Archive: A Methodist Perspective on Berlin

By Michael W. Walker, Associate Minister, Cosa Linda Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas

Over 1200 delegates and observers gathered in Berlin from 100 countries around the world to attend the World Congress on Evangelism. Sponsored by Christianity Today as its tenth anniversary project, the Congress drew leaders in evangelism from over 60 denominations and a number of independent evangelistic and mission organizations. Under the theme of “One Race, One Gospel, One Task,” the Congress met, October 26 – November 4, in Berlin’s famed Kongresshalle, accepting as its formidable task (1) to define and clarify Biblical evangelism for our day; (2) to establish beyond any doubt its relevance to the modern world; (3) to underline its urgency in the present situation; (4) to explore new forms of witness now in use throughout the world and new ways of reaching contemporary man; (5) to deal frankly with problems of resistance to the Gospel; (6) to challenge the church to renew its own life through an intensified proclamation of the historic faith; and (7) to show the world in a fresh and dramatic way that God is in truth Lord of all, and that He saves through His Son.

More than 40 leaders in missions and evangelism from The Methodist Church participated in the Congress. Several of them participated by giving major papers, leading discussion sections, or leading from the platform in some way. Among the delegates were two Methodist bishops and other well-known leaders in Methodist evangelism.

It is obvious that much of the emphasis of the Congress would be on the centrality of the Gospel in the message of the Church and the priority of the task of evangelism in the Church’s work. That the delegates were again and again urged to take the Great Commission seriously is not surprising either. The transforming character of the person and work of Christ and man’s universal need of a Christ produced transformation, involving both forgiveness and the impartation of new life, were, as expected, prominent in the emphases of the Congress. There were, however, a number of other continually recurring thrusts. Although these were not the main topics for papers, they had a way of capturing the concern of the Congress.

One of the most persistent concerns was the desire for greater unity among evangelical Christians. Remorse and frustration over disunity was repeatedly expressed by many from various parts of the world. There was repentant recognition of the many class, racial, doctrinal, and ecclesiastical divisions with­ in the Church. And there was a persistent call for a new spirit of unity among evangelicals. There was a call to unify evangelistic efforts and work for new cooperation in all methods of proclaiming the Gospel.

The responsibility of Christians for the social plight of man was recognized. Evangelists and church leaders were warned not to be indifferent to the sociopolitical and economic situations in which they work. It was acknowledged that evangelicals had too-often concentrated so much on salvation for the individual that they had forgotten to love the world. And the call was issued for evangelicals to attain a New Testament balance of proclaiming a personal Gospel and accepting social responsibility which the Gospel also demands.

Another underlying theme which broke to the surface time and again was that of the full authority of Holy Scripture. Delegates and observers were exhorted to submit their personal lives, their doctrines, and their practices of evangelism to the reliable authority of God’s Word. This theme developed with a double polemic. On the one hand, the polemic was against liberal Christianity with its weak and shaky view of Scriptural authority. On the other hand, the polemic was directed against traditionalism in the evangelical community.

Another prominent concern of the Congress was that the world­ wide Church recognize that if this age is to be evangelized, the job can be done only by making witnesses and evangelists of every true Christian. Professionals and the church’s clergy will never be able to evangelize the world. They must concentrate on training and equipping every believer to be an effective “fisher of men.” Closely related to this emphasis was the plea for evangelicals to identify and become involved with needy and sinful man in order to win him for Christ. In his exposition of John 20:21 in the Bible Hour of the opening day, Dr. John R. W. Stott pointed out that the Father’s sending of Christ involved (1) birth into the world (2) life in the world and (3) death for the world. If we are sent as He was sent, then we must also identify with sinful men. For we cannot successfully proclaim Christ to men while we remain at a distance from them.

The indispensability of the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism found recurring expression. The tendency to “professionalism” and to organization which limits or excludes the work of God’s Spirit was denounced. The Church’s ultimate dependence must be on the leadership of the Spirit rather than on man’s efficient and systematic plans-no matter how carefully these may be carried out. The centrality of prayer to the work of evangelism was stressed.

The Congress felt very keenly the urgency of the task of sharing Jesus Christ with the world. Delegates were urged to use every available method to reach men, and to learn to use every available means of modern communication in order to saturate the earth with the Gospel message NOW. The loud tick of the special population clock in the lobby of the Kongresshalle reminded the participants each moment of the rapidly increasing numbers of men waiting to hear of God’s provision for salvation through Jesus Christ.

Increasingly, as the Congress moved toward its conclusion, it took on a pastoral tone. It began to concentrate less on the threats to evangelical Christianity and focused more and more on re­ hewing itself for its evangelical, missionary task. This emphasis was particularly evident, it seemed to me, as some of the barriers to evangelism were identified in the reports from the many parts of the world. While the barriers of secularism, atheism, some current theological trends, and religious suppression were cited as real obstacles, the problems within the Church were recognized as the primary ones: indifference and lack of love, preoccupation with church affairs, unpreparedness, deep divisions in the churches which cause both lack of cooperation and duplicity of effort and which hurt the Church’s witness to Christ; and the fai1ure of evangelicals to reflect the full power and person of Christ in their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps what happened at the World Congress on Evangelism could be more adequately described by sharing what it meant in the personal lives of the participants. These things which I felt seem to me to represent also the feelings of many others whom I came to know.

We discovered that we were all needy sinners – all alike before God in both our inadequacy and our unrealized potential. We recognized that we had been in varying degrees disobedient to God’s total call upon our lives. All of us came as learners. Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Kermit Long, and the unknown ones like myself – all came, not as accomplished experts, but as forgiven sinners aware of what God was calling us to become.

We discovered that the Holy Spirit produced a Christ-centered unity which surpassed our most optimistic expectations – a unity which saw the barriers of race, color, language, culture, denominational affiliation, political orientation, and even theological outlook fall before the Lordship of the One whom we all acknowledged as the Son of God. Our previously-formed misconceptions of one another disintegrated as we came to know each other. We found that in Christ there really is a bond which binds all those who love Him. An Anglican Bishop eating lunch with Oral Roberts, German theologians learning from newly literate Christians – God brought us together.

Some of us American Christians discovered that our brand of Christianity is cheap in comparison to the faith of many Christians in other parts of the world. We ate and lived with those who knew what it means to trust nothing but the sufficiency of God for their daily lives.

We were driven to repentance and from repentance to commitment – a commitment to boldly proclaim an all-sufficient Christ for sinful men, to give this task priority, to a balanced and total evangelism, to training the laity to witness and win men, to leading the Church to new holiness and Christ-likeness, to leading the Church out of the pews and into the streets.

As a Methodist Christian, I came away from the World Congress with some concerns about Methodism. Our church must somehow recover the Wesleyan love for lost men. Somehow, we must share with those men the message that Jesus Christ has died to pay the penalty for their sins and that He has risen to deliver them from the practice of sinning. We must lead our people to know Him experientially, rather than simply knowing about Him. The time has come to quit talking in vague terms about the Gospel as though everyone already knows what its content is. We Methodists talk and preach a lot about commitment. We lead many to make an initial commitment to Christ. But it seems to me that we fail in our exposition of the content of the Gospel to which we call men to commit themselves. We call men to Christ, assuming that they understand He has died for their sins, when in fact most people today have little understanding of what the atonement means. Many modern Methodists could not begin to tell what salvation means. We must lift up the person and work of Christ! And then we must encourage men to respond to Christ because of who He is and what He has done for us – and for the world.

I also came away from the Congress feeling that we must rethink our ecumenical efforts. I discovered that true ecumenicity is possible – if it is Christ-focused. This ecumenicity can be present whether or not organizational structures remain. Methodism must discover that unity in the Church of Christ must also include the evangelical branches of Christendom as well as the major denominations. In other words, we must be concerned about our relationship with the Pentecostals as much as we are about our relationship with the Episcopalians. We must learn that as we are brought to Christ we are brought together. This is what happened in Berlin. It is this movement together to Christ, rather than to a simple organic union, which will characterize any lasting ecumenism. As Christians and as Methodists, we can no longer succumb to the pressures of the “numbers game” which sees “additions” to the church rolls as evangelism. The object of our evangelistic efforts must be transformed men and women, not larger more “successful” churches.

Methodist evangelicals must learn not to let institutional machinery keep them from the awareness that all our sufficiency is from God. Organizational skills need to be used-but only under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and only as instruments to the greater end of seeing men made new by our Lord.

Unfortunately, Methodism is still a clergy’s church. We must learn to train our laymen to share the good news of salvation in Christ. Now we train them to usher, to give of their money, to solicit pledges, to teach in the church school, and to serve on the commissions. How much more imperative it is that they know Jesus Christ in a way that they want to share Him and that they be given the tools to share Him effectively!

Finally, I left Berlin convinced that we must reach all men with the Gospel. We American Meth­ odists seem to feel we have been called to witness only to the middle and upper classes. We are concerned about the poor, the homeless and the uneducated. But we do not make them welcome in our churches. We are concerned about minority groups and the rejects of our society – but we are concerned from a distance. We must both identify with them and offer to them Jesus Christ as the only way to a new and better life. Too often we work for their economic and political wellbeing without sharing the Person of Jesus Christ with them. Can we not learn anew that Christ died for all men? Can we not learn anew that any man without a personal, experiential knowledge of Christ as Lord and Savior is hopelessly hungry and homeless and hurting?

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