After a week here in Cape Town at Lausanne III, two more convictions stand out. First, the evangelical movement worldwide is growing, outpacing many other Christian groups and it will continue to do so, along with Pentecostalism, as one of the most dynamic expressions of Christianity in the world today. Second, for the last 40 years, the Lausanne movement has been important to its growth and health. I suspect that this will continue to be the case for decades to come, and I think that this is good. Let me tell you why I believe we need the Lausanne movement.
Connectionalism Let’s start with the importance of connectionalism. We often say in our churches that there is no such thing as solo Christianity. You can’t thrive as a Christian on your own. You need fellowship. Well…..this is true not only of individuals, but also of churches. Even the early church in the book of Acts portrays Christians coming together for conference. Acts 15 tells us of the Jerusalem Council where the leaders of the infant church came together to discuss the issues and challenges of Christian growth. The results of this council enabled the mission to go forward. Every church council since then in some ways looks back to the book of Acts with the admission that we cannot fulfill Christ’s mission alone, we have to do it together. The Lausanne Congresses are the closest thing evangelicals have to a church council. As I have said, Rome holds Vatican Councils every so often. The World Council of Churches holds its large assemblies from time to time. Evangelicals have Lausanne—a movement which started in the 1960s, and came to full flower in 1974 when the first congress was convened. It is an important expression of evangelical connectionalism.
Accountability Because evangelicalism is centerless (geographically) and has no formal hierarchy, it can easily get off track. When it gets off track it actually hinders the forward movement of the gospel. For that reason the evangelical movement needs accountability.
Let’s face it, Protestants are prone to fractiousness. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (2001) there are some 34,000 denominations, let alone many other independent Christian groups. Along with this there are many varied cultural and ethnic expressions of Christianity. Two hundred nations represented here in Cape Town. What can keep all this Christian energy together?
There are different models of accountability in the churches of the world. Some have a pope or patriarch. Others have bishops or denominational hierarchies. Since evangelicalism is a broad movement that includes both denominations and independents, churches and ministries, and since it is a decentralized movement, the best we can do in providing accountability is through something like Lausanne. Documents such as the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 have provided an international balance wheel to the worldwide evangelical movement. It is a missional accountability that attempts to uphold the fundamental truths of historic evangelicalism. We desperately need this accountability today. Lausanne helps provide it.
Gospel unity In John 17, Jesus prayed “that they may be one.” The Biblical vision is not so much an organizational unity, but a unity of the Spirit—because we share “one Lord, one faith and one baptism.” Disunity can be an obstacle to mission.
There have been many attempts at Christian unity. Some work for organizational unity. Others have worked for cultural or ethnic unity. Lausanne is an evangelical expression of that unity for which Jesus prayed. But it is unity in mission. It is not perfect unity. It is by no means a complete unity. It is yet another attempt. It has looked at recent Protestant attempts at unity and found them wanting. Such attempts often amount to LCD (lowest common denominator) unity—i.e. “let’s see how little we have to agree upon.” As speaker Vaughan Roberts said in his address, ecumenism of the early 20th century drifted in to ecumania. It was often unity at the expense of doctrine, where truth is sidelined. The Lausanne movement represents an attempt to counteract that. We need gospel unity more than ever.
Networking fellowship and collaboration One of the themes to emerge out of Cape Town 2010 is the need for gospel partnerships between churches from around the world. To have a partnership, one needs opportunity to network. The Lausanne Congresses have provided fantastic opportunities for this. One overhears it in the hallways, or in the café’s surrounding the convention hall. There is massive gospel collaboration happening here for the cause of Bible translation, reaching unreached peoples, effective evangelism, discipleship, theological education, and mercy ministry.
Congress organizers hope to see the gospel of Jesus Christ taught and applied more effectively in all contexts. Its passion has been to see a new and urgent commitment to world evangelization by “the whole church, to take the whole gospel into the whole world.” The hope is that the church will have new commitment, new courage, as well as new strategies and partnerships to fulfill the Great Commission for the next generation.
The Lausanne gathering provides an opportunity for building such relationships among Christian leaders. Such partnerships bring encouragement to carry on the mission.
Confessional moments Another reason why Lausanne is important and why these Congresses are useful is because of the rapid pace of change in the world. Since the last one in Manilla in the 1989, the world has changed. Back then worldwide Communism was a big concern, Islam was not. Globalization had not accelerated to the pace with which we experience it today. The digital age had not really begun. There have been massive changes in the balance of economic and political power. And many other issues challenge us as Christians (global poverty, war, disease, population growth, ecological crisis, persecution). World changes often make for new “confessional moments” where it is important to confess our faith again in light of new realities. This alone makes seasonal Lausanne Congresses worthwhile.
Generational baton passing A final thing to say is that a congress like this highlights the shifting leadership in the church. It was very evident this week that Billy Graham and John Stott have passed from the scene. Both of them are frail. But they have invested in a new generation of leaders. This congress has given many of them an opportunity to step up.
It is for all of these reasons, that, if the Lausanne movement did not exist, we would have to invent something to take its place. It is heartening that the evangelical movement has this to guide them in the years ahead.