The 1960s was an important decade for a number of reasons. Though down the list for many, the transformation of Missions Theology during this time was huge.
Sometimes, it seems like a lot of changes happened back in the 1920s and 1930s. During this time there was disillusionment with “Christendom,” and Christian missions as a (Western) Civilizing influence. Also W. E. Hocking’s influence and his work in developing “American Report of the Commission of Appraisal of the Laymen’s Foreign Mission Enquiry” that promoted a pluralistic agenda away from evangelism and conversion, had an influence. Despite this, the dominant views of missions stayed in many ways in line with missions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And this continued into the early 1960s.
For example, at the 1961 gathering of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, the purpose of the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism was “to further the proclamation to the whole world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the end that all men may believe in Him and be saved.” (“Christian Mission in the Modern World” by John Stott, p. 133). This view was in line with the mission perspective of previous decades. It is true that Evangelism was often seen in terms of a partnership of proclamation and social ministry, but that hardly is out of line with the practice of missions through the Great Century and before.
Dialogue was recognized in the early part of the 1960s as an important part of dealing with other religions. However, it was understood in a manner quite different than the relativistic form that was popularized years later:
“True dialogue with a man of another faith requires a concern both for the Gospel and for the other man. Without the first, dialogue becomes a pleasant conversation. Without the second it becomes irrelevant, unconvincing, or arrogant. Whatever the circumstances may be, our intention for every human dialogue should be to be involved in the dialogue of God with men, and to move our partner and oneself to listen to what God in Christ reveals to us, and to answer him.”
(Ronald K. Orchard, ed., “Witness in Six Continents: Records of the Meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches Held in Mexico City, 8-19 December 1963”)
However, as the decade advanced, changes continued. There was a growth of seeing Mission in terms of “Christian Presence” which called for behavior that appeared to be every bit as vague as the term sounds. With “The Church for Others” published by the WCC in 1967, things had radically changed. Missions did not really involve a call to repentance. Proselytism is seen as “the opposite” of missions. Conversion is not seen so much as individual and personal, but more corporate in form. That is not to say there were no good points in the work… but rather that mission theology had radically changed… and much of those changes undermined the historical purposes of doing mission work.
“Presence” became a word that was used as a substitute for “witness,” “mission,” and “evangelism.” Charles de Foucauld described a missionary as ‘a person who is in the place with a presence willed and determined as a witness to the love of God in Christ.’“ (“Missions Theology” by Rodger C. Bassham, p. 73) This definition is not so much wrong or bad, but so vague that it could entail doing almost anything or nothing. Panikkar during this same period, saw missionaries not so much as bringing Christ to other cultures, but helping other cultures “discover Christ” in their culture through the missionary’s service to the people.
Why would there be such a radical change during this time? I really don’t know. However, the IMC, International Missionary Council, formally joined the World Council of Churches in 1961. Perhaps the IMC, a thoroughly missions-oriented organization, provided a strong influence on the WCC gatherings in 1961 and 1963… but that influence waned later in the decade, being then driven more by churches that had a different perspective and agenda.
The 1960s also saw the growth of Conservative Evangelical Missions with competing gatherings of their own in the 1960s at Wheaton and Berlin. Sadly, some of the missions theology with the Evangelicals was little better than that of the WCC, especially in the early years of the decade. In Wheaton there was a tendency to broaden missions to including drawing people into Evangelical groups from non-Evangelical Christian groups. At the same time, there was an even stronger push to narrow missions. Missions was so narrowly defined by some as to reject education and social ministry. Some like members of MacGavran’s Church Growth movement, sought to view missions as only entailing churchplanting, and separating between discipling (a missionary role) and perfecting (something almost the same as discipling, but not viewed a missionary role). <Part of me appreciates the definition of missions as only churchplanting. It is simple… logical… elegant. However, it is also unscriptural, and establishes missions without a firm foundation.>
Thankfully, much of these views did not end up being approved in finalized statements. But the views in the 1960s have had a strong impact on Evangelical missions even until today.
There were some, like John Stott, who managed to be relevant/influential with both sides. I don’t really believe that unity for the sake of unity is a virtue. Spiritual unity can occur with organizational diversity (but spiritual unity probably does not exist when we focus on stealing people from other Christian churches, and define such activity as “the Lord’s Work.”)
I feel like some of the greater eccentricities of missions theology that grew in the 1960s may have been hammered out better with greater dialogue between both sides. The focus on missions as expressing God’s love through personal presence in the world is nice but wholly inadequate. But so was missions that embraced proclamation of the Word without Christian service. Maybe the two sides could have learned and grown from each other.
But I could be wrong.