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When Evangelicals found their mojo

04 July 2014

The Lausanne Congress 40 years ago changed the movement radically, says Roy McCloughry

"An exchange of gifts": the Revd Dr John Stott, instrumental in the Lausanne gathering in 1974

"An exchange of gifts": the Revd Dr John Stott, instrumental in the Lausanne gathering in 1974

THIS year holds the 40th anniversary of the International Congress on World Evangelisation, usually referred to as the Lausanne Congress. The event itself and the ripples it caused are so remarkable that important lessons can still be learned from it.

The Congress was the vision of Billy Graham, with others such as the British Evangelical leader John Stott. The distinctive and most remarkable hallmark of the congress, however, was that 4000 people attended, from 150 countries.

It was a working congress; papers had been distributed beforehand, and groups were formed all over the world to discuss them, and give feedback. The result was a remarkable document, the Lausanne Covenant. This was not just a list of traditional Evangelical beliefs, but a comprehensive statement that grappled with some of the most difficult issues facing Christians of all persuasions and cultures.

The Lausanne movement came at a time, in the late 20th century, of unprecedented missionary growth and the rise of the United States as the prime instigator of missionary activity. There was, however, a great deal of criticism of what the Two-Thirds World saw as the hidden agenda of colonialism in much missionary activity.

Challenges from brilliant theologians and evangelists from the Two-Thirds World meant that the belief that Western Christianity encapsulated the essentials of the faith could no longer be tolerated.

THE congress took cross-cultural issues seriously, and emphasised co-operation rather than exclusivism. Many who had had a culturally and theologically narrow view of what Christianity entailed found themselves challenged by Christian leaders from other parts of the world.

Speakers such as the Ugandan Bishop Festo Kivengere - once called "the Billy Graham of Africa" - emphasised the need for justice for poor and oppressed peoples. The philosopher Francis Schaeffer spoke about the challenge of relativism to Christian belief and witness.

The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge talked powerfully about the decline of Western civilisation and the compromise that Christians had made with middle-class values.

The Latin American theologian Samuel Escobar, in talking of the need for a thorough theological basis for world mission, argued fora mature balance between self-criticism and a continued passion for world mission.

This was exemplified in the introduction to the covenant, when it says: "We are deeply stirred by what God is doing in our day, moved to penitence by our failures, and challenged by the unfinished task of evangelisation."

The covenant also drew attention to a debate which continues in one form or another in every generation: that of the relationship between evangelism and social action.

The covenant says on this: "We express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. . . Both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ.

LAUSANNE was followed up by regional meetings all over the world, and then by a second congress in Manila, in 1989, attended by 4300 people from 173 countries. By now, the Lausanne movement was seen as truly global, drawing its leadership and its subject matter from all over the world.

In 2010, the movement met in Capetown, in what become another remarkable gathering, attended by 4200 leaders from 198 countries. Thousands more met around the world, in 600 groups, to respond through a live link. The capacity of the movement to bring together Christian leaders from so many different countries meant that it was unrivalled in its cross-cultural emphasis.

The "Capetown Commitment" not only made strong statements about the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of scripture, the Trinitarian nature of God, and the urgency of Christian mission: it also called Evangelicals to live lives of "humility, integrity, and simplicity".

Whereas the Lausanne Covenant was couched in the language of belief, the Capetown Commitment used the language of love. It has been published in 30 languages, and will be published in another 20 African languages.

THERE are many reasons why some would shy away from the Lausanne process. Its confident assertion of the need for world evangelisation is not shared by some Christians, who would go no further than dialogue. Others would baulk at its commitment to sharing the Christian message with people of other faiths.

Some might characterise it as yet another conference issuing a statement that gathers dust on the shelf.

Yet there are distinctives about Lausanne that are worth remembering. It is a truly global movement. Stott once called its commitment to listening to those from a range of cultures "an exchange of gifts". It is also committed to integral or holistic mission, which includes social and political action, as well as proclamation.

It affirms the need for creative partnerships, and the importance of co-operation rather than the suspicion and competition that can overtake Christians who are not listening to each other.

It has its weaknesses, and is not as powerful in this country as, perhaps, it is in the Two-Thirds World or Eastern Europe. Listening to some Christian leaders bickering and posturing, or building their empires, you could be forgiven for thinking that the lessons learned at Lausanne have been forgotten.

Nevertheless, if someone is looking for an expression of what contemporary Evangelicals are about, then the Lausanne process - and, in particular, the Capetown Commitment - has a claim to be the unique global expression of that vision. 

Roy McCloughry is National Disability Adviser for the Church of England.


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