About a fortnight ago the Lausanne conference of 4200 evangelical leaders came to an end. It was the third global congress of the Lausanne movement, a movement that historically has had a huge impact on the way in which evangelicals relate to and serve the world. It was a privilege to be there and I have spent the last two weeks stopping myself from blogging in haste because I wanted to process the very mixed feelings that I had.
The verse that has grown in my mind since leaving the conference is from Colossians 1: ‘the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world’.
Paul is talking about how he has heard about the faith and love that was around and that is what Lausanne felt like. A constant encountering of faith and love in people from all over the world. It was a truly multi-cultural event- 198 nations- and with a quota system that had stopped any one country or region dominating. The result was a festival of colour, voices, music and culture. It was a taste of heaven and it moved me to tears when we worshipped together, finding a unity in the Spirit in the middle of our diversity while not denying our differences. The gospel bearing fruit throughout the world.
It was great meeting such an array of people. From serious missiologists to exuberant worship leaders, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and westerners. From very intense conversations with some Koreans, to laughing so much with some Burundians, to connecting with some Native American leaders who with grace and charm and humour prophetically deconstructed and challenged everything around them. It was rich in relationships. We met God in each other.
We heard stories and testimony that challenged the preconceptions about different communities, that were inspirational in telling the story of God’s Spirit in the world and that challenged me to greater prayer and intimacy with Jesus that I might be of better service in the world. It was humbling to meet people from parts of the world where being a Christian is very hard and difficult. People who had struggled to be there and who were drinking in the teaching and worship and fellowship with the desperation of thirsty people who do not know when there will be a chance to drink again.
And yet with all those good things I had strangely mixed emotions and I have been wondering why.
Without for one moment denigrating the good things, I think there were three things that cast a shadow over the conference for me.
The first was apartheid. We were in South Africa, the place of one of the terrible injustices of the last century, the legacy of which is still all too apparent. And home to one of the great liberation victories. Sadly global Evangelicalism was mixed in its opposition to apartheid and support of justice. Some spoke out boldly, some were more scared of communists than racists but most just stayed quiet. With some notable exceptions, it was not our finest hour. And here we were in Cape Town, home city of Archbishop Tutu, and we did not mention him either. I understand that he is not an evangelical. But I think that everyone should be prepared to acknowledge that he has been an outstanding Christian witness for justice, equity and forgiveness and at huge personal cost. His absence cast a shadow. But it wasn’t just the historical amnesia that bothered me. By air-brushing out that struggle for justice we had no place to repent of our lack of conviction about justice in general. We were unable to think about the current struggles against injustice and how God might be calling his people to bear witness to his grace and justice in those situations. We were in the shadows.
The second shadow was cast by a small, but powerful. group of leaders. These leaders are mostly (but not exclusively) richer, male, powerful whiter and western. They are desperately concerned about purity of thought around the nature of the atonement, the structure of hell, the role (or rather non-role) of women and the priority of gospel proclamation over gospel demonstration. They are so desperately concerned for purity that they often have little room for grace. You are either right or wrong, with them or against them, in or out. I find it astonishing that people who argue most powerfully for ‘biblical truth’ so often do so in ways that deny the biblical truths of grace, love, humility and peace.
These leaders, even when not proclaiming their perspective, love to define the parameters and categories for everyone else. Complementarian versus egalitarian, proclamation versus social action etc. Yet these categories are not relevant to most of the world. The closer you live to the grassroots of mission the more you make space for whoever the Holy Spirit has gifted. The more you are focussed on loving real people the less meaningful it becomes to think about their spiritual versus social versus physical needs. They are whole people needing to experience the whole love of God in the whole of their lives.
And this group of leaders come from parts of the world where the church is in decline. All over the world the gospel is bearing fruit. And where it is bearing the most fruit it is marked by a joyous inclusivity of all those who have a high view of Jesus and a high view of the Bible. The more we are dominated by loving Jesus and loving people the less important finer differences in theology or church politics become. And it is not that I don’t value thinking and theology- I am working towards a doctorate in theology- it is just that the point of right thinking is to live right and serve right. Indeed I often think that it is only through the process of living and serving passionately, wholeheartedly and reflectively that we can come to right theology. True Christian theology is learned in life not the classroom. And Lausanne was full of such powerful, fruitful theologians of the frontline. These frontline voices were heard but I would have liked their voices to have been louder and the other ones quieter.
The final shadow for me was the absence of any acknowledgement, let alone debate on humanity’s relationship with the environment. There were a couple of workshops but largely the congress was silent. This was a tragedy. I don’t think you have to be a card-carrying tree hugger to work out that how we relate to the environment is a major issue that is only going to grow as humanity increases to 10 billion and beyond. Where is the water, food and space coming from are pertinent questions that require a gospel response. A theology of stewardship is desperately needed. Yet we were quiet. We stayed in the shadows.