Can the North American churches rise to meet this new demand?

The consultation on World Evangelization in Thailand had come and gone. Weary participants put finishing touches on 17 or more study documents. In the wee hours of the morning, hardworking staff ground out the last pages of the last revision. The 900 exhausted evangelicals—600 participants, 300 consultants, observers, and guests—wended their way home from beautiful Thailand and their gracious Thai hosts to resume once again their normal tasks in 87 countries of the world. (See News, p. 43.)

Congratulations are due to Leighton Ford, chairman of the consultation, to David Howard, general director, to Saphir Athyl, program director, to John Stott, chairman of the working group in theology and education, and to Peter Wagner, chairman of the strategy work group. Heartfelt thanks are also due to the host of young people and the staff who worked day and night under intense pressure to make the conference a success.

COWE and WCC on World Mission and Evangelism

Any assessment of COWE inevitably invites comparison with the World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism that met immediately before COWE in Melbourne, Australia (see June 27 issue, p. 48). Participants at both conferences noted some surprising differences. At Melbourne, earnest Bible study lasting an hour and a half, led by outstanding Bible teachers, was the first order of the day. Evangelicals deeply appreciated these studies and felt that they made a strong impact upon the conference as a whole. No doubt more concern was shown for the “meaning for me” of a passage (i.e., what thoughts crept into the head of the individual reader while he read the Scripture) than for what the biblical author really said. And, no doubt, too, crucial biblical teaching on the nature of the gospel was ignored in the overall direction of the meetings. Still, biblical study was taken seriously and its impact upon the rank and file was obvious. At COWE, each morning began with an exegetical study or sermon, but serious, planned Bible study by individuals was not on the agenda. Melbourne was better because of its Bible study and COWE suffered for its lack.

Prepared papers at Melbourne were the product of scholars thoroughly equipped for their role. Regional COWE study groups spent long months in preparation for their topics. As a result their papers were much more representative of the whole church, but sometimes their reports were not received or studied before the conference. The extensive homework of first-rate scholars, conspicuous at Melbourne, was not so evident at COWE, although four “Lausanne Occasional Papers” were circulated to all participants and provided excellent background information for miniconsultation discussions.

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Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two conferences was the almost exclusive reference to social concerns at Melbourne in contrast to the clear emphasis upon evangelism by the leadership of the Thailand consultation. Participants at Melbourne wept for the plight of man and the awful suffering of mankind in this world. At Thailand, the participants wept for the spiritually lost and alienated from God. Evangelicals expressed their deep concern for the plight of man in this world, but the focus was on evangelism and not on social concerns, although all freely admitted that it is impossible to divorce the two completely.

Some tried to transform COWE into a conference on social concern, but the leadership managed for the most part to keep the group on track. At weekends and after the consultation, many participants, instead of sightseeing in Bangkok, spent their time visiting refugee camps in northern and eastern Thailand. They, too, came to weep over the plight of the devastated and downtrodden of the earth, as they observed the anguished suffering of those who had fled in terror from the oppressive Communist regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Theologians or Technicians?

At times, it seemed as though COWE was taken over by the anthropologists and the strategists, and lacked in-depth biblical and theological direction. In explanation, its leadership stated: “We gladly acknowledge the need for theology, but we have done our theological homework at Berlin (1966) and Lausanne (1974). Now we don’t need a third conference on the theology of missions and evangelism. Rather, we need to get started on some practical applications of our theology to the ongoing task. It is time now to apply our theology and to build a strategy for action.”

True—who can argue with that? But the consultation badly needed continuing input from first-rate theologians in order to offset the constant and overpowering pressures from secular idealists to alter the Christian message more to their own liking, and from some evangelicals who in excessive zeal for the success of the gospel attempted to bend it to what the world would accept.

The need for continuing and undergirding theology seemed especially evident in two crucial issues that surfaced during the conference. The first was, “What is the gospel and evangelism?” The main body of participants stood loyally by the Lausanne statement of faith. Social action is a part of the mission given to the church by our Lord, and it is absolutely necessary to the ongoing work of Christian witness and to the gospel. It is, however, to be reckoned as an adjunct to the gospel and not an essential and inherent part of the good news itself. The good news is not the command to do, but the promise of what God has done and will do through Jesus Christ for those who trust him. The goal of evangelism is to carry the gospel in understandable form to all the world, leading to the establishment of believers in the worship, fellowship, and instruction of local churches.

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A second issue was related to “people evangelism” or, more accurately, evangelism through affinity groups. Backed vigorously and vociferously by church growth partisans, “people movement” evangelism was presented as the new key to unlock the hearts of countless millions. Opposition came from many, but especially from blacks and Indians (East), who reckoned it to be a disguised means of defending racism or a class system in the name of evangelism. Those who defended people evangelism argued: “It works. Souls are saved. Would you rather see a racially integrated church or Indian Brahmans remain unsaved? We prefer to work through the Brahmans to a Brahman church so that they may be saved. Then later we can instruct them as to the wrongness of racism and a caste system.”

What is needed is a theology of the church. The Machiavellian principle of doing evil that good may come does not work in politics, and it certainly does not work in the church. It won’t work for the Christian church because it teaches a wrong view of the church right from the start. By founding churches along class lines (the polite term is “affinity groups” or “people evangelism”), class prejudices and man’s alienation from man only become more deeply ingrained into the human heart. Natural vices are merely strengthened. The solution is to reach out to affinity groups as an effective means of evangelism, but not as the right way to plant a church. Churches must begin with a model that teaches and provides for the unity of the body of Christ.

Its Lasting Value

What was the lasting value of COWE? Its lasting value does not lie in speeches, though many of these were excellent and we plan to publish some of them in future issues. Neither was its lasting value in the prepared papers, though many of these are the product of informed scholars and practitioners and should serve as helpful guides to the entire church.

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The real and permanent value of the consultation undoubtedly lay first in the miniconsultations, or small groups, that got together to study specific aspects of a strategy to win people to Christ. Basing their discussions on the position papers, these consultations ranged far beyond the Lausanne conference. Debate waxed hot and points were sharply made. No one spoke more frequently than the Africans, or more warmly than the South Americans, or more pointedly than the Asians. And no one stood in awe of anyone. Even if issues occasionally became fogged, few participants left the consultation unchanged and all had the horizons of their minds expanded and their consciousness of the world’s need and of evangelical strategy raised to new heights.

Finally, as participants analyzed the problems and the strategy by which these problems could be met, the immensity of the task challenged their imagination. Affinity groups were identified and the means of reaching them explored. A sense of urgency spread over the conference along with a deep sense of the awesome proportions of the task. Sixteen thousand distinct affinity groups were located and described, none of which has been effectively evangelized. If only 10 missionaries or witnesses were to concentrate upon each of these groups, 160,000 new recruits for the world’s missionary force would be needed immediately.

Even so, this is only a portion of the task. Undoubtedly the vast majority of those we send to preach the gospel go to established fields, and we dare not desert them. The Third World now may have a total of more than 5,000 missionaries. Though the evangelical missionary force in North America numbers approximately 37,000, we are not yet playing in the ballpark of our real needs. The church, both East and West, must retool for a new push for missionary candidates to carry the gospel message cross-culturally.

Numbers alone, of course, are not enough. But to meet the North American share of this task we call for 200,000 high quality, well-trained recruits by the year 2000. Only by this level of radical response can we hope to maintain our present missionary force in established fields and, at the same time, reach these new and heretofore unreached affinity groups. Can the North American churches rise to meet this new demand in obedience to the commission of the Lord, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel”?

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