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June 1987


Editorial Comment

"The New Thing" and the Old Thing

Summer-Fall, 1986 - "I Will Do A New Thing"

Ralph Winter and the Year 2000

God's Purpose in World History

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“The New Thing” and the Old Thing

by Ralph D. Winter

As you test the pace and spice of Roberta Winter's chapter, “I Will Do A New Thing” on page 5 and following, you enter into an almost completely different world of thought and action from that of the present day International Review of Mission. Why the divergence?

(Background: the most famous mission conference in history, the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 provided the initiative for the founding of the International Review of Missions two years later, in 1912 - that was 75 years ago.) 

At first glance it may seem preposterous that I would be about to compare a distinguished journal, published on the world level, International Review of Mission (IRM), with our own little monthly bulletin, Mission Frontiers, let alone my wife’s new book. 

IRM is celebrating its 75th birthday this year. Its April issue is of special interest, consisting of selections from the illustrious 75 years of issues. 

The present editor of the IRM, Eugene Stockwell, for years the head of the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches (USA), asks readers of this special issue not to try to figure out why the particular selections have been made, just to enjoy them. They are an amazing and marvellous collection. 

But for overall meaning, Philip Potter’s 18-page lead essay, “From Missions to Mission” must be the focus of our attention. 

Potter, at present a university professor, is best known as the eminent, former general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and before that the editor of the IRM. 

Without the slightest intent to be critical of Potter’s person or spirit, it is necessary to recognize what he himself recognizes, that there has been a momentous shift away from what the journal once was and was intended to be. 

That shift is explained and defended, even glorified, but it certainly can not be denied. Indeed Potter is at great pains to prove that the massive shift was all too long in coming and is not yet complete. 

What shift? The first editor’s statement of purpose was that “The Review will be limited to work among non-Christian peoples and questions that are related more or less directly to the carrying on of that work.” 

Potter feels successors to that first editor have improved upon that editor’s view as they have come finally to deny that they should have ever had such a narrow purpose in the first place. 

Potter’s most striking statement is to me almost shattering. 

He could have made some objective statement to the effect of, “Misgivings about a Western world sending out missionaries when it was itself deeply sick had not grown strong enough to make much impact on the deliberations in 1910.” 

But no. He says that the concerns that absorb him (and the IRM) at present “were drowned by the great and deafening cry to take the gospel to the peoples outside of christendom.” 

Obviously Potter is not trying to hide the divergence from then until now. 

Let’s see if we can try to explain how a missionary journal that once would have heralded the founding and the development, say, of the United States Center for World Mission, would, after 75 years, pay no attention to it, see no use for it, and adjudge it old even though it is caught up in a phrase that speaks of a new thing. 

Believe me, I am not taking this personally. I have to confess that it had not to this moment even crossed my mind that the IRM has not noted our existence. I am only using this as a graphic illustration. 

When I was a professor at Fuller Seminary and was asked by Harper and Row to write a 25-year supplement to Latourette’s History of Christianity, I was also asked on two occasions to write articles for the IRM. 

While both of those articles (IRM Vol. 60 p. 237, Vol. 67 p. 338), in effect, traced this same astonishing transition, no one was angry with me at that point. I don’t think they have any animosity now. If indeed, in their circles, they even know about us, they probably pity us for lapsing back into the 19th century missionary motif. 

One of the things I in fact traced in those articles was the gradual shift on mission fields from domination by missionaries to domination by national leaders. I pointed out the all-important structural impact that shift had and the changes it brought about in the International Missionary Council. The Council’s originating purpose was voted out by the non-Western church leaders who replaced the (former) missionary leaders.

 Many voices decried this slide away from mission structures and their leaders to church structures and their leaders. 

In his 1985 autobiography, Lesslie Newbigin, former editor of the IRM, says he “resisted the pressure” toward these changes because he “wanted to preserve and sharpen a specific concern for missions as enterprises explicitly intended to cross the frontier between faith and no-faith.” 

Stephen Neill observes that the WCC is by nature concerned with the Christian world, while the IMC (and the IRM) ought therefore to focus on the “two thirds” of the world that is non-Christian (Vol. 73, p. 252). 

That is, these two most highly respected world level leaders both feel/felt that the IRM was going through an inappropriate broadening. What this means theologically can be debated forever, but meanwhile, what it means practically is that millions of dollars of Christian investment in buildings, endowments, and current giving are being broadened as well. It is not merely a theological question! 

For even more tragic is the shift to a narrower world of the purely conciliar church circles: ecumenical is being defined so as to exclude virtually all non-denominational and interdenominational mission efforts. 

First they were excluded in the United States by the Foreign Mission Conference of North America, the Federal Council of Churches, and the NCCCUSA. Then, the Americans in the WCC pushed for the same exclusion at that level. 

In 1957 Norman Goodall, then editor of the IRM pointed out (Vol. 67,pp. 210, 214) that there was a danger that the mainline “ecumenical” movement might too easily dismiss all other mission entities as “non-cooperating bodies,” when in fact they were becoming the majority of the mission movement. 

He specifically pointed out that in 1957 only 42 percent of American missionaries were related to the NCC. This was going down, and is now down to 5 percent—and, as far as he was concerned, good riddance! 

You get the impression that this scurilous non-conciliar world should simply be ignored, hoping it will go away. Is this truly ecumenical? 

These 75 years show that both the YMCA and the global CE movements, magnificently ecumenical were marginalized and, in this country, the latter was literally killed by deliberate denominationalism—on the part of precisely the “ecumenical” denominations.

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