by Paul Borthwick
Back in September-October, 2004, I was fortunate to be among the delegates to the Lausanne Forum 2004 held in Pattaya, Thailand. This event, the 30th anniversary conference of the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization organized by Billy Graham, called together 1,530 men and women from 130 countries.
Back in September-October, 2004, I was fortunate to be among the delegates to the Lausanne Forum 2004 held in Pattaya, Thailand. This event, the 30th anniversary conference of the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization organized by Billy Graham, called together 1,530 men and women from 130 countries. We gathered for a week in 32 different issue groups. The intent was to produce documents that will offer guidance to churches around the world in carrying out their evangelistic mission.
Forum 2004 was designed to assess the current religious profile of the world and to articulate responses to many of the issues facing the global church. These issues addressed topics such as future leadership, Islam, other non-Christian religions, terrorism, the need for reconciliation in a hostile world, globalization, the significance and needs of the world’s children and youth, people at risk, the persecuted church, religious nationalism and the Church’s response to HIV/AIDS. Not every issue group was equally successful (the smaller groups generally had better experiences than the larger ones), but I’m confident some wonderful documents will be produced.
The long-term impact of Forum 2004 will be revealed as these papers get produced and their recommendations get implemented. The Forum got me thinking about the significance of these events. Using Forum 2004 as my springboard, I want to pose seven questions to the missions community, particularly the missions community that operates from Western cultural contexts. My desire is to encourage some discussion and evaluation about the significance and effectiveness of such global gatherings.
A PERSONAL TESTIMONY
Before asking my questions let me state at the outset that my own life and ministry has been deeply affected and enlarged by global conferences like the Lausanne Forum. These international events—which from my vantage point almost always serve more to network the church than to accomplish specific goals—have expanded my vision, introduced me (and my church) to global partnerships and forced me to rethink my own localized theology.
Singapore 87 (a Lausanne event for “Younger Leaders”) deeply shaped my wife and me. That conference launched friendships and partnerships that have continued to this day in Sri Lanka, Croatia, Egypt, Canada, South Africa, Uganda, Singapore and Nigeria.
Lausanne II in Manila (1989) resulted in ongoing ministry relationships for me in the Philippines. The IFES General Assembly in 1991 opened the door for friendships and reciprocal ministry in Kenya, Ethiopia and Brazil. WEF (now WEA) gatherings built bridges for us to England, Portugal, Greece and Nepal, and GCOWE in Korea (1995) enhanced some true partnerships for us in East Asia as well as in the United States. Global events have introduced me to the indigenous ministries of IFES, OM, YWAM, Scripture Union and dozens of other agencies.
The Lausanne 04 Forum further enriched my ministry networks. The Forum in Pattaya introduced me to new friends and potential partnerships doing racial reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia, leadership development with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, pastoral training in Palestine, encouraging the “Student Volunteer Movement II” in North America and mission’s mobilizers in the South Pacific.
All of this is to say that I have benefited greatly from these global events. I believe in the Lausanne movement, the Lausanne Covenant and the new Lausanne leadership. I consider Doug Birdsall, the new chairman of the Lausanne Committee, a close friend of more than twenty-five years.
I believe in global cooperation. But I still have some serious questions about global gatherings.
Only time will tell if the Lausanne 04 Forum and the anticipated occasional papers have a substantial Kingdom impact long-term. After attending, I walked away with several questions—some of which are specific to Lausanne 04, and others which are generic questions concerning global gatherings. The questions are directed to conference planners, but they also reflect back on me as a global conference attendee.
1. Are we trying to recreate historical visitations of God by these events? I have no doubt that conferences and councils have played a very significant role in church and missions history. But I’m starting to wonder: are we guilty of trying to manipulate the hand of God by returning to a means or method that God used in the past in an exceptional way?
We would all criticize the faith healer who, after seeing one person healed by touching the evangelist’s handkerchief, launched “handkerchief ministries.” We would argue that just because God does something once through an exceptional means does not justify repeating the means.
But is that what global conferences are in danger of doing? For example, I have no doubt that God uniquely visited the Lausanne 74 conference with several prophetic words—concerning “hidden peoples,” social justice and what we can learn from liberation theology. No one doubts the incredible significance of the amazingly thorough and concise Lausanne Covenant. But does that mean that global conferences are God’s ongoing means? Do we miss the new things God is doing by trying to recreate the old things? The Lausanne Covenant had a dramatic impact, but does that mean that every subsequent global conference feels compelled to produce more documents in an effort to imitate the 1974 event? An illustration of this was the inclusion of the “Manila Manifesto” in the Forum 2004 literature. I found this surprising because many of us at Lausanne II in Manila (1989) thought the “Manifesto” was a perfunctory document that basically reiterated the Lausanne Covenant.
2. Do we give serious consideration to the financial cost factor? The amount of time and money spent on conferences is enormous, but perhaps there’s no other way to get such diversity of people together. My question is, “Are we trying to think of new ways?” Did anyone else at Lausanne 2004 notice the effective indigenous workers who weren’t there? If Philip Jenkins is correct and the majority church of the future is poor, will global gatherings be increasingly out of reach for those who truly represent the future of the Christian movement?
This question came to mind at Forum 2004 when I saw David Bennett, a well-respected pastor. In the mission community, Dave is best known for his research on the church and missions in India. Dave’s research analysis conducted over several years of listening to Indian leaders has had an awesome impact. His summaries have affected financial partnerships and initiatives as well as Indian organizational strategy. When I saw Dave, I found myself asking, “What could be the impact on the church around the world if we took the millions of dollars that the Lausanne Forum cost and used them instead to fund the work of a dozen Dave Bennetts strategically researching key areas of the world?”
I also found myself wondering: does anyone consider the cultural and experiential separation caused by these events? When attendees return home, are their co-workers desirous of hearing the results of the consultation or are they envious because they weren’t included? Is attending a global event an impetus for change at the local or national level or an experience that promotes elitist separation from the grassroots work?
3. How does technology affect the need for and effectiveness of these global gatherings? Could a videoconference be just as effective as a face-to-face meeting? I know that the relational quality would wane, but simply being together in one location does not guarantee the growth of lasting friendships and partnerships.
I saw at the Lausanne Forum a new reality created by technology. For those wealthy enough to have our laptops and wireless access, we really didn’t need to be in Thailand. During breaks, hundreds of people were checking their emails, looking at pictures from home or doing work that was unrelated to the conference. Rather than building relationships by spending time with people from other parts of the world, we were emailing home or checking the local news and sports scores. I think some heard the “You have mail” recording more than they heard each other. Technology combined with a beautiful facility made me wonder whether we were in Thailand, Los Angeles, London or any other metropolitan center.
4. I found myself wondering, are we catering to a certain “global conference” culture at these events? Do the “movers and the shakers” attend these events? Or are these conferences more for those of us who enjoy thinking that we’re movers and shakers?
5. What about the rich/poor gap issue? I wish someone would call a global networking event in the flavelas of Rio de Janeiro or the slums of Nairobi. At least then we’d be sure that people are coming for the event.
The lodging at Thailand was spectacular, and I’m sure few people at the resort got robbed, or encountered the intestinal disturbances that might accompany a conference held in one of the world’s poorest cities. But do the places we stay symbolically tell us something about ourselves and the church? Do we enjoy talking about justice issues or rich/poor disparity more than we want to confront it?
At Forum 2004, I found myself remembering the old guilt-producing line my parents used to motivate me to good behavior: “If Jesus came today and found you doing that, would you be embarrassed or ashamed?” I found myself hearing that question at the sumptuous buffet in Thailand, while meeting in the gorgeous lobbies or while retiring to my beautiful hotel room.
6. Do these conferences give us in the West a false sense of our leadership in the global movement of Christianity? Many at these global conferences make reference to the Majority World church, but the platform presenters are disproportionately Western, white, male and over fifty years old. The Urbana Conferences do a better job of making sure that the platform symbolically represents the global, cross-cultural message we’re communicating—and Urbana is distinctly focused on North American students!
If we formulated our answer to Lamin Sanneh’s question Whose Religion is Christianity? based on the leaders up front, would we have arrived at the conclusion that Christianity is primarily non-White and non-Western, people from the Majority World, many of whom are poor?
With this in mind, has the spread of Christianity made it almost impossible to summarize the Christian worldwide fellowship in a one-week conference? Two examples at Forum 2004 suffice: China and worship styles. Most would agree that China will shape our world. But with the exception of praying for the Chinese as part of the persecuted church, China received little platform attention in the plenary addresses. If David Aikman (Jesus in Beijing) is right in asserting that the twenty-first century is “the Chinese Century,” and the “Back to Jerusalem” movement is preparing to send 100,000 missionaries to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim worlds, how could a global gathering on world evangelism miss China’s missional significance?
Perhaps the problem at these conferences is that we allow ourselves to think primarily of items on the Western agenda. A Chinese leader I met three weeks after the conference in Thailand told me he refused to come because “the issues Lausanne highlighted are not the issues we’re wrestling with in China. China will be presented as a suffering group for prayer; not a force for missions in the future.” He was right.
And what about worship? How can we accurately represent the global church in our worship at these events? My reading and experience tells me that the musical worship around the world is charismatic in style and vivacious in energy—sometimes to the point of being almost chaotic. The Lausanne worship seemed more like something out of the 1980s. (The platform leaders several times extolled the fact that more than fifty percent of the participants were under age fifty; if that was true, why didn’t the music reflect it?)
7. Where do these conferences go? What will we do with the results? Networking and global partnering takes money and administrative support. What will happen to the non-Western leaders in my issue group who use Yahoo and Hotmail addresses to retrieve email at internet cafés in the city nearest their home? I doubt if many will be able to stay in touch.
Lausanne 74 provided a document by which we measure our lives and our ministries. Prophetic words called the church to global partnership and to holistic ministry. What will this latest world gathering accomplish?
I pray that Forum 04 will be a catalyst for greater networking, and a benchmark for measuring where we are in the global Christian movement. But before we start planning another global event, I hope we’ll take a few minutes to reflect on the best ways to encourage and equip the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.
Paul Borthwick trains leaders with Development Associates International and mobilizes students for global ministry at Gordon College.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 182-187. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.