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Religion: A Challenge from Evangelicals

8 minute read

“Go forth to every part of the world, and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation. Those who believe it and receive baptism will find salvation; those who do not believe it will be condemned.”

—Jesus to the Apostles, as reported in Mark 16:15-16 Millions of Christians still take that commission of Christ literally, still be lieve that one of their foremost tasks is to preach the Gospel to the unbaptized.

Last week, in the lakeshore resort of Lausanne, Switzerland, that belief found a formidable forum, possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held.

Brought together largely through the efforts of the Rev. Billy Graham, some 2,400 Protestant Evangelical leaders from 1 50 countries ended a ten-day International Congress on World Evangelization that served notice of the vigor of conservative, resolutely biblical, fervent ly mission-minded Christianity.

The congress also constituted a considerable challenge to the prevailing philosophy in the World Council of Churches, headquartered some 30 miles down Lake Leman in Geneva. Some of the World Council’s advocates of ecumenism increasingly have questioned whether Christians even have the right — let alone the duty — to disturb the hon est faith of a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Jew. For many in the World Council, the Christian’s mission has become more of a campaign to achieve a sort of secular salvation, a human liberation in the political and social sense. To oppose that trend, the Evangelicals at Lausanne laid the groundwork for a post-congress “fellowship” that could eventually develop into a rival international body.

At the same time, the Lausanne leaders seem to have had their consciences prodded by the World Council’s concern for secular betterment. In the five hours after the meeting closed, 1,900 people (including some wives and observers) signed a 3,000-word document that had been drafted by a committee headed by Anglican Rector John Stott, 53, the leading figure among British Evangelicals. Called the Lausanne Covenant, it sternly reaffirmed traditional Protestant beliefs while also emphasizing secular action. Items:

ON SOCIAL CONCERN: “We express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive … Although reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and sociopolitical involvement are both part of our Christian duty.”

ON THE BIBLE: “We affirm the divine Inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament

Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

ON SALVATION: “We recognize that all men have some knowledge of God through His general revelation in nature, but we deny that this can save.

Jesus Christ… is the only mediator between God and Man … Those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God.”

ON THE SECOND COMING: “We believe that Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly, in power and glory, to consummate his salvation and his judgment… We reject as a proud, self-confident dream the notion that man can ever build a Utopia on earth.”

A note of self-criticism was often heard at the congress, beginning with Billy Graham’s keynote address. The sometime White House preacher told his audience that it was a big mistake “to identify the Gospel with any political program or culture. I confess tonight that this has been one of my own dangers in my ministry. When I go to preach the Gospel, I go as an ambassador of the kingdom of God—not America.”

Some of the Third World Evangelicals at the congress—who made up a vocal half of the participants—added other critical views of some past Evangelical efforts. In one of the meeting’s most provocative speeches, Rene Padilla, an Ecuadorian Baptist who works in Argentina, assailed the sort of easy Christianity that the U.S. has often exported. “A Gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world … is not the Christian Gospel but culture Christianity, adjusted to the mood of the day,” Padilla warned. “This kind of Gospel has no teeth. It demands nothing.” Accordingly, Padilla cautioned Evangelicals to resist the temptation of trying to make the maximum number of converts.

Though conversions are wanted, “faithfulness to the Gospel should never be sacrificed for the sake of quantity.”

The final text of the Lausanne Covenant similarly confessed that we have “become unduly preoccupied with statistics.”

Statistics were nevertheless paraded.

There was pleased talk about the successes of evangelism in Brazil, for in stance, where the number of Protestants (2.6 million in 1970) continues to grow at three times the rate of population in crease. There are now 91 million Christians in Africa south of the Sahara — about 30% of the population — and projections indicate that the percentage may reach 50% by the year 2000. In one area of Java, there are now 53 Chris tian congregations where none at all existed just seven years ago.

Though enthusiasm is hardly as epidemic as it was in the heyday of Protestant overseas missions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are probably more Protestant missionaries in the field today than ever before — more than 35,000 from North America, perhaps another 20,000 from other parts of the world. At the Lausanne conference the Rev. David Howard, missions director of U.S. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellow ship, reported that the number of American students interested in foreign missions is unprecedented. Since last December, 1,000 student members of Inter-Varsity alone have signed pledge cards for overseas service, and 4,000 others said they would answer a call.

The congress, however, heard Third World arguments for curbing the influence of American and European missionaries in developing countries. The covenant noted that “a reduction of for eign missionaries and money in an evan gelized country may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national church’s growth in self-reliance.” Meanwhile, Third World churches, in areas that are still mission territory, now have 200 mis sion boards of their own and are sending 3,400 missionaries to other lands — mostly to neighboring countries.

Deep Gulf. The energy manifested at Lausanne may have given pause to the neighboring World Council of Churches.

According to Billy Graham, that was one of the intents. “There was tremen dous vision at the [World Council’s] founding in 1948,” Graham told TIME Correspondent Richard Ostling at the congress. “But the council gradually moved further and further from ortho dox ties. The gulf between it and the Evangelicals has deepened. I hope this congress will get the World Council to re-evaluate its theological position.”

A strong post-congress “fellowship” could spur such a reevaluation. For now, the participants provided simply for a 30-member “Continuation Committee” to carry on the congress’s work.

Yet similar modest efforts began the ecumenical movement that culminated in the World Council.

So far, Billy Graham and his key colleagues reject any suggestion that the Continuation Committee might build up an Evangelical organization to rival the council. For one thing, two-fifths of the Evangelicals who came to Lausanne belong to churches that are members of the World Council. Still, Graham warned that if the Geneva liberals did not “carefully and prayerfully” heed the message of Lausanne, a rival group is a “possibility in the distant future.”

Old Curmudgeon and New Christian Malcolm Muggeridge (see BOOKS), one of the speakers at the congress, was more direct. Muggeridge, a nondenominational believer who thinks that many Christians have sacrificed the spiritual message of the Gospel in pursuit of temporal liberation, spoke feelingly about the inevitable disappointments that follow upon “fantasies of power.” As for setting up a rival organization, he told TIME bluntly, “Anything that does damage to the World Council of Churches is a step in the right direction.”

In any event, the World Council is hardly done with the question: evangelism will be a major topic of its big, once-every-seven-years assembly, scheduled to be held in Jakarta next summer. Evangelism is the single item on the agenda of a special World Methodist Council meeting in Jerusalem next fall, as well as for the triennial Synod of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops convening in Rome in September.

The debate about the Christian vision joined at Lausanne, in short, has hardly begun. There may never be any real resolution. Observed one Lausanne participant, Theologian Kenneth Hamilton of the United Church of Canada: “[We and the World Council have] very different viewpoints, and I don’t see how they can be reconciled. Basic issues make for basic clashes. Big protests are not fashionable now, but the whole raison d’etre of the congress reflects that the World Council is not giving the leadership it should on the central issue of expressing our faith. If there is no Gospel heart, there is no future for the church.”

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