Cooperation in Evangelism and the Lausanne Covenant
The 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization rallied evangelicals around the world to take new initiatives in both evangelism and missions. (One such initiative was the founding of the U.S. Center for World Mission in 1976.) Now, as Christian leaders look back on the fifteen years since this landmark congress and also look forward to “Lausanne II” in Manila this July, there is a growing appreciation for the fruits of the Lausanne movement and for the well-crafted document that has undergirded it. Tom Houston here shares his reflections on the past and present value of the Lausanne Covenant, which is excerpted on page 15.
The Lausanne Covenant has a paragraph (7) on “Cooperation in Evangelism,” but the Covenant itself as a whole, and the way it was drawn up, also speak eloquently about this subject.
That the Lausanne Covenant was agreed upon by 2000-3000 people from 150 nations from all branches of the Christian Church in the space of ten days has to be one of the miracles of contemporary church history. There are those who say that if we were to attempt it now, it would not be possible. This means that we need to understand how it came to be adopted and what was its significance.
I believe that, humanly speaking, the Covenant was adopted with such wide agreement because it broadened the worldview of evangelicals in such a way as to put together under one umbrella matters that had been increasingly in tension both in the experience of individuals and in relationships between groups.
Someone has said that a theology is a set of answers based on Scripture to the set of questions that any generation is asking. The trouble with some of our theologies is that they are a set of answers taken from Scripture to the set of questions that an earlier generation was asking. At Lausanne, the coming together of different Christians from so many cultures made it possible for us to widen our concerns to include the burning questions of the day.
All the key concerns of evangelical statements of faith were restated with commendable precision, and this reassured everyone present. In the wake of these, it became possible to venture out to statements on new subjects. These subjects included evangelism and social concern, church and “para-church” agencies, culture, freedom, persecution and human rights, the theology of diversity and unity, church growth, and other missiological concerns.
A number of factors helped people to be comfortable about this innovation. First, there was an intensely practical and ethical tone to the wording. In this we recovered the emphasis of the New Testament Letters where doctrine and practice are never separated.
Second, the document was presented as a Covenant to be entered into and not a creed to be signed. We were committing ourselves to a way to live as well as a set of beliefs.
Third, the controversial nature of the new themes was not dodged. Tensions were articulated about social concern, political liberation, and the nature of reconciliation. We said what we did believe and denied what we could not accept and clearly left the door open for further light to break forth.
Fourth, the singleness of purpose in relating all to World Evangelization also helped. We were talking about the basis on which we could work together to accomplish a God-given task that was related to the world outside of our churches and not only to relationships between us.
All of this is one classic way of enlarging an inadequate worldview, a way recognized by sociologists such as Peter Berger. It was a memorable experience to be part of it. It gave us a covenant under which thousands have been more than happy to work ever since. In my view, the 1974 congress saved the unity of evangelicalism in a very creative and Biblical way and put in the mix a statement to which anyone now would have a hard time saying “No.”
There have been numerous and diverse examples of cooperation under this new banner in the last 15 years. Nigeria presents one of the most striking.
Nigeria has more than its fair share of churches, denominations, and independent groups with their normal and sometimes virulent tensions. Under the Lausanne banner, most of these diverse groups have been able to come together for four congresses focused on the evangelization of their country. A remarkable impetus has been given to the growth of the churches, so much so that Nigeria may become the first country since the birth of Islam to witness the growth of the Christian population beyond that of the Muslim population.
This is bringing its own tensions, but the solidarity of Christians in the face of these is little short of miraculous. These dynamics would have almost inconceivable if it had not been for the Lausanne Covenant and the congresses it brought about.
Another example of the effect of the Lausanne banner on a wider constituency can be seen in the Nationwide Initiative in Evangelism (NIE) in England from 1978 to 1981. Methodists who attended the World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in Nairobi in 1976 came back and asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to convene a group of Ecumenicals, Evangelicals, and Catholics to explore an apparent convergence of thought about evangelization. Such a convergence was reflected in three documents: the Lausanne Covenant; the Catholics’ “Evangelization in the Modern World”; and the WCC “Confessing Christ Today.” A meeting of representatives from the three streams did take place, with at least three results.
First, a census of all England’s churches was taken and the results published—the first study of its kind since 1851 and the basis for evangelistic planning by many groups in recent years. Second, a study group of five ecumenical, five Catholic, and five evangelical theologians produced a paper, “The Faith We Affirm Together,” which greatly clarified where tensions were present and absent between these three groups. Third, an assembly was held to explore how England might be re-evangelized. This was a great meeting, but it had little direct outcome, largely because leadership changes occurred within some of the denominations within the same year.
The whole process, however, made a significant difference in Mission England, Billy Graham’s 1981-85 evangelistic campaign, both in the degree of co-operation that was accomplished and in the response to the message which was forthcoming. In a way, it extended the process I have described as taking place at Lausanne to another, more localized, context.
For the record, I need to add that under the banner of the Covenant significant conferences have taken place on lifestyle, the homogeneous unit principle, culture, unreached peoples, the relationship of evangelism and social responsibility, and the Holy Spirit and conversion. In all of these the same discriminating methodology has been employed to widen still further the practical application of our expanded worldview.
The words in the Covenant that relate to cooperation were a significant help towards its realization. It blessed the “wide diversity of evangelistic approaches.” It admitted that we have some “ecclesiastical ghettos” that we need to get out of. It spoke about churches sometimes being in bondage to culture rather than to Scripture. It admitted that “visible unity is in God”s purpose” but was also quick to say that many of the forms of organizational unity do not necessarily forward evangelism. Individualism was called sinful and duplication, needless. These were new words for some of us in an evangelical document.
Maybe the most daring statement was that our disunity undermines our gospel of reconciliation. Time is proving this statement to be true. It is becoming apparent that the way we do evangelism actually sows the need for reconciliation later instead of planting the means of reconciliation later. I understand that to evangelize is to get a person to receive and follow Jesus Christ. On the other hand, to proselytize is to present some invitation to “join us.” By these definitions, there is a fairly strong element of proselytizing in a lot of our evangelism. It is not unnatural. Fellowship is vital for Christian growth. The local church is a reality and a necessity, yet it tends to become a box that is hard to get out of in when you want to relate to others outside the box.
In some countries, where comity arrangements led to people from a single tribe coming into a single denominational box, the gospel of reconciliation really is affected by our disunity. In such cases we have very little ability to affect tribalism.
In the face of that kind of reality, while I welcome the Covenant’s pleas for unity in truth, worship, holiness, and mission, they do seem to be a bit weak, and yet, by implication, all the elements to get us really co-operating are strongly present within the Covenant.
We all know that cooperation has to be at different levels and can therefore be based on different criteria, depending on the objective. There are some places where we do better to have separate activities. The world we have to reach is so diverse that our own diversity must be appropriated to reach it.
There are some areas where we at least need to know what others are doing while we do our own thing. I, for example, eventually realized that I could not pray for revival only for our own church. The local church is not our local denominational church but the aggregate of true believers in any given geographical locale. It is the whole that must be renewed and grow, not just our part, especially at the expense of others.
We had to work out a way of giving meaning to this truth. It led to a weekly contact with some at least of my brother pastors to make sure that their struggles and triumphs were regularly shared with our people in the weekly prayer bulletin. Now that was not cooperation, but it did lead to the kind of strategic planning that the Covenant calls for and it reduced duplication.
Then there are areas where we need joint activity in the pursuit of common goals. Francis Schaeffer used to say that it’s possible to be co-belligerents even when we cannot be allies.
To me the unrecognized genius of the Lausanne Covenant is that it makes cooperation essential. Let me put it this way: the Covenant, if it is accepted and followed, makes it inevitable that we start to have a Christian vision for where we are placed. That vision will include belonging to a church that is winning people to Christ and growing in numbers, character, understanding of the truth, internal and external relationships, and impact on the community. We will be supportive of those who are trying to clean up and operate the political units to which we belong. We will be active in caring about the relief and development of the poor in our neighborhood, and we will be contributing money and people for evangelistic and social purposes in other countries as yet unreached by the gospel.
Now if that is the vision, we cannot do it on our own. We need to cooperate with all other Christians in the same place. If, however, our vision is more limited and we are only looking for converts and new members for our church, of course we don”t need others. In fact, we can probably manage better without them.
Clearly, the Lausanne Covenant gave us a bigger umbrella of a worldview under which we could shelter together against the storms that beset those who undertake the work of evangelization. Some of us, however, would like to take out some of the panels of this umbrella, a prospect that would bring discomfort to us all. As we move towards Manila, I believe we need to work more at realizing all the cover that our Covenant gives us and to open ourselves even more to cooperation in evangelism wherever it will help us to realize our Christian vision for our city, our country, and the world.
As I see it, we need to give special attention to such areas as: genuine acceptance of evangelism and sociopolitical involvement as two parts of our Christian duty; cooperation between those who have different views on the person and work of the Holy Spirit; the degree and the areas of cooperation with ecumenicals and Roman Catholics; and some rapprochement on the issue of the roles of women in evangelization.
I do not think we need a new umbrella. I do think we need to appreciate the umbrella we have and not act as though we did not have it. Otherwise we will get uncomfortably wet and correspondingly ineffective.
To obtain copies of the Lausanne Covenant (excerpted on the following page), a more extensive exposition of the Covenant, or further information about the July 1989 “Lausanne II” congress in Manila, write to: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 5950 Fairview Rd., III Fairview Plaza, Suite 202, Charlotte, NC 28210, USA.