Ecumenism in the Era of World Christianity

Author Dr. Raimundo C. Barreto, Jr.
Author Dr. Raimundo C. Barreto, Jr.

Almost a century ago, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, affirmed that the ecumenical movement was the great new fact of our era. [1] At the time, the ecumenical movement seemed to be one of the most vibrant events of the twentieth century, and its range extended overwhelmingly. Uruguayan theologian Julio de Santa Ana spoke of the 20th century as “the time of ecumenism in the history of Christianity.” [2] From an ideal, an aspiration, a dream nourished especially by young Christian leaders at the end of the nineteenth century (particularly in lay movements such as the YMCA, YWCA, WSCF (World Student Christian Federation), and the Sunday School Movement), after the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (1910) the ecumenical movement expanded to become a worldwide reality, giving birth to more institutionalized ecclesial structures (such as Faith and Order, Life and Work, and the International Missionary Council)all the way to the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

What seemed to be the beginning of a blossoming ecumenical era, though, soon began to show signs of frustration, and struggle to fulfill its promises. In light of that, ecumenists have been asking whether the ecumenical movement can still be a vital and relevant framework for the churches of the 21st century. [3] What has happened since the middle of the twentieth century that has brought the ecumenical movement to this place of uncertainty, and where do we go from here?


What has happened since the middle of the twentieth century that has brought the ecumenical movement to this place of uncertainty, and where do we go from here?

The 20th-century ecumenical movement represented the peak of an era in the history of Christianity. As John Mackay pointed out, ecumenism was a child of the Protestant missionary movement, and in many ways an expression of its success. [4] What Temple, Mackay, and others really celebrated in the first half of the 20th century was the fact that for the first time in history, one could speak of Christianity as truly being a world religion. Christianity had finally reached all regions of the world and was now in a position from which it could articulate a comprehensive plan to evangelize all peoples within the existing generation. In 1964, in the preface to a book in which he defined ecumenics as the science of the church universal, John Mackay articulated that idea:

A new reality has come to birth. For the first time in the life of mankind (sic) the Community of Christ, the Christian Church, can be found, albeit in nuclear form, in the remotest frontiers of human habitation. This community has hereby become “ecumenical” in the primitive, geographical meaning of that term. History is thus confronted with a new fact. [5]

There were some problems, however, with this triumphalistic rethoric, which were not noticed by most Christians at the time. The main issue was that the growth of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere, which was beginning to take full speed, would bring as a consequence the emergence of new voices, of new forms of Christianity and new ways of theologizing, which would challenge some of the assumptions previously taken for granted in studies of Christianity and of Ecumenics. Although the missionary movement seemed to have been thriving and expanding since the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (1910), it was clear that the dominant paradigm was still one of a Eurocentric Christianity, which could not anticipate the impact that the new churches taking form in other parts of the world would have on the future of the Church universal (to recall Mackay).

Church in Indonesia Photo: CC 3.0 Unported by Eman Sena
Church in Indonesia
Photo: CC 3.0 Unported by Eman Sena

As Todd Johnson and Sun Young Chung have shown, in the first Christian centuries, the demographic epicenter of Christianity was in the Eastern Mediterranean. [6] Christianity had quickly been translated into different languages and cultures from Egypt and Syria to India and Central Asia. As it continued to steadily expand towards the Northern hemisphere, from the sixth century on a larger number of Christians were now located in Europe. Such a trend reached its peak in the sixteenth century, when 92 percent of all Christians were Europeans. [7] During that process, Christianity was Europeanized, to the point of being confused with the European colonial project initiated by the end of the fifteenth century, which envisioned a new world order that had Europe as its self-proclaimed center. [8] European colonial expansion coincided with the beginning of the missionary era, first through Catholic missions in the sixteenth century and later through Protestant missions towards the end of eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century.

Although generalizations fail to capture the complexity of the role played by missions and missionaries in the non-European world, it is safe to say that some dominant assumptions guided the modern Christian missionary enterprise, including the assumption of the superiority of Western civilization and of its religion, Christianity, over the other civilizations and religions of the world. Thus, missionizing, Christianizing, and civilizing were very often used interchangeably. For example, the sixteenth century colonial enterprise led by Spain and Portugal could not have been done without explicit theological justification. The invasion/conquest of the Americas was ultimately understood as a “Christian” act.

Historian Luis Rivera-Pagan notices that Christopher Columbus, in his letter to the Spanish Crown in 1493, never used the word “discovery” to refer to the lands he had reached. He used the word “possession” instead. According to Rivera-Pagan, the act of taking possession was understood at the same time as a “juridical linguistic act and a liturgical enactment, a ceremony, in which royal banners are displayed and some kind of religious ritual is performed (prayer, invocation of the divine name, erecting a cross) for it is in the name of God, and not only of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand that the event takes place.” [9]

In the same manner, Ondina and Justo Gonzalez affirm:

Columbus’s assumptions that he could lay claim to the lands he encountered by simply unfurling some flags, making some declarations, and offering prayers may seem strange to us today. But this attitude reflected deeply held European views on how the world was ordered, the place of Europe in the world, and its responsibility to Christianize all whom it encountered. [10]

By force or otherwise, the majority of the surviving indigenous population in the Americas – and the majority of enslaved Africans – were Christianized. The underlying assumption in that act of evangelization was that those saved souls in suffering bodies would mimic the Northerners’ way of life. In fact, the clash between the European and the Amerindian civilizations impacted “the basic foundations of the indigenous cosmology,” forcing most native people to adopt a European worldview. On top of that, along with the millions of Africans enslaved and transported to Latin America, “they became members of the marginal elements of the new society.” [11]

Chinese Church Photo: Public Domain
Chinese Church
Photo: Public Domain

Contrary to that tabula rasa assumption, though, very often conversion did not entail the abandonment of Indigenous or African culture and spirituality. There were cases in which conversion was more of an outward move, a survival strategy, a form of resistance, than otherwise. That is how, for instance, in Brazil and other places, the worship of the Orishas resisted and survived, many times disguised in the outward appearance of Christian worship.

In other cases, although conversion to Christianity was sincere, it happened not on the terms expected by the missionaries, but rather on the people’s own terms. So, as popular Catholicism in Latin America shows, at the same time that devotion around Mary (usually taking local names, such as Guadalupe and Aparecida) and Jesus (also receiving local names or titles) became widespread, particularly among the masses of oppressed people, the indigenization of those Christian images and symbols demonstrated that the indigenous cultures and the spiritualities they carried with them were very much alive.

Therefore, in the encounter with indigenous and African cultures and religions, Christianity itself was also transformed. Evangelization is never a one-way process. Correspondent stories can also be told about Protestant missions, which willingly or unwillingly also made use of the cultural and religious symbols and language with which they interacted, even when translating the Scriptures. [12]


What we are facing today is not a crisis of ecumenism, or even of the ecumenical movement. Instead, it is a crisis of ecumenical institutions, which need to be re-conceived and restructured in order to facilitate the work of the Spirit through fresh ecumenical networks.

The lack of cultural sensitivity of many missionaries, however, led them to overlook people’s concerns, worldviews, and perspectives. Mission continued to be understood from a Eurocentric perspective; from the center to the peripheries of the world. This was the prevailing mindset at the inception of the ecumenical movement. When the (third) World (Ecumenical) Missionary Conference was convened in Edinburgh in 1910, concern for unity was for the sake of the evangelization of the world. Representatives of the ‘unevangelized continents’ were in attendance—Latin America was left out because it was considered at the time an already evangelized region, with 90-plus percent of its population claiming to be Catholic.

Photo: Joanna Hipp
Photo: Joanna Hipp

However, most of the representatives from Africa and Asia were white North American and European missionaries. [13] From the 19 non-Western representatives at the conference, only one was from Africa. If Africa was virtually absent and Latin America was left out, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean were completely forgotten. The 20th-centurry ecumenical movement that came out of that conference was set to offer answers to matters that were of interest mainly to the Western churches, not to other Christians in other parts of the world.

In spite of the lack of incluseveness highlighted above, the ecumenical movement was dynamic, to the extent that it allowed for people and agencies with different priorities and interests to work through specific ecumenical structures to promote their causes and interests. Those interested in mission and evangelization became active in the International Missionary Council. For people mainly concerned with peace and justice, the Life and Work stream of the movement was an ideal hub. And those who were mainly concerned with doctrinal unity found a home in the Faith and Order stream of the movement.

After decades of tense conversations, the idea of creating a common structure to coordinate all these ecumenical streams prevailed, resulting in the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In spite of the assurances that the Council would not be a super-church and that it would be led by its member-bodies, the WCC brought greater centralization to the coordination of the ecumenical work. This institutionalization of the ecumenical movement, which overtime had passed from the hands of lay Christian leaders to the hands of church bureaucrats, created new tensions.


Historically, male European and Euro-American theologies have been treated simply as ‘theology’, all the other perspectives as ‘contextual theologies’. This unchecked whiteness is now being challenged in theological circles as well.

By focusing on empowering the churches – defined in terms of the existing Protestant denominational structures – the WCC ended up limiting spontaneous participation of individuals and autonomous Christian groups, including many of the fast-growing Pentecostal and African Initiated Churches. Furthermore, an enormous amount of energy now needed to be spent on the focus on visible unity necessary in a council of churches, particularly after the Eastern Orthodox Churches joined the WCC in the early 1960s. New accommodations also became necessary with the post-Vatican II involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in ecumenical relations, particularly through its participation in bilateral dialogues with existing World Christian Communions and in the WCC Commission on Faith and Order.

Church Choir at St. Sylvanus Church in Ghana Photo: CC 4.0 International, by Akiwumi
Church Choir at St. Sylvanus Church in Ghana
Photo: CC 4.0 International, by Akiwumi

Although these new developments produced greater understanding among different Christian traditions, the excessive focus on this aspect of the ecumenical movement led other areas of ecumenical cooperation to take the back seat. On top of that, many Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian leaders, who were suspicious of both the new participants in the ecumenical movement and the centralizing nature of the WCC, began to ask whether the emphasis on unity was being pursued at the expense of a concern for evangelization, which was central to their churches. The formation in 2007 of the Global Christian Forum, a less-structured ecumenical space sponsored but not controlled by the World Council of Churches, is an intriguing initiative that brought representatives of those churches, especially the ones in the Southern hemisphere, to the ecumenical table. [14]

At the end of the day, however, the future of the ecumenical movement does not lie in international structures – at least not exclusively. Many of the most interesting ecumenical initiatives that I have known are local in nature. Considering (1) the financial crisis that has impacted major national and international ecumenical agencies in recent years; and (2) the fact that such structures, which are for the most part supported by Northern governments and churches, contribute to greater financial dependence on the part of Global South ecumenical structures, we must seek alternatives for sustainable ecumenical initiatives. Undoubtedly, the strengthening of local and regional ecumenical networks provides important alternatives for the future.

The great new fact of the 21st century is no longer the ecumenical movement per se, but the emergence of a truly worldwide Christianity that is pluricentric, culturally diverse, and which, for the first time in one thousand years, has more Christians living in the Southern Hemisphere than in the North. [15] Today, as more people around the world have access to the Gospel in their own languages, they are embracing Christianity in their own terms. The modern Protestant missionary era is over, and we have entered the threshold of a new era, the era of World Christianity.


This is not simply a shift from the West to the South, but a shift of Christianity from the rich and middle classes to the poor. Those with below $500 dollars as annual income are the ones who will be, if not already, the most numerous Christian disciples in our world.

This is an era in which “internal appropriation” by different indigenous Christian communities reading the Bible in their own language, prompting them to new, creative theological insights, is prioritized over against “external transmission.” [16] Christianity is taking different forms in different parts of the world. People who are now able to read the Bible with their own cultural lenses are asking their own questions—which tend to give priority to the most urgent challenges they face in their immediate contexts. As a consequence, the fields of biblical hermeneutics and contemporary theologies have been refreshed, and mainstream Christians and churches are being invited to step in as listeners, learners, and conversation partners in exploring these new possibilities.

Evangelical Church in Ayacucho, Peru Photo Credit: Ginna Bairby
Evangelical Church in Ayacucho, Peru
Photo Credit: Ginna Bairby

In this era of World Christianity, the contextual nature of theology is being acknowledged in fresh ways. There is an increasing suspicion of approaches that only treat someone else’s theology as contextual. Historically, male European and Euro-American theologies have been treated simply as ‘theology’, all the other perspectives as ‘contextual theologies’. This unchecked whiteness is now being challenged in theological circles as well.

Another important matter that will be increasingly noticed in the context of Christian relations is economic disparity. With the dramatic southward shift in the statistic epicenter of world Christianity, 61 percent of all Christians already live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. According to Indian theologian Felix Wilfred, such a shift is not simply a shift “from the West to the South, but a shift of Christianity from the rich and middle classes to the poor.” [17] In other words, “those with below $500 dollars as annual income are the ones who will be, if not already, the most numerous Christian disciples in our world.” [18]

In a context of such economic disparity, standing in solidarity with the poor is important, but it is not enough. Christians in different parts of the world have been asking more difficult questions about the reasons for such economic gap between the few who have too much and the many who do not have enough to live with dignity. [19] This kind of question tends to make those in positions of privilege defensive. I recall the famous statement made by Archbishop Helder Camara in Brazil many years ago: “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” [20]

Ecumenism today is not only about church unity, but about the unity of humankind; even more, it is about the interconnectedness of all life. The ecumenical movement is part of a Christian prophetic tradition. Martin Luther King, Jr. was probably the most eloquent voice within that tradition in the 20th century:

No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for “the least of these”. Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men (sic) are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men (sic) hungry, to see men (sic) victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. The wealthy nations must go all out to bridge the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority. [21]

For King, the principle underlying concern for the poor was the inter-relatedness of all life:

[T]he rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men (sic) are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ (sic) keepers because of the interrelated structure of reality. [22]

In that sense, especially from the perspective of many Christians in the Southern Hemisphere, the ecumenical efforts to stand in solidarity and work for peace and justice have been among the most important contributions made by the ecumenical movement so far, and the reason why we cannot let it go. Particularly through the WCC Commission on Life and Work, but also through many other ecumenical networks, the ecumenical movement has been a valuable source of solidarity to the oppressed, of human rights advocacy, and of peace and reconciliation around the world. Ecumenical accompaniment programs have been important initiatives in places as diverse as Israel/Palestine and Colombia. In the same way, the ecumenical movement played a significant role in the peace accords reached in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1990s and in the Sanctuary Movement in the U.S. Ecumenical articulation of international networks contributed in bringing the evil regime of Apartheid in South Africa to an end and in defeating military dictatorships in South America.

Furthermore, especially in the post-9/11 world, the ecumenical movement has taken the lead in promoting dialogue and working for mutual understanding with people of other faiths.

Photo: Joanna Hipp
Photo: Joanna Hipp

In light of all this, I submit that what we are facing today is not a crisis of ecumenism, or even of the ecumenical movement. Instead, it is a crisis of ecumenical institutions, which need to be re-conceived and restructured in order to facilitate the work of the Spirit through fresh ecumenical networks.

The ecumenical movement has been a diverse and dynamic movement from its inception. It cannot be confused with the structures that were created to facilitate its coordination on the international or national levels. Those institutions and structures, although important, must be constantly reviewed in light of the circumstances in which Christianity exists today. Among other things, the ecumenical movement needs to take seriously “the World-Christian turn” [23] and all its implications, including the ones which might bring discomfort and dislocation to Northern Christian churches that have too comfortably placed themselves at the center of Christianity.

Finally, World Christianity cannot be understood in homogenic terms. Ecumenism in the 21st century cannot be afraid of valuing difference and facing the complexities implied in relations which are to take place in a post-colonial world, where power relations remain radically asymetrical. Ecumenical structures today must not only make room for more Pentecostal churches, particularly from the so-called Global South, but they also need to pay special attention to the responses that First Peoples (indigenous peoples) are offering to the paradoxical history of their evangelization, including their challenges to commonly assumed hermeneutical keys for reading the Bible. Greater attention to intercultural relations is mandatory for this new ecumenical era. Among other things, we must do away with Western labels (such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’) to describe the responses of Christians from vastly different cultures to a variety of moral concerns. This is a time for attentive listening, for carefully construed dialogue, and for respect for difference.


[1] William Temple, The Church Looks Forward. New York: Macmillan, 1944, 2. Cited in William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornic and Janice A. M. Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Works of Andrew F. Walls. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Location 2888).
[2] Julio de Santa Ana, “The Ecumenical Movement at the Crossroads,” Student World 2003/1: 11-23 (11). [Emphasis is mine]
[3] See, for instance, Michael Kinnamon, Can a Renewal Movement be Renewed? Questions for the Future of Ecumenism. Grand Rapids, MI.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.
[4] See Harold C. Fey (ed.) A History of the Ecumenical Movement, volume 2 (1948-1968). Eugene, OR.: WIPF & STOCK, WCC Publications, 2004, p. 51.
[5] John Mackay, Ecumenics: The Science of the Church Universal. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,1964, p. vii.
[6] Todd M. Johnson and Sun Young Chung, “Tracking Global Christianity’s Statistical Centre of Gravity, AD 33-AD 2100,” International Review of Mission 93/369 (2004): 166-181 (166).
[7] Ibid., p. 171.
[8] Walter Mignolo, “Delinking: the rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality, and the grammar of de-coloniality,” Cultural Studies Vol. 21, Nos. 2 3 March/May 2007, pp. 449 514.
[9] Luis Rivera-Pagan, Essays from the Margins. Cambridge, UK.: Lutterworth Press, 2015, p. 48.
[10] Ondina E. Gonzalez and Justo L. Gonzalez, Christianity in Latin America: a history. New York, NY.: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 12.
[11] Enrique Dussel, A History of the Church in Latin America. Grand Rapids, MI.: WM. B. Erdmans Publishing, 1981, p. 42.
[12] See, for instance, La Seng Dingrin,“Is Buddhism Indispensable in the Cross-cultural Appropriation of Christianity in Burma?” Buddhist-Christian Studies 29 (2009):3–22. University of Hawai’i Press, Studying the missionary work of Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary to translate the Bible into Burma, La Seng argues that, “Burmese Teheravãd Buddhism provides Christianity with an worldview in its translation into Burmese,” and that the translation of the Bible into Burmese itself would be impossible without the adoption and adaptation of concepts and terminology from Burmese Buddhism.
[13] According to Brian Stanley, “of the 1,215 official delegates, 509 were British, 491 were North American, 169 originated from continental Europe, 27 came from the white colonies of South Africa and Australasia, and only 19 were from the non-western or ‘majority’ world (18 of them from Asia).” Brian Stanley. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Studies in the History of Christian Missions). Grand Rapids, MI.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2009, Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 270-272.
[14] Sarah Rowland Jones, “The Global Christian Forum, A Narrative History: ‘Limuru, Manado and Onwards’,” Transformation 30/4 (2013): 226–242.
[15] There is a significant amount of literature addressing this reality, which is the great new fact of the 21st century. In his book Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, MI.: Willliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Lamin Sanneh highlights the demands brought by the new configuration of world Christianity, speaking of the need to “give priority to indigenous response and local appropriation over against missionary transmission and direction”(p. 10) For him, “it is difficult to overestimate the implications of this indigenous change for the future shape of the religion.” (p. 11)
[16] Ibid., p. 55.
[17] Felix Wilfred, “Christianity between Decline and Resurgence,” in Christianity in Crisis? ?dited by Jon Sobrino and Felix Wilfred. Concilium 2005/3. London : SCM Press, 2005, 27-37 (31).
[18] Ibid.
[19] The unsuspicious report released by Oxfam International last year showing that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people is just a sign of the dimension of the economic inequality that plagues the world today. See Oxfam International, Working for the Few: political capture and economic inequality. 178 Oxfam Briefing Paper, January 20, 2014.
[20] In Christine Morley, Selma Macfarlane, Phillip Ablett, Engaging with Social Work: A Critical Introduction. Melbourne, Australia. Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. vii.
[21] Martin Luther King Jr., “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” Nobel Lecture, Nobel Peace Prize, 1964.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Paul Kollman “Understanding the World-Christian Turn in the History of Christianity and Theology,” Theology Today, 2014, Vol. 71(2), 164-177.


AUTHOR BIO: A native of Brazil, Raimundo C. Barreto Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Society and teaches World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary. Prior to coming to PTSem he served as Director of Freedom and Justice of the Baptist World Alliance.

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