The international congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne achieved its planning committee’s objective: to accelerate global evangelism amid a world population that will surpass four billion in January, 1975. That was the primary concern of the conference.

Clearly secondary were other concerns: intellectually confronting non-Christian ideologies and religions, shaping a worldwide para-ecumenical evangelical fellowship and witness, stipulating evangelical social duty in a time when multitudes of humans beings are woefully impoverished or oppressed by powers eroding the dignity and worth of their existence.

Since Lausanne formulated its evangelical positions only forty miles from Geneva, headquarters of the World Council of Churches, which notoriously subordinates evangelistic to socio-political concerns, the social stance of the congress is noteworthy. The validity of evangelical social action was recognized by the 1966 Berlin World Congress on Evagelism. Lausanne participants were even more explicit, viewing social engagement as indispensable. Yet they disagreed over its intrinsic relation to the Gospel.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s opening remarks drew spirited applause when he acknowledged in a post-Watergate mood that one danger of his own ministry had been to identify the Gospel with a particular political system and culture. Graham rejected, as do all evangelicals, deference to social action as the Church’s all-consuming task or priority. But he pointed to the social relevance of the Gospel and said that the Gospel deals with man’s outward as well as inner plight. He did not, however, echo his statement (a comment, quoted by CHRISTIANITY TODAY, January 3, 1974, on the Chicago Declaration adopted by the Thanksgiving/73 Workshop): “I think we have to identify with the changing of structures in society and try to do our part.”

Numerous congress speakers transcended Graham’s stance, pointedly so in the case of Latin Americans like Rene Padilla of Argentina and Samuel Escobar of Peru. Padilla denounced American culture-Christianity, deplored the socio-political conservatism of American evangelicals, and derogated the religious pragmatism that produced Watergate in a national context in which evangelicals were presumably influential. Latin American evangelicals subdivided into four groups; only one group subscribed to the sharp criticism by Orlando Costas of Costa Rica and others that American evangelical missionary support is tainted by links to imperialistic culture and vested economic interests.

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Some Americans at Lausanne remarked that it will be time enough to listen to such complaints about evangelical cultural entrapment when Latin Americans put their own house in order. But that response is disappointingly evasive. American evangelicals must learn the importance of social and political criticism at home, even if the reminder emanates from outsiders who seem most ferocious when leveling criticism at situations other than their own.

In view of its open rejection of the ecumenical moratorium on foreign missionaries and of the ecumenical priority given to socio-political concerns, Lausanne/74 needed a clear statement on what sort of Christian social involvement has legitimacy and why. Without this, the congress would lack principal importance in confronting the socio-political stance of institutional ecumenism. The paragraph devoted to social concerns in the first draft of the Lausanne Covenant, however, was bland and even ambiguous, and many participants pressed for a more vigorous wording and fuller commitment.

The subsection on “Evangelization and Personal and Social Ethics,” which I served as resource leader, gathered more than a hundred participants from two dozen countries. They wrestled with large issues, convinced that if Lausanne said no more than that the biblical faith logically involves Christians in social action and social service it would not significantly advance beyond Berlin/66. Instead of Graham’s emphasis that the changing of social structures is not to be confused with evangelism, the subsection held that the evangel itself anticipates the triumph of righteousness in social as well as personal relations.

A vanguard of “young evangelicals” meeting under a “radical discipleship” banner drew up an independent minority response even before the final draft of the congress statement appeared. When the gifted London Anglican John Stott, who had invested many days and nights heading the covenant revision committee, publicly announced that he would sign not only the projected Lausanne Covenant but also the hurriedly prepared “radical discipleship” response, and that covenant signing was in any event to be considered a voluntary individual rather than a binding community matter, the significance of both statements seemed somewhat dwarfed.

The final draft of the Lausanne Covenant carried a more comprehensive statement on evangelical social concern. It was nonetheless still too imprecise to foster significant ecumenical dialogue and too bland to be biblically adequate. Yet most participants welcomed it as the strongest statement yet formulated by a major evangelical assembly.

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The post-congress study booklet Reaching All Needs (World Wide Publications, Minneapolis) will bring many of these social concerns into focus in a manner serviceable to discussion by Sunday-school classes, Bible-study groups, and other forums. Involvement of churchgoers in a consideration of these issues will be a noteworthy forward step. Another recent publication, Politics For Evangelicals (Judson Press), by Paul Brentwood Henry, promotes constructive Christian involvement in the political arena, an involvement that could go far to counteract post-Watergate disenchantment with the American political process.

The Lausanne Covenant left in doubt whether social concern, while grounded in God’s creation of man and the world, is a legitimate aspect of—and not simply compatible with and supplementary to—evangelism. Instead of the emphasis that social action is not (in any way? exhaustively?) evangelism, we must ask whether the overcoming of social alienation is not rather a necessary aspect of the evangel. Instead of the emphasis that political liberation is not (in any way? exhaustively?) evangelism, we must ask whether it is not rather a legitimate and even intrinsic aspect of the evangel.

The “response to Lausanne” signed by the self-proclaimed champions of “radical discipleship” had the merit of identifying the evangel as “the good news of liberation, of restoration, of wholeness, and of salvation that is personal, social, global and cosmic.” Had they not insisted on doing their own thing, had they been a little more social, the “radical disciples” would have found the subsection on “Evangelization and Personal and Society Ethics” contending for much the same emphasis.

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