by Jim Reapsome
Some skepticism about international congresses is warranted.
Some skepticism about international congresses is warranted. Many a working missionary wonders about the time and money expended by a comparatively few leaders in world evangelical circles in what appears to be the full-time occupation of attending conferences. Rightfully they want to know if the results are worth the expenditures. It’s hard for them to suppress the groans with which they greet the news of yet another congress.
Skepticism is not limited to working missionaries. Supporting churches wonder, too, because they are asked to finance the conferences. Pastors and missions committee chairmen read the glowing press reports about the latest international gathering. They are prone to ask if this is the way their money should be invested, and if this is the way leaders of Western missionary establishments should be spending their time.
And then there are the leaders of Third World churches. Some of them are fortunate enough to go to a conference, many of them are not. Unfortunately, over the years a sort of international elite has emerged, a pecking order based on one’s conference credentials and on whether or not an American organization feels one is worthy of a scholarship and plane ticket.
While the conference days are filled with important papers, and stirring speeches, it is not unusual to find that the next congress is simply another stopping point to touch base with one’s friends from around the world, to catch up on the latest doings, and to swap stories about other organizations, denominations, churches, and leaders.
In the midst of such skepticism one can find defenders of international conferences. One can look, as Ralph Winter does in his article in this issue, and see something of an historical progression in these things. The ecumenical movement as we have it today was born at a series of international missionary gatherings. The evangelicals are latecomers at this business. Obviously, it is easy to accept the tide of history and say that the parade of congresses must continue.
Others profess to see value in the fact that a sort of international brotherhood, or camaraderie, is a good thing among evangelicals, to show that they can muster a better force than the liberals can. According to this line of evaluation, it’s good for the little guys stuck off in some remote country to have a chance to rub shoulders with the real pros. There’s genuine blessing and inspiration in all of this, they say.
In addition, there’s value in research, in workshops, in trading theories about all of the mechanics o£ evangelism and missions. It’s good to have a sort of missionary "trade show" once in a while, to examine the latest wares of the business, to listen to the exponents of the latest missiological inventions.
Probably the most significant value cited is that big conferences spawn little ones. After Lausanne 1974, for example, similar gatherings were held in many parts of the world. The Lausanne Committee itself stayed around to keep things going, and gave birth to a host of sub-committees that are now putting together international congresses of their own. Some countries found that congresses served to rally the forces of evangelical missions, churches and denominations in a way that had never been possible before.
Skeptics are further assured that if the international parleys accomplish nothing more than to keep the spotlight on the plight of the unreached billions, whether in huge resistant populations that still adhere to ancient religions or in tiny groups of U.S. race track workers, they are more than worth it. The value of the congresses is heightened by the fact that people of similar interests (for example, those who want to reach Muslims) are forced to do their homework and come up with creative ideas.
What is the bottom line? It may be time to declare a moratorium on international conferences. There will be at least three big ones this year. The question is, When are we going to back off and ask ourselves the hard questions about their value? And if we find they aren’t worth the time, money and effort, who is going to stop the process? There’s a genuine fear abroad shat we have created something that feeds on itself, and that the risks of starving it are too great even to think about. If that is true, we are wasting our time.
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