For 35 years one of the simplest ways to define evangelical Christianity has been to refer to the Lausanne Covenant, the document that emerged from the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Convened by American evangelist (and Christianity Today founder) Billy Graham and British clergyman John R. W. Stott, the congress brought together 2,300 church and missionary leaders from 150 countries, including a substantial number of leaders from the then-nascent evangelical communities of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The Lausanne Covenant became a milestone in evangelical history, confidently proclaiming the continued need for evangelism when much of mainline Protestantism had lost confidence in biblical faith, while also reclaiming social responsibility when many fundamentalists disdained justice as a "liberal" concern. (Read the Lausanne Covenant at Lausanne.org/covenant.)
In October 2010, the Lausanne Movement will convene another congress, this time in Cape Town, South Africa. The majority of participants will be from the Majority World, where evangelicalism is now thriving dramatically. For the next year, Christianity Today, in partnership with the Lausanne Movement and fellow Christian publications around the world, will address some of the principal issues that confront the contemporary church as we seek to proclaim and demonstrate the gospel in all its historic depth and breadth. We are calling these articles the Global Conversation.
Taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, in obedience to the Great Commission, is an inescapable imperative. A definition of world evangelization that has won assent from Christians of all stripes was memorably summarized in the Lausanne Covenant—the document substantially crafted by John R. W. Stott and affirmed by the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974: "Evangelization requires the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world."
The "three wholes" in this ringing phrase had been part of Christian discourse for some years before Stott drafted the covenant. Indeed, they go back to the apostle Paul, if not to the patriarch Abraham. But to keep the conversation within living memory, a stirring statement by the Dutch theologian Willem Adolf Visser't Hooft makes the point:
The command to witness to Christ is given to every member of his church. It is a commission given to the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. When the church recognizes that it exists for the world, there arises a passionate concern that the blessings of the gospel of Christ should be brought to every land and to every man and woman.
This quote is all the more striking since Visser't Hooft was writing in 1961 on behalf of the World Council of Churches. Yet he seems to use the word whole primarily in a quantitative sense. For Visser't Hooft, the whole church means "every member." The whole world means "every man and woman." The whole gospel means all "the blessings of the gospel." That is surely better than some missionaries taking some blessings of the gospel to some people in some parts of the world. But the three wholes have more substantial, qualitative implications, implications that are worthy of a global conversation.
The whole gospel
The phrase the whole gospel suggests that some versions of the gospel are less than whole—partial, deficient, or (most important) not fully biblical. We must give full weight to all the dimensions of sin and evil that the Bible in both testaments portrays. And we must evangelistically proclaim the glories of God's redemptive achievement in the Cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—as God's victory over evil in all its dimensions. There would be no gospel without the Cross. Indeed, all blessings of the gospel, from personal salvation through Christ's death in our place to the reconciliation of all creation, flow from the Cross. The Cross stands at the heart of the Lausanne Movement; the key scriptural text for Cape Town 2010 is "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19).
If the whole gospel must be drawn from the whole Bible, in both testaments, then we must ask what contribution the social, economic, and political dimensions of the Old Testament make to Christian mission. Century after century, the God of the Bible revealed his passionate concern for social issues: political tyranny, economic exploitation, judicial corruption, the suffering of the poor and oppressed, and the evils of brutality and bloodshed. So passionate, indeed, that the laws God gave and the prophets God sent addressed these matters more than any other issue except idolatry (in fact, they regarded such things as idolatry's tangible manifestations). Meanwhile, the psalmist regularly cried out in songs of social protest and lament.
Unfortunately, one can still detect a subtle (or not so subtle) sense that somewhere between Malachi and Matthew, all that changed. Is it possible that such things no longer claim God's attention or spark God's anger? Or, if they do, that they are no longer our business?
The church condemned this disdain for the Hebrew Scriptures in the second-century heretic Marcion. It makes the alleged God of the New Testament almost unrecognizable as the Holy One of Israel. This alleged God shed the passionate priorities of the Mosaic Law and jettisoned the burden for justice that he had laid on his prophets at such cost to them. The implications for mission are dramatic. For if the pressing problems of human society are of no concern to God, they have no place in Christian mission—or at most a decidedly secondary one. God's mission, in this view, is simply getting souls to heaven, not addressing society on earth.
I find such a view of God and of mission to be unbiblical and unbelievable, if one takes the whole Bible as the trustworthy revelation of the identity, character, and mission of the living God.
The great Christ-centered, Cross-centered redemptive truths of the New Testament do not nullify, but rather complete, all that the Old Testament reveals about God's comprehensive commitment to the wholeness of human life, God's relentless opposition to all that oppresses, spoils, and diminishes human well-being, and God's ultimate mission of blessing the nations, destroying all forms of evil, and redeeming his whole creation, for his own supreme glory in Christ.
The gospel as a whole, true to the Bible as a whole, shows us God's heart for his broken, suffering, wicked world. For the last and the least (socially, culturally, and economically) as well as the lost (spiritually)—not that these can be separated, since human beings are whole persons. For those who are dying eternally in their sins, but also for the causes of their preventably premature dying in this world. For those who are without Christ, without God, and without hope in the world, but who also suffer all kinds of other lacks—the landless and homeless, the loveless and limbless, the family-less and state-less. For the creation itself, frustrated in its supreme goal of giving glory to its Creator, and groaning under the onslaught of human greed and violence.
As gospel people we must believe, live, and communicate all that makes the gospel staggeringly comprehensive good news.
The whole church
In a quantitative sense, of course, the expression the whole church insists that mission is the task of all Christians, not just of the clergy or professional missionaries, and that is a necessary reminder. Mission is far too important to be left to missionaries. But there are other dimensions of wholeness we need to include in the conversation.
Missional church. First of all, we need to see that biblically, mission is integral to the existence of God's people in the present age. The church is "called out" in order to be "sent out," as the Lausanne Covenant puts it. The vogue expression missional church is really nothing new. What other kind of church is there than the one that God created for mission? A friend said to me recently, "To me, missional church sounds like talking about Ôfemale women.' If it's not missional, it's not church." As someone else has said, "It's not that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world."
Scandalous lack of wholeness. Second, we need to contrast the ideal of a whole church with the rampant lack of wholeness that fractures the church everywhere. How can we bring the wholeness of the gospel to our broken world unless we demonstrate some of its healing power among ourselves? Yet the church is torn by conflict over race, caste, tribe, gender, material goods, and so many other things.
There is a potentially serious misunderstanding in this Lausanne Covenant sentence: "World evangelization requires the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world." Read without referring to what the covenant says about the church's need to examine itself, this sounds like the church is nothing more than the bearer of the message, like a postman delivering a letter. It doesn't really matter if the postman who delivered my letter this morning was committing adultery last night. So long as I get the letter, the moral behavior of the carrier is irrelevant.
But the church is not just the mechanism delivering the gospel. It is also the product of the gospel, and is to be the living, visible proof of the ethically transforming power of the gospel. So the failures and abuses in the worldwide evangelical community are, in the literal New Testament sense of the word, a massive scandal—a stumbling block to the gospel being seen, heard, and accepted. For that, the only answer is repentance and reformation. It is vital that Cape Town 2010 gives space and voice to that need.
The global Christian community. That very repentance will require invoking a third sense of the whole church. We need the whole world church, working with much greater levels of mutual cooperation and partnership, north to south and east to west. There is much listening to do, a lot of learning and unlearning. Our task across borders and boundaries is, in Paul's words, to accept one another, counting others better than ourselves and looking to their interests more than our own.
The whole world
Of course, we can take the whole world in a purely geographical sense—meaning every corner of the planet—and that is still urgently true. Nowhere is not the mission field, including our own countries. There are still many unreached peoples, many languages that have no portion of the Bible, many places where the name of Christ has never been heard. These are still urgent priorities for Christian evangelistic mission. The ends of the earth are still waiting. And today the ends of the earth may also be our next-door neighbor or the migrant in our midst.
But we need to consider other dimensions of our whole world that biblical mission must address:
The world story, as God tells it in the Bible, of the world's origins, history, and ultimate destiny. According to Paul, we are not going to be saved out of the created world, but along with it. But if our Bibles begin at Genesis 3 and end at Revelation 20, we are in danger of missing the point of God's great story of the redemption of all creation. We will think only of saving fallen sinners from the final judgment—not about living in the present creation as those who, by being in Christ, already bring the transforming values and prophetic truth of the new creation to the here and now.
The world of worldviews, philosophies, and faiths. What are the gods that surround us, and what is the Christlike and neighbor-loving response to those who worship them? We must not confine this to thinking only about the great mega-bloc "world faiths." The ideologies of secularism and atheism need to be engaged, along with the idols of consumerism, patriotism, and hedonism that are happily thriving on the worship of those who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
The world of creation, and our responsibility to the earth God entrusted to us, which God has reconciled to himself through the Cross (Col. 1:20). If the planet was created by Christ, sustained by Christ, and belongs to Christ as his inheritance, the least we can do is to look after it properly. Biblical responsibility for stewardship of the earth should have been an evangelical theme long before the threat of climate change turned it into a matter of self-preservation.
The world of globalization and the public square. What kind of missional engagement should we have with globalized economic trends and forces, massive migration, the Internet and new technologies, and all that goes on in business, politics, education, media, journalism, medicine, and the whole of human work?
The world of violence, war, and terrorism. We are surrounded by myths and countermyths that generate violence and justify violence in return. Apart from addressing the appalling scale of death and destruction these idols produce, do we not have a responsibility to also challenge and expose their falsity and ask what gospel reality Jesus implied when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers"?
The world of human need and suffering. If the gospel is good news in relation to all that sin has turned into bad news, then the gospel must be big enough, and our mission wide enough, to include the power of God to transform disease, hunger, brutality, human trafficking, slavery, gender violence, poverty, injustice, ethnic cleansing, and all forms of tribal, caste, and ethnic hatreds and oppression.
In such a world of need, the followers of Jesus are called to bring good news and to be good news. No single one of us can be engaged in everything that a holistic mission demands. The same thought doubtless occurred to God, which is why he created the church with a multiplicity of gifts and callings, so that we can, as a whole church, bear witness to the whole gospel in the whole world. May this global conversation generate more intelligent understanding and more focused action as we participate with God in his global mission.
Christopher J. H. Wright is international director of the Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries in the U.S.), chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group, and author of the ct award-winning book The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative.
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