It began in 1961 when Billy Graham called a meeting at Montreaux, Switzerland, to draw together evangelical leaders from around the world. He hoped they might focus on the task of world evangelism in the tradition of the great missionary conferences held at the turn of the century. Out of this meeting came the Berlin Congress on World Evangelism in 1966, drawing together 1,200 delegates from more than 100 countries to explore the missionary task of the church.

If Berlin did nothing else, it started a new track. Until the middle of this century, evangelical forces around the world were on the defensive, if not in full retreat. Evangelicals now came face to face with the immensity of their task, its complexity, and above all, its urgency. Berlin in turn spawned a number of international conferences that culminated at Lausanne in 1974 with the International Congress on World Evangelization. Four thousand participants, observers, and guests came from 150 nations; 50 percent represented the Third World. Time described it as “a formidable forum, possibly the widest ranging meeting of Christians ever held.”

Lausanne Revitalized Missions

The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization worked a dramatic change on its participants. True, in part it merely brought to focus impressions that had already been formed at Berlin. But some things were new and destined to revitalize missions around the world. Lausanne taught us all that:

1. The task of cross-cultural evangelism had not been completed. For years the buzz word in ecumenical circles was “Moratorium!” The gospel, so it was alleged, had already penetrated every nation. But it became evident at Lausanne that the task yet to be done was immense. And, more critically, Lausanne showed that it was utter nonsense to think that cross-cultural missionaries were no longer needed. The church was weak in many areas of the world; also, within nations already partly evangelized were imbedded pockets of “hidden” or isolated peoples. These factors made cross-cultural missionaries absolutely necessary if the gospel were to be brought to all the world.

2. The task could not be done, and need not be done, only by affluent churches of the West or by people with white faces. Third World churches, too, could be effective sending agencies. And participants at Lausanne scattered to their homes to set up mission agencies everywhere. In the ten years since Lausanne, Third World missionaries increased from 3,000 to 15,000, and their number is growing rapidly.

Article continues below

3. Lausanne participants discovered the meaning of partnership in mission. They found they could work together, and that a mission society could accomplish its own goals more effectively by working with others than by doing its own thing alone. Moratorium gave way to partnership.

The “Covenant,” A Promise

Out of the Congress came the now famous Lausanne Covenant—a 3,000-word, 15-point document. It was not a comprehensive statement of faith, but rather a promise of commitment to the primary task of the church—the evangelization of the world. Its introduction reads: “We, members of the church of Jesus Christ, from more than 150 nations, participants in the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, … believe the gospel is God’s news for the whole world and we are determined by His grace to obey Christ’s commission to proclaim it to all mankind and to make disciples of all nations.” This covenant became one of the most accurate reflections of the heartbeat of contemporary evangelicalism ever to appear. It has been translated into many languages and has received worldwide acceptance and use. Particularly in that “two-thirds world,” which Western Europeans and Americans are prone to look upon as the mission fields of the world, it has become a banner around which conservative evangelicals can unite in their dedication to world evangelization. It has served as a strong bond to link together those who previously had not even known of each other’s existence. The linkage came not by joining another organization, but rather by discovering a shared faith and a deep commitment to the primary task of the church.


The Lausanne Covenant has been impugned as representing a take-over of the Lausanne Congress by extreme rightists because of its reference to the inerrant authority of the Bible and its radical stress on the urgency of the gospel. Others have lamented its concession to liberalism in its qualification of inerrancy by the words “in all that it [the Bible] affirms.”

It is true that some liberals signed the covenant who elsewhere have indicated that they do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but they must answer to God for their duplicity. Actually, the statement is right on target. It is only pointing out that we must not take biblical statements out of context and then charge the Bible with error. Whatever the biblical text really asserts to be true is never false. The Bible always tells the truth.

Others have charged that the document jeopardizes the uniqueness of salvation through personal faith in Jesus Christ as the divine Lord and Savior of sinners. Yet the document explicitly repudiates every kind of syncretism or even dialogue that implies a cosmic Christ who saves through other religions and ideologies. General revelation has some validity, but it cannot save.

Article continues below

Even more controversy has been raised over the Lausanne approach to social action. Some have charged that it downgraded social responsibility and Christian concern for social justice. From an opposite point of view, others have warned that the Lausanne Covenant really led down the path of the World Council in its preoccupation with the issues of culture and social responsibility.

A simple reading of the covenant shows clearly enough that it not only affirms the legitimacy and unique importance of social action and a proper Christian concern for justice, but at the same time it retains the biblical emphasis on the priority of evangelism. It is not surprising, therefore, that the covenant has been widely adopted in many parts of the world—particularly in the two-thirds world—as a guide to cooperative effort in the work of mission. More than any other statement of the church, the Lausanne Covenant has taken its place in the rising churches of the two-thirds world as a guide for partnership in evangelism. The unifying question has quickly become: “Do you subscribe to the Lausanne Covenant?”

After Lausanne

What really sets off the Lausanne Congress from all others, however, is the continuing committee that has carried on its work through the past ten years. It was organized by demand of the participants at the conference (94 percent of those responding to a questionnaire urged the leadership to form some sort of follow-up work). As a result, a committee of 48 evangelicals, later enlarged to 75, was selected to represent theological viewpoints, denominations, parachurch groups, and the two-thirds world.

Contrary to what many think, the committee has not been controlled by Billy Graham or dominated by members of his staff. Only Leighton Ford of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is also a member of the committee of 75. With the enlargement of the committee many women and youth, particularly from the Third World, were added to its roster. Every two years one-third of the entire committee retires and a new segment of leadership is voted in—all within the framework of conservative evangelical commitment.

With an amazingly small staff and relatively meager financing, the committee has produced an extraordinary number of high-quality publications. In ten years it has published 24 in-depth “Occasional Papers,” and distributed over 180,000 copies to all parts of the world.

Article continues below
Keeping The Peace

In line with its strong emphasis on partnership in mission, the Lausanne Committee has also functioned as a peace-keeping force within evangelicalism. Between 1974 and 1982 it set up four consultations to provide guidance on issues troubling evangelicals and threatening to divide them. The first was the Pasadena Consultation (1977). It dealt with the homogeneous unit principle. Some mission strategists had noted that the church spread most rapidly when it did not need to cross racial, linguistic, or class barriers. Others had objected that such a strategy flouted the biblical teaching of the church as one body in Christ, without distinction as to Jew or Gentile, race or class.

After much deliberation, it was agreed that the church may spread most rapidly in homogeneous areas and legitimately take advantage of this principle to assist in its growth. Yet the consultants warned that any church relying merely on homogeneous expansion must be reckoned as incomplete and less than ideal, for Christ’s church is for all people.

The Willowbank Consultation (1978) dealt with the tension between the divinely revealed gospel and our relative human cultures into which it comes. It spoke to the issues of how to communicate the gospel in alien cultures and how the reception of the gospel is warped by the culture of those who hear it and obey it.

In March 1980, a London Consultation on Ethics and Society sought to deal with the recurring topic of the simple lifestyle. Later in the same year a larger Consultation on World Evangelism at Pattaya, Thailand, tackled an issue that many feared would destroy the unity of evangelical mission work—the relation between evangelism and social action. The consultation essentially reaffirmed the Lausanne Covenant: “Although evangelism and social action are not identical, we gladly reaffirm our commitment to both.” But it did not illuminate how the two were related.

This was left for the Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility held at Grand Rapids in 1982. The latter consultation reaffirmed both the crucial importance of world evangelization and our social responsibility as biblical Christians. But it also went further by showing the relationship between the two. Once again it argued for a distinction between evangelism and social action, and then reasserted the primacy of evangelism. Social action should be the result of evangelism, a bridge to lead to evangelism, and a partner in the work of evangelism. This clarification greatly lessened the tensions that had been building up between evangelical activists and evangelical mission leaders.

Article continues below

During the decade that followed Lausanne, the continuing committee sponsored more than 60 conferences around the world. These dealt with theological issues threatening to divide evangelicals, with strategy to further the work of evangelization, and with practical problems troubling the church. On June 4–10 of this year the committee sponsored a World Prayer Assembly in Seoul, Korea.

Lausanne Committee/Wef

From time to time the Lausanne Committee has come under attack from those who have felt that it is a rival organization to the World Evangelical Fellowship. Some charge that it duplicates the work of the fellowship and thus brings confusion into the work of the church around the world. Particularly in the Third World, young churches and their leadership are often pulled in two directions, thinking they must choose between the two.

Yet the purposes of the two organizations are distinct. The World Evangelical Fellowship is concerned with the whole task of the church. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization focuses on just one aspect—world evangelization through proclamation of the gospel. The slight duplication of concern is more than offset by the greater contribution Lausanne is able to make to evangelization because of its specialized focus. Moreover, the Lausanne Committee represents no organization or denomination, but is merely a group of individuals seeking to help the church in every part of the world carry on its work of evangelism more effectively. As a result, many are free to participate in it who could not or would not feel free to belong to the World Evangelical Fellowship.

While for a time the two organizations seemed to be working at odds, under WEF’s new leadership of David Howard there is a growing recognition of the unique purpose of the Lausanne Committee, and of the complementary role of each. Already they have cooperated in at least two major consultations.

What Comes Next?

As the Lausanne Committee faces the new decade—its second decade—it will make plans for a Second International Congress on World Evangelization, to be held in the latter part of the 1980s. It will pass on the torch to a new generation of leaders. And it will set forth before the world church a vision of evangelism for the twenty-first century.

Article continues below

Evangelicalism and the cause of worldwide evangelism owe much to Billy Graham. Without him there could never have been a Lausanne or an Amsterdam. Yet his genius is that he does not force all who labor with him into his own mold. He calls great men and women into impossible tasks and lets them be themselves, under Christ.

If the Lausanne Committee is a product of Billy Graham, it is equally true to say that it is the work of Bishop A. Jack Dain or John R. W. Stott or Leighton Ford or Gottfried Osei-Mensah or a dozen others who labored with them, for their genius, too, is stamped on its work.

But more than any of these, Lausanne is a movement in partnership for worldwide evangelization. The “two-thirds” world that represents the world of the future is committed to a historical and biblical Christianity and, therefore, also to the mission of evangelism. Lausanne taught us all that we had more in common than we had thought, and that the task is too big for any one group. We need a truly evangelical fellowship of First World, Second World, and “two-thirds” world churches, younger churches, older churches, theologians, strategists, missiologists, missionaries, and nationals from every part of the globe.

Lausanne gave evangelicals everywhere renewed confidence in God’s ability. It has become a symbol of a movement of like-minded believers who long to see the day when the gospel will be preached to the whole world, and the Lord will return.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.