This past year was an important year in global missions. To commemorate the centenary of the Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference, numerous conferences and events across the globe convened church leaders, missionaries and scholars to discuss the state of global missions today.

Allen Yeh, a missiologist who specializes in Latin America and China and teaches in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, attended four of the centenary conferences on four different continents this year. Though Yeh is working on a book about his observations during his participation in these events, Biola Magazine was able to sit down with him to hear about what these international conferences revealed about the changing face of missions and global Christianity.

In 2010, you attended four conferences on four continents — each having something to do with global missions. Could you briefly describe the four conferences, and what each set out to do?

They were all centenary celebrations of the original Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference. But instead of just one there are four, because missions has just changed so much in 100 years. You have four organizations purporting to be a successor of Edinburgh 1910, each with a particular view of how missions has changed in the last 100 years and what to do about those changes. So you have Tokyo, which happened in May, Edinburgh, which was in June, Cape Town (The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization) in October and Boston in November.

This is how I would break them down. Two of them are evangelical, and two of them are ecumenical. Tokyo and Cape Town are the evangelical ones, and Boston and Edinburgh are ecumenical — meaning they included not only mainline Protestants and evangelicals, but also Pentecostals, Catholics and Orthodox. You’ll notice that missions conferences tend to be ecumenical conferences. There’s a phrase: “Missions is the mother of ecumenism.” Missions is such a huge task that only the whole church working together can accomplish it. So missions brings together people like nothing else in the church.

The Edinburgh 1910 Conference, which spawned these four conferences, has been called “the birthplace of the modern ecumenical missions movement.” What was so significant about this conference?

There were two big significances. One was that it marked the end of the great century of missions. Kenneth Scott Latourette, a great missions historian from Yale, called the 19th century the great century of missions. It actually started in 1792 with William Carey publishing An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for theConversion of the Heathens, and it ended with Edinburgh 1910. What happened after 1910? The bloodiest century in the history of mankind. A lot of horrible things happened. So it was hard for missions to really expand in that time. But although all those things caused the Western church to decline in the 20th century, the non-Western church grew. So 100 years ago, 70 percent of the Christians in the world were Western. Today, 60 percent are non-Western. There has been a massive shift of Christianity’s center of gravity to the non-Western world, all happening in the last 100 years.

Secondly, the conference was important because it was the first missions conference to not have just evangelicals. They also had Anglo-Catholics. It had a vision for ecumenism and it led to other things, like the International Missionary Council, the World Council of Churches, and then eventually the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. All these things trace their roots to Edinburgh 1910.

What are some of the ways that the landscape of missions has changed in the last 100 years?

Dana Robert, professor of missions at Boston University, was the opening speaker for Edinburgh 2010, and she said that it was interesting that 100 years ago the world was one-third Christian, and today the world is still one-third Christian. What’s changed is that 100 years ago people complained that the world is only one-third Christian. Today, we rejoice that the world is one-third Christian. In other words: a sense of optimism versus pessimism.

But I also think mission itself has changed. One noticeable thing at Edinburgh 2010 was the shift in language from missions plural to “mission” singular. Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch — two missiologists of the 20th century — made a huge distinction, saying missions is human endeavors, while mission is the mission of God, the missio dei. So we’ve shifted from this optimism/triumphalism where we think we can do it (missions) to a more postmodern, “We can’t do it but God can” mission. At Edinburgh 2010, this came out loud and clear. Everyone was affirming the missio dei singular.

Does that reflect this idea that “mission” is broader and includes more activities than have historically been associated with missions? Now, you hear a lot of people talking about being part of God’s mission if they are artists, or filmmakers, or just working in their office.

That is definitely one way that mission has changed. In 1910 it was all about proclamation evangelism. Which is why I think Tokyo 2010 resembled Edinburgh 1910 more than the other three, because Tokyo was still very much focused on proclamation. They said nothing about social justice or the arts. Now, Lausanne is famous because in 1974 at the first Lausanne Congress, they produced this document called the Lausanne Covenant, which was famous because they restored the bridge between evangelism and social justice. The 20th century was the great dichotomous century for Christianity. Before the 20th century, evangelicals were famous for social justice. You think of William Wilberforce, John Wesley, Charles Simeon. In the 20th century everything became bifurcated: the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, creationism versus evolutionism, and so on. But at the 1974 Lausanne Congress, under the leadership of John Stott, there was this attempt to restore the link between evangelism and social justice as both essential components of mission.

Of the conferences you attended, what has stood out to you? If you could pinpoint two or three themes or major takeaways from these conferences, what would they be?

Well, all of them seemed to affirm diversity. In 1910 it was more about who we are going to evangelize. Missionaries didn’t care who we were as much as who we needed to change. Today, all of these conferences are very much concerned about who we are. We have to be properly representing all our constituencies. A lot of it isn’t really about discussing how we reach the world for the gospel — though this is certainly part of it — as much as it’s about us. How can we get along? With all this diversity, how can we maintain a sense of unity? In John 17, in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, he prays, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you ... Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” So, what is the purpose of unity? Witness. So “Missions is the mother of ecumenism,” but maybe we should flip that statement around. Maybe ecumenism is actually the mother of missions.

You’ve seen the shape of Christianity in so many places and cultures across the world. How would you assess the state of unity in the global church today?

I think globalization has definitely unified the global church, in both good and bad ways. People on the other side of the world are reading The Purpose Driven Life, even if it might not apply to their particular cultural context. I think contextualization is even more important today. Gone are the days when missionaries bring Western culture along with the gospel — or at least they shouldn’t be doing that anymore. Before, it was very cut and dry. The Westerners were educated, rich and Christian, going to the non-Western world that was not any of those things. Now you have a scenario where the rich people across the world are mostly secular, and a lot of the poor people are Christian. That totally changes the face of mission. Now, a lot of the non-Western world has the riches of manpower, but maybe not money or education. What they need is seminaries, training, more books. But we also don’t want to be paternalistic, and I think that’s where partnership comes in. If you give someone money without a relationship with them, that’s paternalism. If you share resources out of friendship, that’s partnership.

You just released a new book, Routes and Radishes and Other Things to Talk About at the Evangelical Crossroads. How have your experiences at these four conferences illuminated your sense of where we’re at in this evangelical crossroads? Are there issues or concerns that have emerged from these conferences that you think are the key questions for our time?

Absolutely. Even though our book is strictly about American evangelicalism, there are certain issues that cut across the spectrum for the whole church. At Cape Town, there were 4,500 of us evangelicals unified, but we’re of different denominations and differing theological beliefs. But evangelicalism is pointedly not a denomination. Evangelicals are united under the essentials: We believe in the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, the necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But under everything else, we have diversity: egalitarianism versus complementarianism, Calvinism versus Arminianism and whatnot. I think Lausanne did a great job with the controversies, but I think the elephant in the room at the conference was the egalitarian-complementarian debate. What do you do when non-essentials like this are elevated to essentials? I think to be properly evangelical we have to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials. When we start elevating non-essentials to essentials we are doomed, because then we can’t have evangelical unity. We might as well just all call each other heretics and sinners because everyone doesn’t agree on every fine nuance of theology. How can we operate as a worldwide church like that?

Were there any particular moments that stood out to you from any of these conferences as being influential or impactful for you?

A very moving moment at Tokyo was when this Swedish preacher gave a lecture on the state of Christianity in Europe. And it was sad. He gave all these stats about emptying churches. But at the end of his talk, one of the Korean organizers of the conference came up and spontaneously said, “Brothers and sisters, let’s pray for Europe.” And then people came up to the stage and I looked around and saw Afghans and Asians and Latin Americans praying for Europe, crying out, speaking in tongues and in all sorts of languages. And I thought, “If only the organizers of Edinburgh 1910 could see this.” The non-Western church has come of age. Today, they are the ones praying for the salvation of Europe. The center of gravity for global Christianity surely has shifted.

Allen Yeh is an assistant professor of history and theology in the Torrey Honors College, formerly known as the Torrey Honors Institute. He holds a D.Phil. in ecclesiastical history from Oxford University. His new co-authored book, Routes and Radishes, is available on Amazon.