‘We need to wake up’: Jepenri Tambunan shares wisdom from rare WCC experience

LSTC second-year MA student Jepenri Tambunan experienced the global church in an extraordinary way when he served as a delegate to the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe, Germany, Aug. 31-Sept. 8.

The WCC Assembly gathers only once every eight years, so it is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those elected as delegates from their respective denominations. The WCC is a fellowship of 352 Christian churches from more than 120 countries, representing over 580 million Christians worldwide.

More than 4,000 participants from 322 denominations attended this assembly, with the theme “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” Tambunan, 31, didn’t expect that as a young pastor in the Indonesian Christian Church (HKI), a Lutheran church denomination, he’d have this opportunity.

“Our bishop was not able to attend,” Tambunan explained. “He asked me and urged me to participate. He said, ‘It would be a great opportunity for you to increase your participation in a large assembly.’”

His was an unusual voice, a young person in a sea of mostly older church leaders.

“As a young pastor, it is very rare to participate at this level.” he said.

Tambunan said his church expected him to raise an issue that the Indonesian church is facing today. He quickly realized that in the main plenary sessions, his voice would have little impact. When the group broke into smaller discussion groups, that’s where he was able to speak about his passion: the ecological crisis in Indonesia. His masters thesis looks at ecological theology and environmental justice.

Indonesia has been largely deforested for industrial purposes. As a country comprised of more than 17,000 islands, the effects of climate change, like rising ocean levels, are devastating. He also was able to speak about involving young people in the church, and the financial, social and emotional costs of the pandemic on the global church.

“One of the speakers said trees can survive without us, but we cannot survive without the trees,” he said. “That made me think. Someone said the earth can provide for the world’s needs, but not the world’s greed.”

The church needs to play a role in educating and working to counteract climate change. “The church should not be so focused on talking about heaven, getting to heaven” that it forgets its social responsibility, he said. “We can’t just think about our lives today, but the next generation and how they will be able to survive.”

Tambunan believes engaging young people is critical. One speaker referred to young people as “pioneers.” So often, he said, they are overlooked in the church.

During the assembly, a speaker talked about the founding of assembly host city Karlsruhe: A young person fell asleep under a tree and dreamed about founding a city. He woke up and built the city. The metaphor for today’s world was not lost on Tambunan.

“We need to wake up, not to sleep,” he said. “The church now needs to wake up.”

Tambunan said he was persuaded to attend LSTC by an alumnus and mentor pastor in Indonesia, Hesron Sihombing (2019, MA(TS)). As a pastor assigned to teach in Indonesia, he didn’t need to pursue a seminary degree, but Sihombing convinced him to apply. Tambunan expects to finish his thesis and graduate in 2024.

Tambunan hopes to share what he was privileged to hear and experience: the need to keep countering racism, war and human rights issues with love in action. “Like the theme of the assembly says, ‘Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.’”

And the message he brought back is simply “start small.”

“Each of us has to do something,” he said. “Small actions add up. Don’t expect too much. But you should have a sense of belonging to this world.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 Epistle magazine, written by Gail Kenny, a third-year MDiv student and student worker for the Marketing and Communications team. 

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