Coming Soon to a Planet Near You: Lausanne III

Article
02.26.2010

Plans are now afoot for the Third International Congress on World Evangelization. It will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010.

The first such congress, Lausanne I, was the brainchild of Billy Graham. It was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. A total of 2,700 Christian leaders from 150 nations attended, more than half from the Third World, many from countries which had just gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s from European colonial powers. They all gathered to consider the gospel and its proclamation in their own contexts. Out of this great gathering came the Lausanne Covenant which was drafted principally by John Stott. This Covenant has served as a basis for evangelical strategizing and thinking about evangelism in the global context since then.

Lausanne II was held in Manila, Philippines, in 1989. Over 3,000 Christian leaders attended from 170 nations, more than were represented in the United Nations in 1989. Its chief written accomplishment was the Manila Manifesto, again drafted principally by Stott. But it was not the achievement which the Covenant had been. Indeed, Lausanne II itself, while it had its high points, was something of a disappointment. There was much celebration but little serious wrestling with the issues of the day. And that left behind a lingering question: what is the point of having world congresses like these? Why, we may then ask, should we have a Lausanne III in 2010?

WHY ANOTHER WORLD CONGRESS?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that 2010 is the centenary celebration of the missionary conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. However, not all centenaries are worth celebrating. Does this one justify the calling of Lausanne III?

The Real Heirs of Edinburgh

Lausanne III will, undoubtedly, deliver a message simply because it is a celebration of Edinburgh 1910. This famous conference came at the end of a long line of missionary conferences in Britain in the nineteenth century. The purpose of these conferences was to exhort, encourage, and stimulate fresh interest in the missionary enterprise. The conference in 1910, though, was a little different. Its participants were more theologically mixed; and whereas previous conferences had been an end in themselves, Edinburgh started a process. That process, through its continuation committee, was to produce the International Missionary Council which, in turn, joined the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1961.

In the WCC, the heartbeat for evangelism slowly died, which, in the second half of the twentieth century, led to the increased marginalization of evangelicals. Indeed, at its meeting in Uppsala in 1968, the WCC actually called for a moratorium on missionaries from the West. Cape Town 2010 will, by the very fact that it’s celebrating this centenary, be reasserting the truth that the real heirs of Edinburgh 1910 are not those in the WCC but, rather, those in this fraternity of evangelical churches and organizations represented by Lausanne.

Considering Challenges Together

This is a nice point to make, but it’s not the main reason for a congress on evangelism. Congresses of this magnitude, or councils of an ecumenical kind, have almost always arisen in the life of the Church because of a challenge to Christian faith, either internally by way of heresy or externally by way of persecution. In this respect, the Second Vatican Council, called by the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1960s, was unusual because there was no external or internal threat that justified its calling. The purpose of that council was simply to update the Catholic Church in its attitudes, doctrine, and liturgy. By comparison, the reason for calling Lausanne III probably falls midway between those for Vatican II and any of the early ecumenical councils which were called to address specific, serious issues in the life of the Church.

Until the Congress gathers in Cape Town and those in attendance hear from Christian leaders around the world, the magnitude of the issues facing the evangelical Church and confronting the preaching of the gospel will probably not be fully known. So the first thing that will come out of this Congress will be a renewed sense of what faces Christians in many other parts of the world and what opportunities they have to preach Christ. More importantly, a congress like this gives Christian leaders a rare opportunity to meet and to think together face-to-face about the current challenges and opportunities before the Church. In the lives of most evangelical leaders, having such a global opportunity to wrestle with issues of Christian truth in this way and to think about how to evangelize best in our world today will come around but once.

It is one thing to read about persecution from hostile governments hindering gospel-preaching. It is quite another to sit, as I once did, in between an Ethiopian pastor who had spent many years in solitary confinement for preaching the gospel and an East German pastor whose every sermon was taped by the German secret police, amidst other threats and acts of intimidation. On that occasion, these pastors and I were part of the same consultation considering evangelism, and these instances of suffering for Christ, by the most unassuming of people, have left an indelible impression on me. It is out of encounters like these that we gain a new perspective and are given fresh incentives. They spur us to fresh thinking and to developing new strategies for implementing that thinking.

CHANGES IN THE GLOBAL CONTEXT

What will undoubtedly be different about Cape Town in comparison to both Lausanne and Manila is the changed complexion of the Christian world. Lausanne III will be meeting four decades after Lausanne I. In the interval of time between 1974 and 2010, the complexion of global Christianity will have changed drastically. Christianity has increasingly migrated out of the West and exploded in the global South and parts of Asia. The day of Western dominance of world evangelicalism is now over. A new day is dawning, and we are seeing signs of strong leadership arising from outside the West. One only has to think of the extraordinary and costly stand that the African bishops have taken against the moral corruption which the Anglican and Episcopal churches have sanctioned in recent years.

The irony, however, is that the West still has the lion’s share of the resources—organizational, financial, and educational—but not of the Christians. So it may be that Cape Town will help us to formulate a new set of global, working relationships. In fact, they who are outside the West must be helped to increase, while we in the West, hard as it may be, must learn to decrease. And that could be the greatest gain that Lausanne III brings us.

By:
David Wells

David Wells is the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.