In my group, for instance, an evangelical leader from Britain recounted how reading Mere Christianity began his journey of faith, while a Catholic bishop told how Vatican II and lectio divina led him into deep encounters with the Bible. A Salvation Army officer described how he left his law practice to follow a call to ministry, and a Seventh Day Adventist leader from Uganda explained how an invitation to attend one of their congregations led to his conversion. An Anglican bishop from Canada shared how at the age of 15, years before her church ordained women, she experienced a “visitation” by Christ, who told her, “You will be a priest, and I will never leave you or forsake you.”
A church leader from Indonesia left a successful career in the oil business because he clearly heard God’s call into ministry. The archbishop of the Nigeria-based Church of the Lord (Aladura), one of the most vibrant and fast-growing “African Instituted Churches,” was called into ministry while working as a computer consultant and politician in Germany, where he had emigrated. And a leader of the Lao Evangelical Church shared how, after most Christians had fled the country, his 26-member church experienced a revival in 1990 and has now grown to 7,000 believers. A priest from Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India explained how his faith journey had been enriched by experience at both an evangelical seminary and a Catholic university. The forum’s testimonial style as a beginning point was revelatory and unifying.
The emergence of the Global Christian Forum responds to the dramatic shift of the world church to the global South. Pentecostal, African Instituted, and evangelical churches are growing at breathtaking rates in many of these areas; many show a commitment to works of social justice as well as church planting. But often these younger churches are isolated from those historical churches, mostly based in the North, that carry centuries of Christian tradition and a commitment to church unity. New bridges across the geographical, theological, and practical divisions of world Christianity are critically needed, and the Global Christian Forum provides a space to begin.
So what will this unique new body do? It’s probably too early to answer that question. This is like a family reunion of long-lost relatives who have been out of touch and even alienated from one another for years. We’re just re-establishing trustworthy relationships. In this process, “being together” precedes what we do together.
Several of those gathered in Nairobi emphasized that the Global Christian Forum presents new possibilities for joint cooperation in meeting pressing global needs. Rev. Daniel Okoh, chair of the Organization of African Instituted Churches, spoke of an “active” Christian unity addressing issues of poverty, war, and bad governance. Korean Pentecostal theologian Wonsuk Ma, who directs the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, underscored that “It is all for God’s mission’s sake that we are called together to be in one body.”
This gathering was a watershed event in modern Christian history, where God’s Spirit began erasing the excuses that have kept Christians judging one another and apart from one another. Now the task will be to discern how this gift can empower the global church to participate together in God’s mission in the world.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson was general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, a member of the steering committee of the Global Christian Forum (www.globalchristianforum.org), and vice-chair of Sojourners’ board of directors when this article appeared.