The International Missionary Council (IMC) was formed in 1921 and in 1961 became part of the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948 out of the other two major strands of 20th century inter-church co-operation, the Life and Work and Faith and Order movements. All three movements trace their origins to the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910.
The IMC was one of the most significant Christian groups of its era. It brought together significant church leaders from around the world, it commissioned the best missiological studies of the day, it facilitated the formation of national councils of churches in newly evangelised countries and the West, including the New Zealand. One of its last strategic initiatives was the formation of the Theological Education Fund supporting the writing of texts for English as a second language theology students and the development of libraries and faculty training in key non-Western theological seminaries.
The issues debated in its conferences and through its journal, the International Review of Missions (still being published as the International Review of Mission) were the key practical and theological issues of Christian encounter with other faiths and cultures of the day. Its vast archives, microfiche copies of which are available commercially and found in a number of mission research libraries including Yale Divinity School and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, provide evidence of painstaking strategic thinking in issues from cooperation and comity, to theologies of religion, and the politics and realities of religious freedom.
Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch are among the many Reformed historians and theologians of mission who developed their missiology through their involvement with the IMC.
Integration with the WCC was strenuously debated and the issues are a text book case study of the relationship between church and mission, the necessary politics of working globally, the appropriate institutional expression of theological realities, and the timing of intentional structural change. If the WCC was a council of churches, then then council representing new and old churches in mission theologically needed to be part of the WCC. In an age of decolonisation younger churches needed the same status as the older churches and they did not wish to be the objects of someone else's sense of Christian mission whatever their ongoing needs. But would the somewhat "churchy" WCC actually be able to take on a missionary identity even if theology required the church to be missionary?
After 1961 there was no lack of mission language in the WCC but the focus of interest shifted strongly in a political and social direction. The Lausanne Movement convened by Billy Graham and John Stott in 1974 gave voice to evangelical missiological concerns. The founding of the International Association for Mission Studies in 1972 brought Catholics and Protestants together with an agenda not dissimilar to the old IMC. Over time the WCC realised the need to better accommodate Evangelical and Orthodox sensibilities.
Key events and topics
J H Oldham, the Continuation Committee and the divisions of World War I
Lake Mohonk 1921, formation of the IMC
Jerusalem 1928, faced with secularism and totalitarianism in the West, should Christians cooperate with other religions?
Tambaram 1938, Hendrik Kraemer - respect and radical discontinuity with other faiths.
Willingen 1952, Missio Dei
Accra 1958, Lesslie Newbigin and the decision to amalgamate. Formation of Theological Education Fund.
New Delhi 1961
David Bosch, Witness to the World, (reprinted 2006)
Charles Ranson, A missionary pilgrimage, Eerdmans, 1988
Ken Ross, Edinburgh 1910, its place in history.
Towards 2010 online
History of World Mission and Evangelism (WCC)
World Missionary Conference 1910 digital version of commission reports