As all historians recognize, time elapsed is a major asset for objectively evaluating events. Twelve months is not a great deal of time, but it may be sufficient to permit a somewhat relaxed backward look at the International Congress on World Evangelization, held July, 1974, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Not only is the congress itself history, but so are the organization of the Lausanne Continuation Committee for World Evangelization (LCCWE) and its first official meeting in Mexico City last January.
I am among those who all along have understood the phrase “world evangelization” in its narrowest and most literal sense. My attendance at the congress, my participation on the LCCWE, and this evaluation itself are all based on the conviction that God brought these events to pass for the chief purpose of leading multitudes of unbelievers all over the world to faith in Jesus Christ and into responsible membership in Christian churches. Those who have understood the congress differently will, of course, evaluate it within other frames of reference.
Only narrowly did the congress escape a strong attempt by some participants to divert the emphasis from world evangelization to other (and perhaps equally commendable) aspects of the total mission of the Church. If I may be permitted a rather crassly military analogy, these diversionary tactics remind me of torpedoes fired from a warship. Any one of them was powerful enough to have destroyed the central evangelistic nature of the congress had it made a direct hit. Only after the LCCWE had met in Mexico City six months after the congress did it become reasonably certain that none of the torpedoes had struck the target and that evangelism had emerged intact.
Specifically, what did these attempts look like? A letter written to Billy Graham after the congress expresses the attitude as clearly as I have seen it. The writer, a Lausanne participant, said in part:
We want a center for evangelism but evangelism must not be narrowly conceived. The center will, of course, distribute famine relief, aid evangelical theological education, and encourage missions to turn authority over to Third World churches. It will plunge into the battle for liberation of the oppressed, and champion the nations of the Third World as against the superpowers. It will conduct research into the nature of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, so that these can be more effectively won to Christ. It will help reconcile Jews and Arabs. Of course, it will do some actual evangelism as well.
While this letter alludes to them all, the first “torpedo” as I see it was an attempt to confuse evangelism with social action. So as not to be misunderstood at this point, I want to reiterate my own strong conviction that social involvement is an important component of the total mission of God’s people and that it is unquestionably related to evangelism. Notice, however, that to say this is roughly analogous to asserting that the circulatory system is an important part of the human organism and that it is intimately related to the reproductive system. This does not preclude cardiologists, for example, from holding a meeting on their specific concerns and obstetricians and gynecologists from holding meetings on theirs.
Not only did the Lausanne program build in what I consider a disproportionate emphasis on social aspects of the Christian mission for a congress “on World Evangelization,” but many influential media reports even exaggerated this, thereby diluting the evangelistic component. It seemed that to some of the reporters it must have been a new thing to hear evangelicals expressing social concern, and in many cases social issues, rather than evangelism, made the headlines.
For those who might have wished Lausanne to be a congress on social concern, Article 5 of the Lausanne Covenant (“Christian Social Responsibility”) was not sufficient. They held a separate caucus and drafted a covenant of their own called “A Response to Lausanne” that extended to 2,000 words, almost twice the combined length of the six articles on evangelism in the official covenant. Partly because he himself agreed with its content but partly also in order to prevent chaos from breaking loose in the plenary session, the spokesman for the covenant drafting committee, John Stott, asserted in public that he would sign both.
The social-concern “torpedo” did not hit. In a report of the congress, Peter Beyerhaus commented that “socio-political concern as such is no new evangelical discovery at Lausanne.” He, as I, was relieved that Lausanne avoided the danger of ascribing soteriological significance to political involvement, thus correcting what some perceived to be the emphasis of the World Council of Churches’ meeting at Bangkok in 1973. The covenant states that “social action is not evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation” (Article 5).
The second “torpedo” was an attempt to confuse evangelism with Christian cooperation. Christian unity is such a clear biblical principle that some are inclined to postulate a cause-and-effect relation between cooperation and evangelism. The underlying premise is that if somehow Christians can develop vehicles and structures for cooperation, one of the results will be the emergence of spontaneous and effective evangelism.
For a significant number of Lausanne participants, the congress as koinonia was its outstanding characteristic. To witness so many evangelicals of all colors and sizes and costumes and languages talking together, praying together, eating together, and rooming together was a peak experience for many. It truly was “good and pleasant to see brethren dwelling together in unity.”
But to suppose that such unity always promotes evangelism is naïve. For example, to some extent Key 73 in the United States sacrificed evangelistic power by overstressing unity. Its charter document, a CHRISTIANITY TODAY editorial, betrayed the subsequent confusion of cooperation and evangelism by its very title, “Somehow Let’s Get Together.” Enough empirical evidence has now been accumulated to indicate that at times cooperation in evangelism may even be counterproductive.
Setting Lausanne up as a worldwide competitor to the World Council of Churches became a favorite angle of some journalists. Nine of eighteen paragraphs in the Time report, for example, stressed a supposed Lausanne-WCC confrontation. And this was perpetuated when Time later reported the Mexico City meeting of the LCCWE under the headline “Evangelicals Unite.” All this was done despite persistent denials by Lausanne leaders that such a confrontation was neither intended or permitted.
Again, the cooperation “torpedo” did not strike. The covenant states that unity is indeed a biblical goal, but recognizes that cooperation “does not necessarily forward evangelism” (Article 7). Evangelism and cooperation were not unduly confused.
The third “torpedo” could be described as an attempt to confuse evangelism with Christian nurture. Helping Christians to grow in all aspects of obedience and discipleship is, of course, a very important component of Christian responsibility. It undoubtedly should be mentioned at a congress on evangelism. But in some cases Christian growth was stressed so strongly at Lausanne that it gained precedence over winning lost men and women to the Christian faith.
To refer again to the prominent Time article, the only direct reference to a Third World speaker reported that this person “cautioned Evangelicals to resist the temptation of trying to make the maximum number of converts. Though conversions are wanted, ‘faithfulness to the Gospel should never be sacrificed for the sake of quantity.’ ” Several others, particularly those whose primary ministry places them with university students and better educated people, reinforced this emphasis.
The covenant was not as precise on this issue as on the previous two. It properly confessed that at times “we have divorced evangelism from Christian nurture” (Article 11), but it did not go on to assert that Christian nurture or growth in discipleship, when rightly achieved, will invariably promote more effective evangelism, and that as a result the quantity of Christians and Christian churches will increase worldwide. The biblical data indicates that as this happens the angels will rejoice.
The three issues described through the analogy of “torpedoes” are crucial ones for effective world evangelization, but I mentioned them in a negative vein. On the other side, I see three positive consequences of Lausanne in areas that are crucial for evangelistic and missiological advance. As I followed the Lausanne media reports, these three were not mentioned very prominently during the first couple of months, but more mature reflection is now giving them the exposure they merit.
The first was a new awareness of the amazing progress of world evangelization to date. While some may decry this as “triumphalism,” today’s spread of Christianity worldwide has no precedent in human history. To the glory of God, missions and evangelism have been encouragingly successful. Christ is building his Church. Laborers are being thrust into the world’s ripened harvest fields. Every week, for example, more than 1,400 new Christian churches are being established. The lost are being found and brought into Christian discipleship.
As Eternity magazine colorfully reported, “the Third World flexed its muscles at Lausanne.” The breathtaking array of so many Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans at the congress was “Exhibit A” testifying to the amazing success of Christian missions in our generation. Their substantial contributions on every level from plenary sessions to corridor debates attested further to successful Christian nurture within their own communities. Just to experience Lausanne was enough to impart a new God-inspired optimism to the discouraged and to give a fresh measure of courage to the fainthearted.
The second positive consequence was a new awareness of the challenge ahead. Lest the encouraging news of progress become an opiate to make Christians inappropriately comfortable with the status quo, Donald McGavran shattered any potential complacency with a battle cry to move forward to the 2.7 billion people of the world who have not yet heard of Jesus. The population clock in the corridor ticked inexorably away, drilling this responsibility into every mind by sight and sound. The valuable surveys of unreached peoples prepared by World Vision reinforced all of this with a strong empirical data base.
But how is the challenge to be met? To me, the third positive consequence of the congress was a new awareness of the complexity of the task. I agree with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, which said in an editorial, “At the Lausanne congress, missionary theoretician Ralph Winter delivered a paper on this subject that may well become a standard treatise of the needs of this new age.”
Now that the dust of Lausanne has cleared, I would like to argue that there is no more important fact for the planning of a strategy for world evangelization than the statistical discovery that a full 87 per cent of the world’s unreached peoples cannot be adequately evangelized by their Christian near neighbors. This is to say that the masses of our planet’s unreached peoples will become disciples of Jesus Christ only through cross-cultural missions, technically known as E-2 and E-3 evangelism.
One direct result of this is to contradict any thought that the age of cross-cultural missions is over. No longer may we rather complacently say that since churches now exist in every land the natives can finish the job of evangelization. More, not fewer, missionaries are and will be needed, although we must not make the mistake any longer of equating “missionaries” with “Westerners.” Missionaries from the Third World as well as those from the Western nations will staff God’s future labor force for the unreaped harvest fields.
Mexico And Onward
By the time the LCCWE met in Mexico City, the above facts had become fairly evident. However, a lastditch attempt was made by some to reverse the course of events and once again constitute the LCCWE as an agency designed not just for evangelism but for all aspects of the total mission of the Church. In fact, an ominous survey of the committee members before Mexico City indicated that a majority felt the LCCWE should add to evangelism further concerns such as mass-media involvement, social-aid programs, and theological education in all its dimensions.
Indeed, the committee spent much time discussing the pros and cons of what came to be called the “narrow view” (evangelism) as over against the “wider view” (the total mission of the Church), and finally agreed that evangelism should be its central task. The statement of purpose reads:
The aim of the committee is to further the total biblical mission of the church, recognizing that in this mission of sacrificial service, evangelism is primary, and that our particular concern must be the evangelization of the 2,700 million unreached peoples of the world.
This, in my judgment, is a clear and accurate view of what was originally intended by Lausanne. Equally wise was the decision to avoid developing a heavy administrative bureaucracy by keeping a low profile and giving the regional committees direct responsibility for carrying out the aims of the LCCWE. This decentralized structure holds great promise, since those ministering in a given area are the ones who can best assess their own evangelistic challenges and opportunities, adapting styles of administration and promotion to their own cultural context.
A significant paper presented by Stanley Mooneyham at Mexico City challenged the committee to keep its focus on the world’s unreached peoples and to continue the research begun by World Vision. A subcommittee there further refined those ideas and delineated the precise target of the LCCWE task, namely, both the 2.7 billion “unreached peoples” and many within the scope of nominal Christianity who are not yet converted. Together they are now recognized as the world’s “unevangelized peoples.”
Never before has there been greater reason for hope that these unevangelized peoples will be effectively reached with the life-transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ in our generation. It is too early to judge, but it does seem that some vibrations congenial to this “spirit of Lausanne” are emerging from Geneva and even from Rome. If so, there is much for which evangelicals should be thankful.
In conclusion, I see three especially promising signs: (1) a growing number of younger theologians developing skills for the contextualization of theology, (2) a growing number of research centers dedicated to providing the data necessary for maximizing church growth, and (3) a growing number of Third World agencies already tooling up to send out a new task force of cross-cultural evangelists to “let the earth hear His voice.”
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