by Owen Salter
As Billy Graham himself put it, Amsterdam ’86 wasn’t a theological conference. It was a training conference.
As Billy Graham himself put it, Amsterdam ’86 wasn’t a theological conference. It was a training conference.
Seventy-eight percent of the participants were from developing countries, and the majority had never received any training in evangelism before. In fact, given the Cinderella status of the gift of evangelism in the Western church, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of all participants hadn’t received such training before – including (particularly?) the handful with letters acquired from theological seminaries after their names.
Without doubt, many pulpits will be thumped, Bibles waved, and people brought into the kingdom as a result of what God did in the lives of participants in Amsterdam ’86.
BUT IT WASN’T A THEOLOGICAL CONFERENCE
This makes it difficult for an inveterate theologizer to reflect critically on Amsterdam ’86 without seeming a party-pooper. But I’m going to anyway (it’s the Athanasius in me).
When Billy Graham said it wasn’t a theological conference, he meant it wouldn’t be discussing the theology of evangelism or issuing any statements, manifestos, or covenants. And sure enough, at the end of Amsterdam ’86 there wasn’t a statement, manifesto, or covenant in sight.
But right from the start – as in Amsterdam ’83 – a basic theological perspective was evident. It kept popping up, like sulphur bubbles bursting in boiling mud. As my oversensitive theological nose sniffed the Amsterdam air, it caught a whiff of something blowing in the wind that gave me a vague, uneasy feeling-a feeling that, after all, changing deep-seated evangelical assumptions is not so easy.
At the conference, I listened fascinated as a Kenyan journalist told me about the mistakes organizers had made over sleeping arrangements. It seems all Kenyan participants were put together in one section of a giant temporary dormitory constructed in an exhibition hall in Utrecht. Put together regardless of age, the older men with the younger-a very uncomfortable situation to an African for whom age carries connotations of respect alien to modern Western consciousness.
PREDOMINANTLY NORTH AMERICAN FEEL
That was a neat parable for the conference as a whole. Despite considerable sensitivity among organizers to the charge of Western religious imperialism, and valiant efforts to minimize it, Amsterdam ’86 still had a predominantly North American feel-much as a conference organized by Australians would, I guess, have an Australian feel. Some values and assumptions are so deeply ingrained that they are never questioned. After all, everyone knows it’s acceptable to sleep people of different ages together, don’t they?
So it was with the theology of Amsterdam ’86.
Evangelicalism over the last two decades has taken some enormous strides. But in some cases they’ve been strides with only one leg. The other leg remains firmly nailed to the ground.
CRITICAL ISSUE: PLACE OF THE LOCAL CHURCH IN MISSION
One of the most critical issues of the last 20 years has been the place of the local church in mission, and the need for mission to be rooted in community (which itself is a witness to the kingdom in the midst of a continually fragmenting world). Both Amsterdam ’86 and its predecessor in 1983 seemed to elevate the place of the individually gifted evangelist in mission above that of the local church. Evangelists were exhorted to work in cooperation with local churches; but the flavor of the exhortation was that evangelists need to "get the cooperation of" local churches in their ministry, rather than vice-versa.
It’s a question of primacy. Either the individual evangelist or the community of believers is "the principle agency for evangelism" (The Thailand Statement, 1980). While it may be true that the polarization between preaching and living the gospel is largely a thing of the past, Amsterdam ’86 showed that the relationship between the two is still not understood. They are seen as "two sides of the one coin," rather than (to mix the metaphor) "a tree (evangelism) growing out of the earth (the kingdom community)." It’s easy to always leave a coin one way up, but it’s impossible to grow a tree without dirt.
There’s no such thing as hydroponic evangelism.
MARRIAGE TO CRUSADE EVANGELISM
The conference again demonstrated conservative evangelicalism’s seemingly indissoluble marriage to crusade evangelism. A minor controversy erupted when speaker Stephen Olford made comments in a press conference that were interpreted as declaring the days of mass crusades numbered. Luis Palau and others took issue with this in subsequent press conferences, and Olford was moved to clarify his remarks.
But the organization of the program strongly presupposed this marriage. The compulsory seminars all reflected it: "Preparation for an Evangelistic Event," "Preparation and Delivery of the Evangelistic Message," "Giving the Evangelistic Invitation," "Counselor Training," and "Follow-up Methods." Much of the content of these seminars was useful to evangelists who do not stage traditional crusade meetings; yet it was assumed that "meetings" lie at the heart of evangelistic strategy. Even a cursory survey showed that, in practice, there was a lot more variety of approach than that around.
As I sniffed the air, it became obvious that, thankfully, many unpleasant old nuances in the sulphuric aroma were missing. Some of the lessons of the last two decades, at least, appear to have gone deeper than others.
The Lausanne Covenant, for example, affirmed that "in issuing the gospel invitation, we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship." This theme was pointedly tackled by Billy Graham and others several times. There was a downplaying of triumphalism and an acknowledgment that biblical evangelism is evangelism of the cross. The very representativeness of the conference embodied the reality that "God is raising up from the younger churches a great new resource for world evangelization," and demonstrated an eagerness to foster a truly world-spanning mission consciousness for the third millenium.
CONVERSION TO WHAT?
Yet Amsterdam ’86 also showed that many of the fine words of Lausanne and its numerous offspring have not fully penetrated the evangelical front-line. The sharp distinction between conversion and discipleship evangelism-between preaching Jesus as Savior and preaching him as King-remains largely ungrappled with. While evangelicals seem clear about what they are calling people to be converted from, they’re still fuzzy about what they’re calling people to be converted to: a faith that brings radical change, or one that brings religious comfort in the midst of an unchallenged status quo.
Most serious of all, evangelism is still largely "a technical linguistic effort" rather than "a dynamic communicative event which involves the totality of life" (Orlando Costas, Sharing Jesus in the Two Thirds World). This flows out of a commitment to the gospel as a message of God which stands outside all human conditions and addresses them with a word of judgment and salvation. This is a right commitment; but when it is reduced in practice to simplistic verbal summaries of conservative evangelical perceptions of the kerygma, it has moved from a conviction about the universality of the gospel to a conviction about the universal applicability of particular formulations of the gospel. Which is nonsense.
And the problem is rooted deeper still-in the Christ being preached. Orlando Costas has identified Christology as the major neglected issue in evangelical missiology. His frequent and passionate taunts about the disfigured face of the Jesus evangelicals preach are too well-targeted for comfort.
Was the Christ of Amsterdam ’86 the Lord who transcends all human distinctions? Or was he a lowest common denominator Christ, cobbled together from those elements in the mass of images that clutter around him which look like they can be made to apply to everyone between Tasmania and Timbuctoo with a minimum of fuss?
The answer, to anyone with a modicum of awareness of God’s unpredictable grace, must be that he is both. Grace dances best with partners who realize they don’t know the steps and are willing to be carried; and that’s why thousands of people with an understanding of theology that makes the pundits cringe are still often strong channels for God’s love and power.
Perhaps the enterprise of trying to train evangelists transculturally runs greater risks than we realize. Although participants received repeated encouragements to contextualize what they were learning, they were given little advice on how to do it. Future conferences for itinerant evangelists are envisaged as occurring on a regional rather than international basis. That’s probably a step in the right direction-depending on who they ask as speakers.
A WIDE DIVIDE NOT SPANNED
Another divide yawned wide in Amsterdam: the divide between an understanding that reduces all mission to proclamation, and one that places proclamation in the context of a wider theology of mission. This is a hoary old chestnut. Despite a major plenary address and a number of workshops on subjects like "The Evangelist’s Social Responsibility" and "The Evangelist and Healing," there was no sense of real integration.
The reason isn’t hard to find. Many evangelicals still seem reluctant to tie evangelism to anything. It’s so important they want to make it the only passenger in the taxi.
But there are other important things on God’s agenda. Perhaps events like Amsterdam ’86 wrongly isolate particular gifts of the Spirit like solitary goldfish into bowls. There they swim around gaily-but they’re really quite sad little creatures, each one easily forgetting that its God-given environment should be one teeming with other life.
We’ve yet to see a comprehensive coming together of theologies of evangelism, social care, justice, worship, prayer, healing, and community that will pour all these fish bowls into one giant aquarium.
As Jesus pointed out, if you want to know what a person believes, look at what he does, not what he says. At Amsterdam ’86, many of the right words were uttered, and many speakers and workshop leaders cut against the prevailing grain. Yet the overall action taken and advocated showed that we still have a lot of hard work to do on how to practice the fuller understanding of mission that has been unpacked since Lausanne 1974. It may have been unwrapped to the theoreticians’ satisfaction, but it has yet to be repackaged in a form usable by the practitioners.
HOPE OF INTEGRATION ON A LOCAL LEVEL
And it’s the practitioners for whom it must be properly packaged. On my way home to Australia, I spent five days with an indigenous Indian church operating in the slums of Madras and struggling to mount a witness which includes all the elements of proclamation, building community, and social concern. Being taken into the mud-and-thatch hovels of believers and being asked to pray for jobs, better housing, healing of TB and short legs, release from demonic oppression, liberation from alcohol, good husbands for young women, pregnancies for barren wives, good catches for impoverished fishermen, and good rice, coconut and mango crops for struggling lepers, thrust me briefly onto the coal face of mission.
That’s where most of the people who attended Amsterdam ’86 are working-not at the rarefied levels of theology. And maybe that’s where the hope of integration lies: not in the theorizing, but in the doing.
Perhaps when we get to heaven we will find that it was such people who came closest to getting it right in the struggle of the dust and pain, even when we desk-sitting writers and theologians couldn’t put it all together with our brains.
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