Wheaton ’83 ponders the state of missions

Christ is the cornerstone. But the bricks that go into the building of his church are not mass produced. They come in many shapes and sizes, from diverse backgrounds and church traditions, and they sometimes espouse views that are as hard as bricks.

At the final service of the Wheaton ’83 conference on the nature and mission of the church, participants affirmed a pastoral letter to the evangelical church around the world. This four-page letter helped to integrate a conference marked by a spectrum of concerns and emphases brought by more than 300 participants from 60 countries. They met at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois, June 20 through July 1.

Wheaton ’83 was convened by the World Evangelical Fellowship and sponsored by about 50 churches, denominations, and special service agencies, including the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. William Shoemaker, conference chairman and director of the Graham Center, hailed Wheaton ’83 as “a new model for evangelical cooperation in mission.”

Three consultations, or tracks, functioned simultaneously and autonomously in the first week. Attempts to integrate these tracks were made in the second week. Track One dealt with the church in its local setting; Track Two, the church in new frontiers for missions; Track Three, the church in response to human need. Besides an introduction and conclusion, the Wheaton ’83 Letter to the Churches has three major divisions, reflecting the three-in-one composition of the conference.

In the church in its local setting, the letter noted that “some churches are being called by Christ to fulfill their apostolic mission amidst forces fiercely hostile towards both them and their Lord.” Participants pledged to support them. It urged those who enjoy the freedom to serve Christ openly to depart from complacency. It added. “We cannot afford to forget that we should be a prophetic voice in the world today.”

On church-parachurch relations, the letter noted the sometimes serious tensions that exist, and it appealed to everybody involved to be responsible stewards. Recipients of the letter were invited to reflect further on this matter so that “friction caused by paternalism, insensitivity, and the abuse of power can be overcome.”

Concerning the church in new frontiers for missions, the letter noted the three billion non-Christians in the world. It said. “We have been challenged to find ways to cross new frontiers to reach urban communities and those imprisoned by resistant religions and ideological systems.” It also noted that until a century ago, mission was still largely a one-way operation. Today, “churches in all parts of the world are crossing frontiers at home and abroad creating their own sending agencies.”

As for the church in response to human need, the letter said that Christians must be deeply moved by the plight of millions who suffer exploitation and oppression, and where their dignity as people created in God’s image is being assaulted. The gospel should not only be a message about life after death. There needs to be “compassion and concern for justice and equity.”

The letter ended with the reminder that it is God who “sends us into the world, but the mission remains His.

In an opening address, WEF’S general director, David Howard, said that Wheaton ’83 has roots going back to Wheaton ’66, the Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission. The purpose of that largely Western-dominated congress was “to bring into new focus the biblical mandate to evangelize the world.” Then came Berlin ’66, Lausanne ’74, and Pattaya ’80.

Said Howard. “Wheaton ’83 in a sense is a culmination of all these conferences even though organically there isn’t necessarily a direct connection in every case.”

Bruce Nicholls, conference coordinator and executive secretary of WEF’S Theological Commission, said the whole conference was struggling with a great crisis facing evangelicals. They are fragmented by race, and by varied eschatological and denominational views.

About half of the participants at Wheaton ’83 were non-Westerners. Nicholls said, “Older Western-based missions and emerging Third World missions have to try and work out how they can … share resources.”

Personal grievances surfaced on one occasion when a participant from India bitterly denounced Western missionaries: They were nothing but bosses and bullies; they left nothing behind for nationals when they departed, he said.

Theologian-pastor Peter Kuzmic of Yugoslavia pointed out a difference in perspective when he referred to a revival in Romania. He said during a plenary session, “I sometimes get the impression that there are church leaders in the West who think that they can build the church if they have big structures, buildings, the modern and best of all technology, as much money as possible, and a charismatic figure with showmanship abilities.

“There is a danger here of becoming self-sufficient and proud, and a tendency of reducing the church to a mere manageable, human institution. It is very easy then for the work of the Holy Spirit, the importance of prayer and fasting, self-denial, and humility to be left out.”

Article continues below

Attempts to integrate the statements of the three tracks after a week of autonomous discussions within each track proved premature. After discussions across the tracks. Track Two, for instance, had to change its draft statement four times with a 50 percent change in content on one occasion. Its final statement was not ready when the conference ended.

Shoemaker said, “There were strong opinions with diverse concepts on what I consider to be sometimes semantics rather than biblical differences. Our challenge now is to take our experience here, whether or not one agrees with the whole of the formal report, and put that into formats of regional conferences, audio-visuals, and printed materials, so as to share that experience with others in the body of Christ around the world.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.