In the 2000 movie Memento, protagonist Leonard Shelby has a specific brain injury that prevents him from forming new long-term memories. He can remember information for 30 seconds to a minute at most, but then he forgets everything.

Leonard’s disconnect from his past leaves him in a perpetual state of bewilderment about how he got into his present predicament: What enemy am I running from—and why? Why am I holding a gun? His confusion is a consequence of amnesia, an inability to remember one’s own history. If Leonard could just relearn and remember the salient parts of his past, he could finally return to a stable existence, with a sane understanding of himself and the people around him.

Being an evangelical today is much like this. We too are disconnected from our past, albeit for more reversible reasons than a brain injury. As a result, evangelicals are more divided now than ever, with many of us combating enemies who were once friends.

But what if we paused to remember our history? Not only would we recall who we are and how we got here, but we might even rediscover the best that evangelicalism has been, is, and can be once again.

Of course, one of the biggest problems today is that there seems to be almost no consensus on what the word evangelical even means. If only evangelicals from around the world could agree upon the baseline parameters for evangelicalism—something minimal enough to encourage healthy diversity but substantial enough to ensure doctrinal integrity.

What if something like this already exists?

Fifty years ago, in July 1974, around 2,700 Christian leaders from 150 countries traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, at the behest of American evangelist Billy Graham and British theologian John Stott.

The conference was officially titled “the First International Congress of World Evangelization,” but it came to be known as the first Lausanne gathering of ’74. And although it included merely a portion of the global church, Time magazine famously reported at the time that the congress was “possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held.”

Top: Participants arrive at the Palais de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Bottom: Booths translate Lausanne plenary sessions into the six official languages of the congress.
Image: Courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Top: Participants arrive at the Palais de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Bottom: Booths translate Lausanne plenary sessions into the six official languages of the congress.

Perhaps the most important and lasting output of this gathering was the Lausanne Covenant, which in time would prove to be one of the most influential documents in modern evangelicalism. The purpose of the document was to answer a key question: How much must we agree with one another to partner together in the task of world missions?

At the time, as now, evangelicalism was feeling the effects of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which caused ugly splits in almost every major Christian institution and denomination. The fundamentalist approach to differences involved rigorous litmus tests and doctrinal rigidity. The progressive outlook avoided setting any doctrinal boundaries, risking substantive departures from historical Christianity.

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But evangelicals took another tack.

The evangelical approach to diversity exemplified at Lausanne is characterized both by (1) careful negotiation of unity across differences that is grounded in common confessions of historical Christianity and (2) celebration of diversity itself as an intrinsic good, and even evidence of an expression of God’s intended plan for the global, universal church of all believers.

The Lausanne Covenant provided a theological definition of evangelical and quite intentionally avoided any sociopolitical elements associated with the movement. It also did not stake out positions on a host of important yet secondary issues related to theology, doctrine, and praxis. For instance, there is no discussion of baptism, gender roles in ministry, or the age of the earth and evolution.

By steering clear of these sorts of issues, the Lausanne Covenant included Christians on both sides of disagreements who might otherwise be divided. Instead, the leaders of the congress sought to create a covenantal community across such differences and in service of a shared mission for “the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.”

In one sense, the covenant is a corporate statement of belief composed of 15 articles, an introduction, and a conclusion. At just over 3,100 words, the document is short enough to be legibly typeset onto two sides of a single page. Stott, chair of the drafting committee, explained the reasoning behind each article in his exposition—a must-read companion to the covenant.

It would be a mistake to see this document merely as a statement of belief since it was intended as a covenant, Stott writes—a “binding contract” that commits its signatories to a common purpose and partnership. After 10 days of debate, discussion, and negotiation, most of the attendees (2,300) signed the document together. As Stott explained, “We did not want just to declare something, but to do something—to commit ourselves to the task of world evangelization.”

Even now, the covenant is meant to be signed by those who read and agree with it—and in doing so, we commit to cooperating with each other in the mission of God.

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Like most evangelicals, I had never heard of the Lausanne Covenant growing up, nor was I asked to sign it until I was an adult. I’m a dark-skinned Indian, born in Southern California in 1978 to first-generation immigrants who were both Christians—including a father who studied at Biola University.

And while those at Christian institutions sometimes engaged with the Lausanne Covenant, I attended a public high school and a secular state university. The churches I grew up attending were nondenominational, which came with strengths but also some amnesia about Christian history.

I first learned of the covenant in late 2000, 24 years ago, when I was a graduate student studying to be a physician scientist. I applied and was accepted for the Harvey Fellowship—a scholarship offered to Christians entering underrepresented fields—and all applicants were required to sign the Lausanne Covenant. The next summer, I headed to Washington, DC, for a weeklong event to meet up with a small group of other new Harvey fellows.

This event substantially broadened my experience of evangelical diversity. Ben Sasse, a Yale historian and Reformed Presbyterian, was the first Christian I knew who made a plausible argument for infant baptism, even though he and I disagreed about it. Mac Alford, a plant biologist from Cornell, was the first Christian I’d met who affirmed evolution—which I rejected at the time.

And although these disagreements were uncomfortable, at least for me, we had all signed the Lausanne Covenant (which takes no stance on either of these issues) and so had already committed to cooperate.

The Lausanne Covenant offers a theological account of our differences—based on the underlying belief that these differences can be intrinsically valuable. The leaders of the congress were unsatisfied with a reduced community of agreement, seeking instead an expansive community across our differences.

The covenant explains, using what Stott called “a literal translation of Eph. 3:10,” that our different views on Scripture are a mechanism by which God’s wisdom is disclosed to us:

God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God.

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Instead of retrenching doctrinal boundaries to achieve a counterfeit peace, the evangelical invitation is to read our Bibles together, to sort out our differences, and to negotiate—and these instincts were clearly present in the way the Lausanne Covenant came to be.

Though the conference itself lasted only 10 days, the process of drafting the covenant took months of dialogue and negotiation. But with 2,700 delegates at the conference, how much cooperation was possible? Quite a bit, as it turns out. In Stott’s assessment, “It may truly be said, then, that the Lausanne Covenant expresses a consensus of the mind and mood of the Lausanne Congress.”

The drafting of the document was assigned to a small committee including Stott; the then president of Wheaton College, Hudson Armerding; and Samuel Escobar, a Peruvian theologian from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Months prior to the July meeting, attendees were sent papers from all the meeting’s speakers and asked to provide written feedback. Written by J. D. Douglas, editor of Christianity Today at the time, the preliminary draft was based on the key themes and insights of these papers.

In his exposition, Stott explains, “Already this document may truly be said to have come out of the Congress (although the Congress had not yet assembled), because it reflected the contributions of the main speakers whose papers had been published in advance.”

Before the conference, an early draft was sent out to several advisers, whose comments were used to guide the first revision of the document. Then a second revision was overseen by the committee.

But the drafters also wanted to engage with, listen to, and learn from the attendees themselves. So midway through the July meeting, each attendee was given a copy of the third draft of the covenant and asked to submit their responses and discuss in small groups that were organized each day.

From this feedback, any objections and suggested amendments were submitted for the drafting committee to consider. According to Stott, the congress

responded with great diligence. Many hundreds of submissions were received (in the official languages), translated into English, sorted and studied. Some proposed amendments cancelled each other out, but the drafting committee incorporated all they could.

Ultimately, this negotiation substantially impacted the final document along three primary themes. First, a carefully negotiated statement on biblical inerrancy was added. Second, the covenant’s statement on social responsibility was bolstered. Third, several changes were made to reflect the concerns and wisdom of the global church outside the Western world. These three themes, I believe, summarize the lessons of Lausanne for our current moment.

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I. The article on the authority of Scripture was strengthened to include a carefully negotiated statement on inerrancy, influenced by input from Francis Schaeffer and others, which read that the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms.” This specific change was hotly disputed, creating a significant challenge for the drafting committee.

On the one hand, the reasons for including a statement on inerrancy were strong. A different view of Scripture was the root cause of many deep disagreements between evangelicals and progressive Christians. The modernist claim, driven by higher criticism, was that the Bible was “authoritative” but that its message was always subject to change due to its many errors.

Alongside this assertion, many liberal Christians rejected belief in the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and a historical Adam and Eve. And while these three classic claims of Christianity are not equally important, rejecting any one of them is a major revision with far-reaching consequences.

Clarifying the nature of this disagreement about Scripture was on the forefront of conference organizers’ minds. For good reason, evangelicals could not easily partner in world missions with those whose understanding of the gospel did not include, for instance, the bodily resurrection of Jesus—for this would be another gospel entirely (Gal. 1:6–9). As the apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Cor. 15:17).

But also, in the immediate context, the Lausanne conference was a response to the Bangkok Conference on Salvation Today, convened the year before (1973) by the World Council of Churches (WCC). Even the location was chosen in part because of Lausanne’s proximity to Geneva, where the WCC is headquartered.

The Bangkok Conference included evangelical delegates as well as liberal and mainline Christians, many of whom had drifted from orthodoxy. And while its final report includes a concession to evangelicals, affirming with Acts 4:12 that “there is no other name [but Jesus] given among men by which we must be saved,” other requests to strengthen the theology of the gospel—echoing the Frankfurt Declaration of 1970, in which German Christians pushed back against the “humanistic turn” of missions in the WCC—were rebuffed as Western contributions that did not speak for everyone.

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Moreover, the Bangkok report included statements labeling any release from societal oppression as a form of salvation, including “the peace of the people in Vietnam, independence in Angola, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and release from the captivity of power.” In Christianity Today, Peter Beyerhaus wrote,

Here, under a seemingly biblical cover, the concept of salvation has been so broadened and deprived of its Christian distinctiveness that any liberating experience can be called “salvation.” Accordingly, any participation in liberating efforts would be called “mission.”

Beyerhaus added that the conference also presented Maoism—the communism of China—as an acceptable alternative to Christianity. Similarly, the church of prophet Simon Kimbangu—who claimed he was the incarnate coming of God the Father and that his son was the second incarnation of Jesus—was presented as a laudable example of an indigenous ministry.

More than offhand comments, these were intentional appeals of the WCC leadership to Asian and African churches, and any theological objections were dismissed as unhelpful attempts to assimilate indigenous churches to Western thinking.

While no one can dictate who is allowed to self-identify with the term Christian or even evangelical, the Lausanne Covenant grounds Christian unity in a shared mission of proclaiming the whole gospel to the whole world. This mission is why we join this often-uncomfortable community known as the church despite our differences.

Serious disagreements about the nature of the gospel can often be traced back to two fundamentally different ways of understanding Scripture. Everyone in this debate could agree that the Scripture was “authoritative,” but were its teachings always changing and full of errors?

On the other hand, even for many orthodox Christians, the term inerrancy was still the sticking point. Inerrancy was a loaded word, since it was already being used by some fundamentalists as a doctrinal litmus test. Compounding the problem, the term was poorly defined since it was still years before the Chicago statements on inerrancy and hermeneutics were written in 1978 and 1982, respectively. It should come as no surprise, then, that many attendees strongly objected to the covenant’s use of inerrancy in its statement on Scripture.

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Stott’s solution to this impasse was forged in the negotiation process and was wise. Instead of demanding the word inerrancy, he replaced it with a concise and salient definition of the term by saying that Scripture is “without error in all that it affirms.” Evangelicals objecting to the term inerrancy could affirm this, but many progressives would not.

II. The congress also bolstered the covenant’s article on social responsibility. Here again the drafters were distinguishing themselves from both the progressives at the WCC and the fundamentalists’ overreaction to liberalism’s social gospel.

Tracing Billy Graham’s own path on the issue of social justice provides some instructive background. In 1953, breaking with his Southern upbringing, Graham began insisting that his audiences be integrated, with Blacks and whites seated next to each other.

In 1960, Graham spoke at widely publicized revival meetings in several countries in Africa—preaching the gospel to gigantic crowds at packed stadiums—but he was unwilling to preach the gospel to crowds segregated by the South African apartheid.

Graham’s deliberate actions were clear sociopolitical statements on racial integration in the church—infuriating many fundamentalists, including those in his own denomination, the Southern Baptists.

A week after Graham’s rebuff of South Africa, fundamentalist evangelist and broadcaster Bob Jones Sr. responded in an Easter radio message titled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” Arguing from a tortured reading of Acts 17:26, Jones taught that the answer was yes. Efforts to integrate the races and end segregation, he contended, worked against God’s created order and distracted from the task of sharing the gospel. In this, Jones echoed the views of many Christians in the South.

Though apartheid continued until the 1990s, Graham finally preached in South Africa in 1973, just one year before Lausanne—in perhaps one of the first large gatherings in the country to seat black, white, and brown people together. To the integrated crowd of 100,000, the Southern preacher roared, “Christianity is not a white man’s religion. … Christ belongs to all people.”

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Top left: A. Jack Dain and Billy Graham sign the Lausanne Covenant at the closing ceremony of Lausanne, 1974. Bottom left: Leaders of the Lausanne congress during a press conference, 1974. Right: Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham.
Image: Courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Top left: A. Jack Dain and Billy Graham sign the Lausanne Covenant at the closing ceremony of Lausanne, 1974. Bottom left: Leaders of the Lausanne congress during a press conference, 1974. Right: Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham.

Graham was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and sometimes a public ally to King’s cause, and he continued to grow in his desire to see racial justice over the course of his life. But Graham wondered if he had done enough, and in 2005, he expressed regret for not pushing for civil rights more forcefully, wishing he had protested with King in the streets.

This context brings life to the final version of the covenant’s text, which distinguishes the work of proclaiming the gospel—centering on God’s message to us specifically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—from the task of societal justice:

Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty.

In response to the Bangkok Conference, the Lausanne Covenant makes it clear that liberation from oppression is not synonymous with the biblical concept of salvation. Yet the covenant also avoided the fundamentalist mistake of neglecting social justice and even called evangelicals to repent for dissociating Christianity from its rightful concern over the social order.

These are critical lessons for us today. Our present difficulties in talking and thinking about race, diversity, and social justice are not new. The theological debate about the gospel and social justice is at least as old as the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. Evangelicals rightly rejected the social gospel and the particular forms of liberation theology that led to a departure from historical Christian teaching. Yet we have often been too complacent—and too untroubled by our complacence—in our pursuit of justice.

Today, a contentious battle rages over critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. There are many ways to define and implement CRT and DEI, some of which approximate secularized versions of liberation theology. But the motivating desire to include and encourage diversity in society is admirable and ultimately reflects a longing for God’s kingdom. This is why many Christian calls for racial justice are driven by the language and concerns of Scripture and even grounded in the person of Jesus Christ.

At least at a high level, the stated goals of CRT and DEI are not the problem, even if we fear many common approaches to these ends are misguided or destructive. For those of us concerned about antibiblical versions of CRT, the best antidote might be to follow the Lausanne Covenant’s example. May we articulate a robust theology of justice and follow through in our actions—and may we be penitent for our past failures to pursue justice.

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III. In studying the Lausanne Movement, I’m always struck by members’ pride, joy, and love for the diversity of the global, non-Western church and their desire to amplify its voice. The conference is structured to include people from the most remote, underrepresented, and underresourced countries. It offers sliding-scale fees to ensure participants with less means can attend. Even as organizers gather the most diverse and global group of Christians in history each meeting, they always express sadness for the corners of the church that cannot attend.

That said, Lausanne’s commitment to global participation faced several obstacles early on in its history—beginning with its first gathering, where more than 1,000 of the 2,700 attendees came from developing countries.

Before Lausanne, some African leaders called for a “moratorium” on Western missionaries and any money raised through their networks. This was in part because many objected to the paternalistic patterns they saw in missions, which were often fueled by large imbalances in wealth.

Western missions, even when well intentioned, have at times been exploitative and failed to create healthy, collaborative relationships that serve non-Western countries well. And to be sure, the missionary movement’s association of Western culture with Christianity did distort the gospel and was often a stumbling block to the rest of the world.

Lausanne organizers invited Christians from all sides of this debate to the congress, including Kenyan theologian John Gatu, the author of the moratorium. At the congress, the East Africa National Strategy group of about 60 Africans took up the question of this request. A robust and reasonable debate ensued between Gatu, who argued for the moratorium, and Festo Kivengere, an Anglican bishop from Uganda who argued against it. By the end of the week, both sides had sorted out their differences enough to offer a consensus statement to the congress:

The idea behind moratorium is concerned about over-dependence upon foreign resources both personnel and finances, which sometimes hinders initiative and development of local responsibility. [Our] group felt that the application of the concept behind moratorium might be considered for specific situations rather than generally.

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With the moratorium writ large effectively withdrawn, the rest of the congress—and the largely Western drafting committee—could have responded triumphantly by avoiding the issue altogether. But instead, the committee recognized the legitimacy of the African concerns and amended the draft to state, “We also acknowledge that some of our missions have been too slow to equip and encourage national leaders to assume their rightful responsibilities.”

Elsewhere, in its article on “Evangelism and Culture,” the covenant also includes an acknowledgment that while “the gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another,” global “missions have, all too frequently, exported with the gospel an alien culture.”

The covenant as distributed by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in the 1970s.

The covenant as distributed by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in the 1970s.

The covenant as distributed by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in the 1970s.

The covenant as distributed by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in the 1970s.

In these statements, the non-Western church rightly corrected the Western church, and the West responded with repentance. Once again, the “many-colored wisdom of God,” to recall the covenant’s phrase, arose not despite but because of disagreements that needed to be sorted out.

At the root of this issue was the common desire of non-Western Christians to be welcomed as equals. And the Lausanne Covenant overtly salutes the beauty of this vision:

We rejoice that a new missionary era has dawned. The dominant role of western missions is fast disappearing … demonstrating that the responsibility to evangelize belongs to the whole body of Christ.

Fifty years ago, evangelicals were becoming aware of how non-Western churches suffered when the gospel was too tightly linked with Western cultures and countries. And in our present day, we are seeing firsthand the dangers and damage this linkage has wrought on Western churches too.

Whenever we identify Christianity with the West, America, or any other sociopolitical entity, our witness and our understanding of the gospel become distorted. And when we ignore the full diversity of voices in the global church, we neglect the “many-colored wisdom” of God.

Top left: Festo Kivengere. Top right: John Stott. Bottom: Attendees at Lausanne II in 1989.
Image: Courtesy of Wheaton Archives & Special Collections, Wheaton College, IL

Top left: Festo Kivengere. Top right: John Stott. Bottom: Attendees at Lausanne II in 1989.

The Lausanne Covenant created a strange sort of movement—a network of Christians across the globe from several denominations and organizations. And although the congress itself was composed exclusively of Protestants, the covenant they adopted was intentionally in alignment with other branches of Christianity. At least among the Harvey fellows, many Catholics and Orthodox Christians have signed it too.

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A Christian from China once recounted to me his being asked to sign the covenant, which brought him real fear and concern. In China, signatures were physical evidence that the government used to identify Christians and persecute them, so he had been taught never to sign something that would so thoroughly implicate him. Still, after much deliberation, he decided to sign the covenant—the only belief statement he has ever signed. Many of us will never face persecution like his, but in signing the covenant, we are joining in solidarity with him and so many others like him.

Particularly outside America, the Lausanne community has continued to grow, and although it remains full of disagreements, it has kept in clear view the mission of the one who is greater than all our differences.

Top: Attendees discuss the program at Lausanne II, 1989. Bottom: A keynote session during Lausanne II.
Image: Courtesy of Wheaton Archives & Special Collections, Wheaton College, IL

Top: Attendees discuss the program at Lausanne II, 1989. Bottom: A keynote session during Lausanne II.

The Lausanne community continues to gather new generations of leaders. Fifteen years after the 1974 congress, in 1989, the Second International Conference for World Evangelism convened in Manila and came to be known as Lausanne II. This congress included 4,300 delegates from 173 countries, including the Soviet Union. And in 2010, 21 years later, the Third Lausanne Congress met in Cape Town, South Africa. This time, 4,000 delegates from 198 countries gathered in person, but many more participated virtually.

This September, the fourth congress will convene in Seoul, where 5,000 delegates—myself included—will attend in person and 5,000 will attend virtually. Tens of thousands more will attend satellite meetings across the globe.

Much has changed since the last gathering in 2010. New wars are raging around the world, and rumors of war loom even in Korea where we will meet. The United States is preparing for another contentious presidential election, along with many other countries, and several denominational conventions are continuing to divide over tensions between fundamentalism and progressivism.

Still, my hope is that evangelicals will once again have an opportunity to remember who we are, where we came from, and why it is vital for us to work across our differences rather than ignore, stifle, or divide over them. And perhaps, as we reorient ourselves to the work of God’s global mission, we may recover the best version of what it has meant to be an evangelical.

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As we look toward Seoul this year, I urge all believers—evangelical or not—to read, discuss, and consider signing the Lausanne Covenant. May church leaders teach it from the pulpit so congregations can wrestle with what it demands of us. Let it remind us of the beautiful and beloved community of differences and disagreements to which we are called.

Let us covenant together, once again, to take up the great task of world missions, that God’s whole church might bring the whole gospel to the whole world.

S. Joshua Swamidass is a physician scientist, associate professor of laboratory and genomic medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, founder of Peaceful Science, and author of The Genealogical Adam and Eve.

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