Evangelical Leader on Building Bridges with Non-Evangelicals, Non-Christians – Reporter Edmond Chua, Christian Post

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November 25, 2010

Isolationist. Zealots. Anti-establishment.

Evangelicals have often been portrayed by the media in less than flattering ways.

In a Tuesday interview with The Christian Post, the International Director of the World Evangelical Alliance highlighted contending with media misrepresentation as one of the major challenges facing evangelicalism today.

The Reverend Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe suggests a need to re-present to the world the meaning of evangelicalism.

Evangelicals may not deserve much of the negative publicity they are getting. They may not be burning sacred texts of other religions in anger and hatred borne out of insecurity and fear.

Yet evangelicals do face a significant crisis; it is no less than a crisis of identity.

The tendency is to take a condemnatory approach to the rest of the world. But that is not what evangelicalism really stands for, the Rev. Tunnicliffe emphasises.

Evangelicals are not only bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They are themselves people of good news and not just for one another but for all mankind, evangelical or not, Christian or not.

Evangelicals are called not to condemn others for holding what they perceive to be imperfect or wrong beliefs. They are called to affirm what is good in others and to work with like-minded individuals of all religious beliefs to engage all levels of society.

Then the world would be a better place. And the media, too, would have more reason to give evangelicals a better press.

The following is a slightly edited transcript of the 30-minute interview with the Rev. Tunnicliffe.

The Christian Post: I heard it’s your first visit to Singapore as International Director of the World Evangelical Alliance. Could you please tell me the purpose of your visit?

The Reverend Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe: The purpose of the visit here was to meet with some of the Christian leaders, to meet with our national body the EFOS, Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore, to meet with their board and to learn what’s happening with their work here.

So I’m also here to meet with the National Council of Churches of Singapore as well so I will be meeting with some of the leadership of the National Council of Churches of Singapore today (Editor’s note: November 23, 2010). Again it’s to gauge to understand what’s happening in the church in Singapore and how the Singapore church might engage, is engaging and can engage in global issues.

CP: The WEA focuses a lot on helping persecuted churches worldwide and in God’s providence Singapore churches do not face persecution. How does the WEA strengthen member churches in Singapore?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well I think for us we always work through our national structures, our member organisations and so as we strengthen the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore, as we strengthen national bodies here, the members, they in turn can work with existing churches in their network and so again that’s how we structurally work and so EFOS continues to gain strength to fulfil their mandate of serving the churches in Singapore through whatever means possible.

I know that they do a number of different key events for church leaders and Christians in Singapore revolving around prayer and other initiatives again I think that focuses on building unity in the body of Christ and we want to see that obviously strengthened in Singapore and around the world.

CP: As an evangelical leader, can you share your views on how Singapore as such a small country can help the global church? What is it we can offer?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well first of all I think I’m always encouraged when I come to Singapore, I think the dynamism in the church here is very significant.

I think even though it’s geographically a small country, not a large population I think the significance of the Singaporean church is that it has a regional but also a global vision and that’s tremendously encouraging.

I think in many ways Singaporean Christians are uniquely positioned and gifted to serve in the contemporary world in practically many professions. People have professional skills here in Singapore and can use those in different parts of the world.

I think the whole area for instance of Christian diplomacy I think is also very helpful a role for Singaporean Christians.

The fact that there is an emphasis on religious harmony here in Singapore is also helpful. I’m glad that as other countries try to find the way to religious harmony, I think Singapore serves as a model and Christians here can share that model in other places as well.

CP: I heard that you are passing here from Beijing and recently the Lausanne Movement has faced criticism over its handling of invitation of church leaders from China. What are your reflections on the situation and how is the WEA responding to the situation?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: First of all I think the press statement we sent out about Cape Town and the Chinese delegation speaks for itself. Again I think we are disappointed at the fact that the Chinese delegation could not be there.

And I would say that during our meetings in not just in Beijing but also in other parts of China, in Shanghai with the government and national church leaders, I would say that we had very cordial but also very frank and honest discussions about many issues. And so we are looking forward to the day when Chinese leaders will be clearly involved in international events. And certainly that is what we want to see.

CP: Can you share some testimonies of how you see evangelicalism rising in Asia?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Sure, as I travel the world and as I travel this part of the world I think as I said just as here there is in Singapore there is a dynamism in Asia whether it’s in India or Indonesia or Korea, China, Malaysia, many parts in Asia we see the church rising up and growing and developing and really developing a sense of who the church is in Asia and commitment to biblical authority but also commitment to engaging in the real issues of the day through evangelism and mission. So I think it’s very encouraging that I travel around many parts of Asia.

CP: What about the West? It’s been said that Christianity is either cultural or dying there. How true is that?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well certainly I think as we look at if you think parts of Europe and even North America there are some great concerns in the historic churches where there’s been a rise of secularism and there is a decline in some of the churches, I would say oftentimes conservative/evangelical/Pentecostal churches are still either holding their own or growing, but overall there is a sense that because of this what I would call radical secularisation taking place, there has been a decline in Europe and the country where I live in, Canada, again I would say that we are facing the same things.

But I see again there hopeful signs, I see sparks of hope happening in even in the midst of very secular contexts.

CP: What do you see as the major changes facing evangelicalism?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well I think first of all the demographic shape of evangelicalism, the equilibrium as it were. We’ve seen in the last 50 years a switch from the dominance of the evangelical church in the northern part of the world to Asia, to the south and so again I think in Africa, Latin America and in Asia where we see a tremendous growth of the church. And so in terms of sheer numbers the vast majority of evangelicals now live in those parts of the world. So that’s one change.

I would also say there is a growing change in the areas of how we engage with culture and society. I think historically evangelicals have always been concerned for the poor, have always been concerned for the needs of the suffering, I think that obviously continues but I think we’re seeing fresh expressions of that through speaking up for biblical justice and engaging at every level of society, engaging culture whether it’s through media or the public square or business, we see entertainment industry, we see Christians now evangelicals very much engaging in those areas in those arenas. And so I think that those are some of the shifts that I see.

CP: And what would you say are the main challenges being faced by evangelicals?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well I think there are a number of challenges.

One of my concerns is that even with the rapid growth of our churches, the commitment to being true disciples of Jesus, true followers of His and not just taking on the cultural trappings of the church, so I think that’s one of my concerns. It’s that there needs to be an integration of our faith. I talk about Sunday connecting with Monday. What we do in church on Sunday connects with our lives Monday through the rest of the week. And so I think that is one of the challenges.

I think another challenge is that sometimes we face a perception challenge, that evangelicals are sometimes perceived in a certain, political light, that we’re seen as a particular having a specific political persuasion and that’s often driven by a the media going to parts of our community and amplifying parts of our community as opposed to understanding the whole, so I think sometimes overcoming the perception that evangelicals are of one political persuasion, which they are not.
We find evangelicals involved in all kinds of engagement. In fact as I look across evangelicalism across the world we see ourselves involved in proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel in every area of society. And that’s not always perceived and so there’s sometimes a barrier put up in understanding who we are as evangelicals.

CP: Could you assess the effectiveness of the Lausanne Movement in addressing these challenges?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well I think the great thing about the Cape Town, from the Congress there, was we were able to bring together leaders from around the world. I think it’s truly historic.

And certainly many of the issues that were on the table are the contemporary issues of the day and the fact that we are in dialogue and conversation about these issues I think is really important.

In terms of how that will be the impact of that long term, I think time will tell.

I think we want to certainly encourage the ongoing conversations that emerge out of Cape Town, and I think the ongoing facilitations of those conversations and what we discovered together and we worked on.

In some ways there were no surprises about the issues that we dealt with at Cape Town but I think looking at them with fresh eyes from different parts of the globe, so that it’s not just one perspective but many different perspectives I think was extremely helpful. And so that ongoing interaction around these issues I think will be helpful and that will determine the effectiveness of what happened in Cape Town.

CP: You have pointed out that the centre of gravity of global Christianity has shifted away from the West. And great numbers of Christians today live in religiously pluralistic contexts. Indeed as a result of globalisation the West itself has become more pluralistic than ever before. In your view how has religious pluralism redefined the evangelical approach to evangelism and outreach in general?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well I mean that’s a really good question.

I think to be honest with you I think pluralism is our friend in the sense that as opposed to secularism, what radical secularism seeks to do is to push religious experience to this fringes of society and almost exclude it. What I think in a pluralistic context we find is an opportunity, we all have a place at the table and we are all committed to engagement and building strong societies and strong nations. We don’t want to dominate, we don’t want to control. It’s not about that.

And I think as evangelicals it’s learning a greater sense of understanding about who we are seeking to engage with and it obviously presents some unique challenges for us. But I think what’s really important for us as evangelicals is to seek to understand people of other faiths. It’s to seek to understand what motivates them, as opposed to going to just the stereotypes of what we think they believe. And we recognise it’s about building relationships and understanding.

And it is out of that context we have the freedom to share our faith and to recognise that the freedom of religion is something that pluralism can actually promote and so that no one dominates the scene as it were but people have a right to believe and a right to change their beliefs.
But it’s also a sense of building mutual respect with peoples of other faiths. And again I think the model here in Singapore of trying to create greater religious harmony is helpful. And certainly we see the churches growing in this context but there’s also a mutual respect for people of other faiths.

CP: Evangelicals have historically placed a strict emphasis on preaching the Gospel in its conventional sense. And sometimes this has meant a lack of involvement in cultural transformation, societal development, humanitarian work and care for creation. How successful are the WEA’s efforts in getting evangelicals to engage national and international issues?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well again as I said earlier I think there’s been a growing trend across the world for evangelicals to engage in all levels of society. And I mean you know the reality is that the church in many contexts around the world is in the context of poverty and difficult conditions. And it’s in those that evangelicals in some ways are leading the way in terms of how we engage.

Again I think we want to be cheerleaders at WEA for those who are effective as evangelicals engaging in every area of society. Again it’s this commitment to integral mission, word and deed, proclamation and demonstration.

I think to be honest with you I think since 1974 since the first Lausanne Congress when people like John Stott, Samuel Escobar, René Padilla, the emphasis on holistic mission has gained momentum and strength and there’s no question now today that evangelicals believe in engaging in every area while at the same time being committed to the proclamation of the biblical truth as well.

CP: You mentioned in another interview that evangelicals tend to define themselves by what they oppose. How can this mindset be changed to something more along the lines of building bridges and finding ways to serve those whose beliefs they may not agree with?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Sure again I think you’re right. I think we sometimes do define ourselves as just what we’re opposed to and there’s lots of things to be opposed to but the essence of the Gospel the essence of being evangelicals is about being good news, I mean. And so we have to say how can we be men and women who are people of good news and finding those common elements in society where we can find agreement on.

And again I think if we’re simply viewed defined by things we’re against I think that becomes very negative because that’s not who we are. And so we can affirm you know many good things about where we have things in common with other citizens in our countries.

Again we want to build strong families, we want to develop a strong work ethic, we want to build secure futures for our people, we want to promote religious harmony and religious liberty. So I think we can find ways of being a positive influence on a society.

For instance, our Micah Challenge initiative which focused on the Millennium Development Goals now probably the largest campaign in the world focused on the MDGs and it was really created to do two things.
One was first of all to hold governments for the promises they’ve made. 190 countries signed off for the Millennium Development Goals.

But we also say it’s not just up to governments to care for the poor. It’s up to us as Christians. So how can we work in collaboration with government to bring an end to extreme poverty? And so it becomes not just a pointing of finger but a building up of partnership.

So I would say that those are the things that we can begin to change the understanding of who we are and in terms of oftentimes being viewed as just negative or against something.

CP: What is the WEA’s approach to dialogue and cooperation with Christians who may not identify themselves as evangelicals such as non-evangelical Protestants, and the Orthodox and Catholic traditions?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well first of all we recognise that there are obviously theological differences but I think one of the things that we’ve been committed to since its inception is for instance the Global Christian Forum which brings together Christians of all traditions not in a structural way but in a conversational way again to seek to build understanding.

One of the things we do when we bring together Christian leaders from different streams is we get people to talk about their journey, their spiritual journey, their journey to know Jesus.

And so again I think it’s important that while we as evangelicals have certain emphases and we have certain convictions we can certainly be in conversation with Christians who would not hold the same convictions and you know I think holding up an understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God and then how we understand our relationship with God I think as Christians we realise that we can approach that in different ways. But again I think it’s I think there is great value in building conversation even if you don’t agree necessarily with all the theological nuances with every other part of the Christian community.

CP: And what is the WEA’s approach to dialogue and cooperation with non-Christian religions and secular and atheistic groups?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Again I think that’s another area I think that’s important for us to think about.

When we get into the whole area of nation-building or responding to the needs of society, we have to say that all citizens tend to be concerned about that.

And so for instance one example is that we’ve been involved in something called the Save Darfur Movement and that’s a movement to deal with the issues of an area of Sudan which has been very problematic and we’ve come together as a coalition to speak with a voice to express our concerns and to governments but also in practical ways to respond to people of Darfur.

Majority of people of Darfur are Muslim, it’s really in some ways an internal Muslim conflict but the reality is that people of faith of all faiths have been speaking out against that, the kind of violence, and so we must find be able to build coalitions of concern to respond to some of the challenges we face in society. And if we don’t do that, we’re not going to resolve some of the conflict and situations.
 And so for example again another situation Sudan we’re facing a major referendum there and we know that Sudan’s had 50 years of civil war and it’s absolutely essential that all players, faith community, Muslims, Christians, governments actually come together in making sure the referendum takes place and that civil war doesn’t break out again. And we have to do that together.

CP: The WEA gathers over 420 million evangelicals in 128 nations. This is a massive number. In real terms, how are each of these 420 million people strengthened in their Christian mission by the WEA?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well what’s interesting is we’ve actually just updated our research. We haven’t put it up. We now serve a constituency of about 600 million and because we’ve just updated our figures after a number of years.

And again our core commitment is to work with our national bodies and members. Our national bodies are made up of member churches and denominations. And so if we can strengthen our national bodies and work with them, in turn they can work with the needs of the community in their country. We recognise that the needs of each country are different and must be addressed on an individual or a national basis. But I think we can be a servant to that as a global voice. We can connect different national bodies with other national bodies that share similar experiences.

What’s interesting is and there’s global opportunities for us. For example we’re working on a new project in partnership with Walden Media and Twentieth Century Fox on the new Narnia film The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Again this is in some ways a gift to the church worldwide. It will be a film that will be in theatres around the world including here in Singapore and what we did we worked out a deal, a partnership with Walden and Twentieth Century Fox to provide resources for churches that will accompany the film.

You know it’s a C S Lewis film. While it’s a very entertaining film it’s filled with all sorts of Christian themes that the church can take advantage of in the sense that you know sometimes it’s easier to invite a friend to go to a movie than it is to church perhaps and out of that you can develop that into a relationship. And so we provide we’ve got resource in six languages for children, for youth, for adults that the churches could use as an opportunity to be right out there in society, in the movie theatres to take advantage of and so again working back through our national alliances, we can help.

CP: How did you come to know the Lord Jesus Christ if you don’t mind sharing?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Sure absolutely. I immigrated from England when I was 13 with my parents. I wasn’t attending church in England but in England they have something called religious education school system but when coming to Canada they didn’t have that in school system and it was my mother who felt that her children needed some sort of religious education. And so she found some information about a local church and youth work and Sunday School and it was through that context I became a follower of Jesus.

CP: And could you share your journey into fulltime ministry?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Sure, after university I considered going into my father’s business but before doing that I wanted to spend a year in some sort of international service. So I got involved in short-term mission opportunity.

It was initially for a year in Central America, which turned into two years, which turned into my first career of being involved in a mission agency, both involved in church planting to working in relief and development work to refugee work, to be involved in as a mission executive or president of a mission agency and then becoming involved and then all along the way being deeply committed to more collaboration and partnership in mission and evangelism within the church.

And returning to Canada I became involved in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, heading up their global ministry site. And it’s out of that context I began my journey to the World Evangelical Alliance.

CP: Do you have a wife and kids?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: I have a wife and I have a 22-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter.

CP: In which field did you obtain your doctorate?

The Rev. Tunnicliffe: Well it’s in the area of theological studies but I also did studies in communications as well.

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