The Lausanne Congress—Pentecost or Babel?
“NOTHING quite like Lausanne has ever happened before,” observes Eternity magazine. “This—the International Congress on World Evangelization—was a missionary conference that was different.”
‘It was like Pentecost’ is the way others described the kaleidoscope of varying nations, cultures and backgrounds represented at the July 16-25 congress at Lausanne, Switzerland. Its avowed aim was to discuss ways and means to “Let the earth hear His Voice,” that is, how they might preach their view of the message of Jesus Christ world wide by the year 2000.
While many observers would not go so far as to call Lausanne another “Pentecost,” most would probably agree that it was indeed “different.” There has been a rash of evangelism and missionary conferences in recent months. Lausanne, however, in a sophisticated manner, reached across sectarian bounds and drew 2,700 select representatives from a number of evangelical groups and 150 countries. Dozens of languages were represented; seven official tongues were spoken at the sessions.
Special effort was made to invite a broad cross section of the evangelical world—not only those of different nations and cultures, but women, clergy, laity, evangelists, missionaries, educators, younger and older people. Many of the more than one thousand delegates from the ‘Third World nations’ used the equivalent of several weeks’ salary just to pay the registration fee.
The Lausanne congress was also different in that it was made up of working sessions. Detailed reports were prepared in advance explaining the extent of Christendom’s missionary endeavors in every part of the earth. Emphasis was also placed on how to contact usually inaccessible people of the “Christian” world such as those living in apartments or working in large office buildings. So determined were the organizers that the congress would consist of more than just theology and theory that delegates were styled “participants.”
A great deal of public relations fanfare was also given this particular congress. Widespread interest in it was generated by Billy Graham’s early promotion of the congress, and he later served as its honorary chairman and a principal speaker. Months of planning went into the event, which eventually cost in excess of three million U.S. dollars.
Suddenly the need to evangelize in earnest seems to have dawned on these religious leaders. Just four years ago an earth-wide poll revealed that most were not then in favor of such a conference. They changed their view less than two years later and work began for the Lausanne Congress. “The tide is in for evangelical witness around the world,” said one of the directors, “and the consensus was we should move on that tide toward the goal of world evangelization in this century.” Why the change of attitude in just a short time?
No one at Lausanne seemed to know for sure. But numerous speakers noted that ‘world conditions are pregnant for the witness about Christ.’ Os Guinness of Switzerland voiced the opinion that people are uniquely open to the Christian message now because of the “bankruptcy of secular thought.” Another key speaker, Britain’s Malcolm Muggeridge, seconded Guinness, saying: “It has long seemed to me clear beyond any shadow of doubt that what is still called Western Civilization is in an advanced stage of decomposition, and that another Dark Age will soon be upon us, if, indeed, it has not already begun.”
But, of course, the pressing question for the evangelicals of these numerous religions is—regardless of the cause of the apparent sudden interest in the Biblical message of Christ—can they be expected to evangelize the whole world?
Can “Evangelicals” Evangelize the World?
A desire to do so cannot be criticized, since Jesus instructed: “Go and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and then teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”—Matt. 28:19, 20, The Living Bible.
But more than a realization that this should be done is necessary. Those attempting to go to “all the nations” must themselves be obeying “all the commands” Jesus gave. They themselves must be listening to Jesus’ voice. Further, since Jesus’ commands are not contradictory, all those obeying him should necessarily be united with one another. Recall those followers of Jesus at Pentecost in the first century. Were they not all at peace with one another, of the same mind? Of course they were.—Acts chapter 2.
But, at Lausanne, was true unity, based on real obedience to Jesus’ words, in evidence among the delegates? To find out, why not compare what was said and done there with Jesus’ actual teachings.
Jesus said of his followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world . . . that they may all be one.” (John 17:16, 21) He obviously did not intend for national and racial boundaries to put barriers between his followers. Yet, at Lausanne, worldly nationalistic and racial wedges were very much in evidence.
Delegates from one Asian country became upset over the presence of another Asian country’s flag left outside from an earlier convention. Certain African delegates complained that they had mostly been assigned to segregated housing. Other Africans suggested a possible ‘missionary moratorium’—that foreigners should stay out of their country. “In a number of instances,” says Christianity Today, a strong supporter of the gathering, “participants brought to Lausanne the divisions that exist back home, and the national strategy periods were often tense and stormy.”
Congress leaders were not oblivious to such rivalries, and even called attention to them. But then the Lausanne Covenant, signed by at least 1,900 delegates and observers, and called ‘an evangelical consensus on matters that matter most,’ inconsistently included as point number five: “Evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty”! (Italics ours) Jesus’ voice says that his followers “are no part of the world,” thus prompting those who really listen to him to display a unity that transcends barriers. But the congress at Lausanne urged just the opposite course.
Now, add to these problems the religious disunity represented in the Congress. Jesus calls for his true followers to “remain in union” with him. (John 15:4) Were the delegates at Lausanne in union with Jesus? How could that be?
How could Anglicans, Baptists, “Disciples of Christ,” Free Methodists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Reformed Presbyterians and the others represented at Lausanne, each of whom has different and contradictory teachings, all be in union with Jesus? That is just not possible. (1 Cor. 1:10) So, religiously as well as otherwise, there was little Christlike unity at Lausanne.
But even if they had been united, how can the “evangelicals” hope to “make disciples in all the nations”? In just the ten days of their meeting, earth’s population burgeoned by almost two million more persons—in other words, 650 people for every official delegate at Lausanne. Evangelical leaders admit their need for assistance in preaching to the world. Where are they turning for help? To the “laity.”
Can the “Laity” Help?
Holy spirit moved all the men and women, young and old, who were in attendance at Pentecost in the first century to speak about “the magnificent things of God.” (Acts 2:11) Brazil’s Professor H. Snyder underscored the obligation that rests on all Christians, not just the clergy, to tell what they know about the Gospel. George W. Peters of Dallas Theological Seminary likewise stressed the same need to tap “the masses of believing church members” as the “main manpower resource for evangelism.”
But that “main manpower resource” may prove to be a dry well. The average church member, Baptist Rene Padilla from Argentina reminded the delegates, has given little more than mental assent to Jesus’ words. Most, he said, have accepted a shortened or “truncated gospel,” adding: “Half-gospels have no dignity and no future. Like the famous mule, they have neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity.”
In other words, as made clear by numerous speakers, the churches must first convert their own people before they can ever hope to evangelize the rest of the world. The “laity” is not made up of “committed Christians,” as was well illustrated by an incident at Lausanne. One participant recalled that “Irish missionaries to India have been told to go home and evangelise Ireland” because of the internecine warfare between Catholics and Protestants in that country. The Irish, though trying to defend themselves, could not deny the charges, admitting: “Perpetrators of the violence are not committed Christians—though they may claim some nominal denominational adherence.” Apparently there are not enough “committed Christians” to stop the war! However, what other nation claiming to be “Christian” can honestly say that its people are any more ‘committed to Christ’?
Why are church members so often deaf to the words of Christ? Because the clergy have not taught them. The clergy themselves do not believe the teachings of Jesus. Some at Lausanne, like Peru’s Samuel Escobar, said laymen must be encouraged to “apply the teaching and example of Christ in their family life.” But did the report on preaching to those whose religion allows polygamy indicate that its compilers really believe that? Suppose a man with several wives ‘accepts Christ.’ Then what? The report advises: “It is a very delicate matter, but most of those who prepared this report believe that he should not leave his wives; at the same time they insist he should not acquire new ones.” This amounts to an endorsement for allowing polygamy to come into the Christian congregation.
Yet Jesus said of marriage: “The two”—one man and one woman—“will be one flesh.” (Matt. 19:5) The official congress report was willing to try to smother Jesus’ words; is it surprising that the average church member, if he even knows Jesus’ teachings regarding family matters, does not apply them to his life? How can such ones possibly be the “main manpower resource” for evangelizing the world?
Look Elsewhere for Christ
Many honest people around the world are listening for the voice of Jesus. They desperately want the truth that sets men free. But, frankly, that message will not come as a result of the congress at Lausanne.
Lausanne was not, as some of its supporters boasted, ‘another Pentecost’ with people speaking many languages holding to the common message of Jesus. It was a Babel of differing sectarian, political, racial voices uttering the same old creeds that have divided men for centuries. It was an admission by evangelical leaders that their rank and file members, just like those in the more “liberal” church groups, have not really heard Jesus’ voice. Yet at the same time it was an almost pleading ‘hope against hope’ expression on their part that somehow, in some way, these same church members would help them to evangelize the whole world.
Many confusing, unsure voices were heard at Lausanne. But Jesus’ voice was not among them. God-fearing persons must turn their ears elsewhere to hear his clear message.
[Picture on page 13]
Anglican Bishop Jack Dain (left) and evangelist Billy Graham sign the Lausanne Covenant. Its first point says: “We confess with shame that we have often denied our calling and failed in our mission, by becoming conformed to the world or by withdrawing from it.”