WCC Anniversary and Eighth Assembly
Feature Service
No. 10
Young People and the
World Council of Churches

by Freddy Knutsen

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"Where are the young people?" That is a relevant question to ask this year as the World Council of Churches (WCC) celebrates its 50th anniversary.

In many places young people are missing when the WCC or ecumenism is on the agenda. Is ecumenism only an issue for older, erudite theologians in the churches? Or is ecumenism something that should concern the whole people of God?

Today, the ecumenical movement and the WCC is often considered the special interest of only a minority within the churches. However, at the same time as churches are questioning the relevance of and their involvement in the WCC, young people are also questioning the relevance of and their own involvement in the churches themselves.

With new challenges facing the churches and the world, the participation of youth in ecumenical work is critical for the continuation and survival of both the ecumenical movement and the churches. If today’s generation of young people does not join the ecumenical movement, the strength and community that churches have experienced through the history of the WCC will weaken as we enter the 21st century.

It was young people, organised through the Young Men’s Christian Association (YWCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) who prepared the ground for what became the WCC. From the beginning the WCC and the ecumenical movement have been dependent on the involvement of young people and the whole range of ecumenical learning which has taken place through ecumenical youth organisations.

Young people at the WCC's World Mission and Evangelism conference in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, in 1997.

Many leading ecumenical personalities of this century began their involvement in ecumenism at an early age. Before becoming the WCC’s first general secretary in 1948, W.A. Visser ’t Hooft was involved in the work of the YMCA and the WSCF. At the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, William Temple was 28 years old when, as a steward, he showed people to their seats. Later he became Archbishop of Canterbury and was the chairman of the Faith and Order conference in Edinburgh in 1937 where plans for a world council of churches were laid. Many other names from the past could also be cited and we will also find among the present leadership of the WCC many who began their ecumenical pilgrimage as young people.

Since 1948 more than 1500 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 have been involved in the WCC’s Stewards’ Programme. This programme invites young people from different churches all over the world to major WCC meetings to carry out practical tasks associated with the running of the meeting, and to observe the work of ecumenism. Visser ’t Hooft wanted young people to encounter ecumenism and its leaders so one day they would in turn become ecumenical leaders, just as he had done.

Stewards at this year's WCC Central Committee meeting in Geneva

There will be 175 stewards from 75 different countries at the WCC Eighth Assembly later this year in Harare, Zimbabwe (3-14 December). It is hoped these stewards will become ecumenical catalysts in their own churches, and thereby carry ecumenism to a new generation. So, stewards at the Assembly will not only represent themselves but also the community from which they come. However, ultimately it is the strength and support of local churches and ecumenical youth networks which determine how the seeds planted in the stewards programme will take root in the stewards’ own soil.

Young people have claimed full participation within the life and work of the WCC since its beginning. Each generation of young people has shared the vision of this full participation; they have also shared the disillusionment when the leadership in the churches has hindered it. However, there have been positive developments within the WCC during recent years.

At the first Assembly in Amsterdam 100 youth delegates participated but were seated up in the gallery without the right to vote. At the fourth assembly in Uppsala in 1968, 4% of the voting delegates were youth. At the next assembly in 1975 at Nairobi the figure was 9%. In Vancouver in 1983 it was 13.5% and 11% in Canberra at the seventh assembly in 1991.

For the Harare Assembly the figure will be 15% and that means around 150 delegates who will be young people aged between 18 and 30 years. The churches increasingly realise the importance of involving young people within the ecumenical movement. This commitment for inclusion also found expression during the Canberra Assembly when Ms Priyanka Mendis from Sri Lanka was elected as a WCC President and became the first young person to hold this prestigious position which is far from being simply an honorary one.

Through the priority given to the participation of young people in its life and work, the WCC also demonstrates its belief that it is necessary to involve young adults in church and society matters if renewal and change is going to take place.

Young people in the church want to show the world the relevance of their Christian faith today. They do this by witnessing about the Risen Christ who came to bring hope and life. By responding to injustice and standing in solidarity with oppressed youth around the world, Christian young people are giving a credible testimony to the world.

In August of this year, as governments from a number of countries began to involve their peoples in the escalating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ecumenical young people from the whole of Africa were finalising their preparations for a continental youth peace project.

In Asia, ecumenical youth in Indonesia are among those who are responding to the difficult situation within their country by actively working for changes and calling young people all over the world to support them.

More than 400 young people from a wide variety of churches and more than 100 different countries will attend the WCC Assembly in Harare. In the days prior to the Assembly many of them will meet at a pre-Assembly Youth Event, 28 November - 1 December. With this number of young people coming together, the pre-Assembly event will itself be one of the major ecumenical youth events to have been held during the last 10 years. Young delegates, stewards and advisors will prepare themselves for the Assembly. The worship services and the community they will experience just before the Assembly begins will provide a space in which they will be able to make their personal response to God’s gift of, and call to promote Christian unity.

Youth delegates will also be part of the leadership at the Eighth Assembly. This will be most apparent during the second phase of the Hearings when six young people will act as moderators in the six sets of hearings. While the first phase of the Hearings will evaluate the work of the WCC since the last assembly in Canberra in 1991, the second phase will look to the future and agree on policy guidelines and priorities for the work of the WCC as it moves into the 21st century.

The WCC has a vision of young people as the key to the future and the present of the churches, the WCC and the ecumenical movement itself. When, in Harare, it gives youth prominent leadership responsibility that vision will become a reality.

Information for editors and journalists

Rev. Freddy Knutsen is WCC executive secretary for youth affairs. He is an ordained minister of the Church of Norway. He is available for further comment and interview. Radio journalists please note that for interview purposes we have an ISDN line installed in our radio studio using a CCS Codec M66I 64K.

Use of the article must credit Freddy Knutsen as author. Editors are free to shorten the article if they wish but this should be acknowledged. Please send a copy of anything you publish for our records. Thank you.

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