“Let the earth hear His voice” was the theme of Lausanne 1974. At Edinburgh 1910 the heart cry had been “Let the world hear at least once!” Now sixty-four years later it remains to be seen how much the International Congress on World Evangelization, held this past summer in Lausanne, Switzerland, contributed to the fulfillment of that unanswered prayer.

During the nineteenth century, known as the Great Century of world missionary effort, the Evangelical Alliance brought together evangelicals of all Protestant denominations for fellowship and prayer. Rouse and Neill relate these conferences to the evangelical awakenings and call them “another manifestation of Pietism in its nineteenth century form.” Massie traces the origins back to Wesley, the Moravians, and Whitefield. Latourette says that rationalism had so penetrated Protestantism that the founders of the Evangelical Alliances sought national and worldwide communion with those holding to Reformation doctrine in whatever denominations or countries they were found. These conferences were characterized by a zeal for evangelism and foreign missions.

The cardinal point in the early objectives of the alliance was unity within the framework of “the infallible word of God” and the witness of the Holy Spirit that believers are children of God. In a book published in 1847 J. W. Massie records that “the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, the judgment of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, with … the eternal punishment of the wicked, are doctrines … recognized without one differing judgment” (The Evangelical Alliance: Its Origin and Development). Conferences of the Evangelical Alliances responded to the theological problems confronting evangelicals in their generation.

Lausanne may be seen as a combination of the Evangelical Alliance conferences of the last century, which centered on the defense of the Scriptures and evangelism, and the great missionary conferences of the nineteenth century that culminated in the New York 1900 Missionary Conference.

The growth of the missionary-conference idea was one of the most striking aspects of the mission scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. The period was one of enormous missionary vitality. These conferences had their origins in the societies on the mission fields, and there were conferences in such places as Bombay (1824), Shanghai (1877), and Japan (1888). Dr. Alexander Duff of India brought the conception to New York in 1854, and from there it spread to Liverpool in 1860 and to London in 1888 (1,576 missionaries and mission representatives attended this one), culminating in the outstanding New York 1900 Missionary Conference addressed by such greats as Hudson Taylor, Robert Speer, John R. Mott, and A. H. Strong. On that occasion Taylor warned that the danger confronting missions was to depend to much on methods, machinery, and resources and too little on the power of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel.

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The World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910, strongly influenced by leadership from the youth movements, attempted to harness and organize these strong nineteenth-century missionary forces for world Christianization through evangelism. Gerald Anderson, writing in The Theology of the Christian Mission, notes the market changes that took place between New York 1900 and Edinburgh 1910: “At the beginning of this century a large part of the missionary movement, had a passion for souls that stemmed from an emphasis upon the rapidly approaching judgment day and a strong sense of obligation to save the heathen from eternal damnation.”

But at the Edinburgh conference two notable new points appeared: first, an understanding and sympathy for the nobler elements in the non-Christian religions, and second, a compromising of “the universal and emphatic witness to the absoluteness of the Christian faith” by a new attitude of “charity and tolerance.”

Earlier missionary conferences were unhesitant in proclaiming the infallibility of the Scriptures and their supreme authority, but Edinburgh 1910 tolerated non-evangelical viewpoints in the desire to conciliate and unite all Christians in one final effort for world evangelization. The change seemed slight and unimportant to some, but the results became apparent in the decades that followed as the evangelical majority in the International Missionary Council slowly but surely decreased in numbers. At Bangkok 1973 its voice was insignificant.

This decade has some outstanding similarities to the years preceding that great 1910 World Missionary Conference. Edinburgh 1910 stood astride two great eras of Christian world missions. The epoch-making missionary efforts of the nineteenth century took the gospel message to the major continents of the world. Optimism ran high. It appeared that Christian countries of the West would be able to launch a final magnificent effort that would complete the task commanded by the resurrected Lord. Edinburgh 1910, however, really marked the end of that Great Century of missions launched from the days of William Carey, for World War I brought an abrupt finish to the dream of a Christian world.

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After the theological loss of many major denominational missions, evangelical evangelism has regrouped its forces, and optimism is again running high in many evangelical missionary circles. Reports of evangelistic response and church growth in South America, Indonesia, Korea, Africa—and the United States—are most encouraging. Third World churches and leaders are showing signs of maturity and foreign-mission vision, surpassing some areas of the tired West.

Edinburgh 1910 met on a missionary crest between two centuries, and Lausanne 1974 came at another high point in world evangelism and missions. Such things as the energy crisis, political instabilities, liberation movements, and governmental scandals, however, gave credence to Billy Graham’s assertion in his Lausanne address that the “world may be standing at the very brink of Armageddon.” Edinburgh 1910 did not realize that it was only four years removed from the conflagration of World War I, a struggle among “Christian” nations!

Prior to both conferences the interest of students in foreign missions had reached record-breaking proportions. By 1909 the Student Volunteer Movement alone was directly responsible for recruiting nearly 4,400 foreign missionaries. Its spiritual successor, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, held its Tenth Triennial Missionary Conference at the end of 1973, and among the 14,000 registered students, more than 5,000 signed cards expressing an interest in missionary service. Other reports indicate a deep desire among many students to find their places in God’s service.

Both pre-conference eras knew theological controversy and confusion. At the turn of the century the theological works of Harnack led churchmen toward union based upon the minimum doctrinal statement of the Christian faith rather than upon essential biblical doctrines. Ritschl envisaged the establishment of the Kingdom as an ethical reign of Christ upon earth. The “fundamentalists” in the United States contended with the “social gospel” advocates. James Orr, speaking in 1907, made it clear that the controversy centered around the Scriptures. “The Bible is an Evangelical book,” he said.

To say that, again, is to say that the Bible contains a Gospel for the world, that this Gospel is of God, that it is a Gospel which the world needs, and without it must perish, and furthermore, that this Gospel is the essence of the book—is the very thing that makes it what it is.… It is the Bible itself … that in these days is being discredited [Maintaining the Unity, London: Religious Tract Society, 1907, p. 143].
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Students of the conciliar movement recognize these same issues existing today in the World Council of Churches’ approach to evangelism and world missions. Conceptions of the inspiration, authority, and unity of the Scriptures have been modified and refined to fit an ecumenical theology of inclusivism. Geneva 1966, Uppsala 1968, and Bangkok 1973 have all revealed the horizontal preoccupation of the WCC and its Division of World Mission and Evangelism, the successor of the International Missionary Council launched as a result of Edinburgh 1910. The predominant voices of the modern ecumenical movement seem to disparage traditional evangelism and world missions. Attention is focused upon the needs of society, upon the liberation of mankind from racial inequity, economic exploitation, and social injustices—laudable objectives, but woefully devoid of that vertical salvation whereby sins are forgiven and one is prepared for eternity as well as for temporal life on earth.

Also noteworthy is the influence of great revivalists and evangelists in the two conferences. John R. Mott, who in some respects succeeded the outstanding evangelist of the nineteenth century, D. L. Moody, as a Christian statesman and evangelist, led Edinburgh 1910 in its vision and its Continuation Committee, which culminated in the International Missionary Council, 1921, and the World Council of Churches, 1948. Lausanne 1974 was the second world evangelism congress convened under the spiritual leadership of Billy Graham. The first was in Berlin, 1966.

In view of these striking similarities, the differences become more vivid. First, Edinburgh was primarily a conclave of Western missionary endeavors even though it was worldwide in its dimensions and vision. It could not have been otherwise in that day. Lausanne 1974 took seriously the growing evangelical voices and bodies around the world, recognized their place under the authority of Christ, and fully accepted them as equals. There was no question about the spiritual and intellectual stature of leaders from non-Western continents who were among the speakers. Non-Western delegates responded warmly and with wisdom to questions concerning the transplantation of Western culture to their continents and their churches, for they recognized the likelihood of bringing their culture to others in their own missionary endeavors.

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Second, Edinburgh was committed to the omission of all controversial theological questions in which the participating churches or societies differed among themselves. Lausanne 1974 was theological and was founded upon the infallible Bible. The biblical conclusions of Berlin 1966 left a solid evangelical foundation for Lausanne 1974. Many in the Lausanne leadership were known for their belief in and commitment to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, the fundamental truth binding the conference together. Lausanne chose to select evangelical delegates from those nominated by national committees and took steps to ensure the evangelical stance of each participant. The opening address of Billy Graham was an outstanding evangelical declaration of purpose.

Third, the results of evangelism following Edinburgh 1910 were to be assured by the participation of “the best minds.” The implementation of evangelism seemed to reside more in the organizational abilities of these “minds” than in promotion and propagation of the Scriptures. Organization and administration rather than the Scriptures were seen as the instrument of the Holy Spirit. Liberalism and the social gospel had destroyed confidence in the Bible among many in missionary leadership. Lausanne 1974 endeavored to maintain a delicate balance between the mission methods made possible by Western technology and dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. While it did not question the validity of what modern technology and missiology have made available, Lausanne was not swept away by a mechanistic evangelism that dehumanizes the unconverted by a plethora of statistics and techniques. The necessary work of the Holy Spirit was seen as ultimate in the communication of the Gospel to unregenerated hearts. Although Lausanne again declared allegiance to an infallible Bible in its covenant, it seemed weak in calling Christians to “preach the Word.”

Fourth, much in Edinburgh gave the impression that there were “Christian” lands not in need of foreign missionary activity. The “Christian” populations of South America and Europe, for example, were not considered subjects for foreign missions. While the necessity of an individual and personal commitment to Jesus Christ was maintained, the inclusivist spirit of the conference distorted its response to spiritual need in “Christian” as well as “non-Christian” lands. Lausanne remained true to its heritage and its message despite possible political or financial implications or ecclesiastical pressures. It decisively rejected non-evangelical inclusivism and pleaded for the proclamation of the Gospel to those growing millions of people who have never heard.

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Fifth, at Lausanne unity and further cooperation in evangelism were grounded in the infallibility of Scripture.

The theological nature of Lausanne, based upon an inerrant Bible, was evident from the opening address by Billy Graham. Theological issues separating evangelicals from the WCC conceptions of evangelism were clearly and positively treated. The historical position of mutual respect for doctrinal differences among evangelicals was maintained, but speaker after speaker underlined the theological errors of the contemporary conciliar movement in its preoccupation with horizontal or temporal salvation to the seeming exclusion of the individual need for personal conversion.

While Edinburgh 1910 was also essentially evangelical, a conciliar spirit prevailed among the leaders, and they began to equate the work of world evangelization with the conciliar spirit of church unity. That is, they said that only a united Christian church could establish an adequate testimony for world Christianization. Organizational unity became the basis for promoting world evangelization. Lausanne 1974 found spiritual unity already present through Christ even though many races, denominations, and countries were represented.

The Lausanne Covenant was written in simple, unequivocal language, readily translatable into the major languages of the world. The crystal-clear message will prove to be continued source of encouragement for the people of God around the world and a model of evangelistic theology for decades to come if the Lord tarries.

Sixth, the Continuation Committee of Edinburgh and the International Missionary Council were limited administratively and evangelistically by the missionary societies on one hand and the national councils on the other. The IMC was a service mission to missions, collecting information, publishing studies, and convening world conferences. Lausanne 1974 has foreseen a structure in which world evangelism can be actively promoted and developed. The future will depend upon the selection of people unquestionably committed to the Scriptures and the theology and work of evangelism.

Seventh, as in the organization of the IMC in 1921, Lausanne recognized national or regional councils as essential to international fellowship. Western domination is to be avoided. The work of the Holy Spirit in history was seen as making nations and regions mutually sensitive to the particular national gifts given toward the accomplishment of a worldwide task.

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In the tradition of the Evangelical Alliance of the nineteenth century, evangelism was emphasized by those who were united by common faith in the authority of the Scriptures. This responsibility was recognized by participants from countries around the world. As in the earlier missionary conferences, cross-cultural evangelism was accepted as the responsibility of each church so that the earth might hear His voice.

Lausanne 1974 focused on the strategy of evangelism in all the nations of the world. It endeavored to combine a knowledge of the world’s needs. Its work does not begin to be as impressive as the eight volumes that grew out of the Edinburgh 1910, the results of the surveys and studies made by various commissions. Yet Lausanne and its covenant may, by their practicality, precision, and directness, do more to stimulate world evangelism than did Edinburgh with its theologically blunted edge. Hardly a decade after Edinburgh, missionary leaders were divided over the nature of the Christian message. In its covenant Lausanne 1974 spoke out clearly, decisively, and biblically regarding the Christian message. The theological pluralism of the IMC and the DWME has continually made a decisive biblical message difficult if not impossible.

In its desire to have representation by all Christian confessions united in evangelism, the Edinburgh 1910 Continuation Committee found itself upon an unsteady and uncertain non-theological basis. Lausanne 1974 remembered its biblical heritage and did not bow either to the contemporary exponents of the old social gospel or to the vocal theological progressives still in the evangelical ranks who would weaken the stand on verbal inerrancy in order to include more evangelicals.

Lausanne revealed the growing strength of evangelical Christianity, gave it a new visage, showed its worldwide presence, and presented evangelical churches and the world with a biblical theology of evangelism. Lausanne 1974 profited from Edinburgh’s strengths as well as from its mistakes. A great deal of money, time, and effort was expended, but Lausanne 1974 will justify itself many times over if it implements the lessons Edinburgh has taught over the last six decades.

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