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FIRST-PERSON (Bill Wagner): A hopeful report from Lausanne

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (BP)–Many Southern Baptists are aware that the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Cape Town, South Africa, this month. Some will ask what effect this meeting will have on the SBC.

First, it should be noted that very few Southern Baptists were attendance, thus the effects will be minimal at most, but for the global Christian scene this meeting was significant. Let us take a look at the ramifications of the conference for both Baptist churches in the U.S. and Baptists in the world.

In 1910 one of the most significant conferences in the history of Christianity took place in Edinburgh, Scotland. The emphasis was on evangelism and missions and those who attended represented mostly missionary societies. One of the results was an emphasis on student involvements in missions. Building on the work of the Y.M.C.A. and The Student Volunteer Movementfor Foreign Missions, many students received a new enthusiasm for global missions. There was an outbreak of enthusiasm among young people to go as missionaries to the four corners of the earth. Working under the motto of “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation,” many young people particularly in the West committed their lives to this task.

The success of the conference was such that a series of new conferences over the next 50 years followed. With time, the conferences evolved in several ways and the change in emphasis could be seen particularly in the Uppsala, Sweden, conference of 1968. It became apparent that the sponsors of this meeting were not mission societies but rather Christian denominations and churches. Another difference was that the emphasis had changed from evangelism and missions to unity and ecumenism. Mission was no longer defined as bringing people to a “new life in Jesus Christ” but was now changing society by “social actions.”

This shift in emphasis was such that a new organization was created in 1948 at the Amsterdam conference — the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The apparent changes at the Uppsala conference caused resentment among evangelicals who saw what they considered to be a liberalization of the Gospel. They took comfort in the fact that the World Evangelism Fellowship (WEF) had been in existence since the 19th century but it had taken a back seat to the newer and more dynamic WCC. Evangelicals were in danger of losing influence in the shaping of the church for the future.

In 1966, Billy Graham called evangelical leaders to come to Berlin, Germany, for the World Conference on Evangelism. Many Southern Baptists attended this conference. It too was a success and the evangelical movement became more organized and focused. In 1974 they met again in Lausanne, Switzerland, and again in Manila in 1989. These conferences had many positive results, among them a new and better theological definition of the task of the church which included evangelism and missions.

Most significant was the founding of a loosely knit organization, the Lausanne Movement, which differed vastly from the WCC in that it was less structured and consisted mostly of individuals and representatives of para-church organizations that were involved in missions. The movement soon became the flagship of the conservative Protestant churches. Also during this period there was a strengthening of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), with Southern Baptists playing an important role in its development. Some Baptist unions chose also to associate with one of or more of the other organizations, but Southern Baptists decided to put their energies into the BWA.

About the same time there was also new vitality in the World Evangelical Fellowship as it also saw the need for a counter to the WCC. The WEF was somewhat different in its membership from the Lausanne Movement since it worked mostly with churches and denominations in various countries of the world. In fact today this organization has national associations and churches in 198 countries in the world and represents more than 490 million Christians. In 2005 the World Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

Now in the last half of the 20th century there were four significant organizations representing the Protestant church on the global scene. They were the WCC, the WEA, the BWA and the Lausanne Movement. There was always contact between them but there were also suspicions and doubts as to the others’ validity.

With the arrival of 2010, many within the evangelical wing of the church saw an opportunity to recreate the spirit of Edinburgh by celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the event. Evangelicals were not alone in this desire and this year there were at least four major conferences all claiming to be a continuation of the 1910 meeting — Boston, Tokyo, Edinburgh and Cape Town. The most significant of these conferences is the Cape Town meeting held from Oct. 16-25. This conference is the fourth major conference of the Lausanne movement. The fact that it is the first to be held in collaboration with the WEA reflects the growing recognition of the need to work together.

From the very beginning of the conference the spirits of all the delegates was high. There was a real air of expediency since the needs of the world for a new relationship to God are so apparent.

In writing this, I was reminded that I am one of the few that has attended all four of the conferences beginning in 1966 with the Berlin meeting. I have seen much take place and, in fact, while studying in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s I was constantly aware of the creation of the more liberal wing of the church as well as the newer conservative wing. Also now in attending the Lausanne conference, I am thrilled that evangelicals are showing a real spirit of working together as one for the cause of Christ in our world today.

Of course a conference like this, with 4,200 representatives from nearly every country on earth, has many issues on the agenda, from concerns for the environment and the poor to world evangelization.

My hopes for the conference are as follows:

1. That there will be renewed emphasis to win the world to Jesus Christ in our generation.

2. The creation of a mega-strategy that can incorporate all the various groupings of the church today.

3. To give a strong alternate to the World Council of Churches.

4. A clarification of the theological foundation for evangelism and mission.

5. The creation of a web of personal relations among church leaders that will aid in the creation of a Global strategy.

6. A better understanding of other religions in the world such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism so that we can make reasonable claims of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to them so that we might win some.

7. A Holy Spirit-led revival in His church.

Baptists have ways been reluctant to be too closely associated with other Christian organizations. This position has helped them avoid some unhappy conflicts. The fact that the SBC voted to leave the BWA shows what problems can occur.

At the same time, all Christians rejoice when they come together especially with the task of seeking to win the world to Jesus Christ. The conference in Cape Town might have given new impulses to the task of global evangelization. For this we can all rejoice.
William Wagner is senior professor of Baker James Cauthen Chair of Missions at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.

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  • Bill Wagner