The Lausanne movement, inaugurated with the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, has become a potent symbol of evangelical unity in mission, and its Covenant, a representative statement of the mission theology of evangelicalism, as exemplified by Billy Graham and John Stott. It also became a focal point for conflicts that arose when evangelicals sought to fulfill their understanding of the Gospel mandate at the same time as a changing church met a changing world. This article briefly explores the way in which an evangelical response to the emerging ecumenical movement of the 1960s became the locus for conflicting understandings of evangelism and evangelistic priorities from the 1970s to the present day--a period when evangelicalism realized its own cultural, spiritual, and political diversity in the midst of vast changes in world social and political structures.
The Aftermath of Edinburgh 1910
In 1910 it appeared as if the movement to spread Christianity worldwide was a virtually unstoppable force. The key strategic and theological fissures among Western missionaries seemed to have been largely resolved at the great mission conference at Edinburgh. Yet only half a century later, Christian missionaries believed their movement to be in disarray. The word "crisis" appears repeatedly in missionaries' own characterizations of mission in mid-twentieth century, and in place of regular worldwide mission conferences, there emerged two distinct and often mutually antagonistic mission movements claiming the mandate of 1910.
At the end of the Second World War a convergence of forces challenged existing understandings of Christian mission: the end of formal colonialism and the rise of dozens of new independent nations, the emergence of the Communist world as an existential threat to Western Christendom, the nuclear arms race and the Cold-War efforts by the First and Second Worlds to establish hegemony over the Third World, the creation of the nonaligned movement of newly independent nations, the postwar de-Christianization of Western Europe, and the growth of independent Christian leaders and churches elsewhere. Out of this situation the ecumenical and evangelical movements emerged as distinct Christian responses, each drawing on significant new synergies, and each with significantly different concerns.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) had its political center of gravity in Europe, being dominated by historic Protestant denominations on both sides of the Atlantic. As a formal successor to the great mission conferences earlier in the century, the WCC represented both a drive toward church unity and the unity of the churches in mission. It was able to draw on the substantial financial and personnel resources of member denominations and their large mission agencies, as well as the interest of Western governments in encouraging programs of social, economic, and political development as bulwarks against Communist influence in the Third World. As a council of churches, it had direct contact with the church and mission leaders of its constituent members, interests to either expand or defend in virtually every newly independent nation as well as the Communist world, and historic links with student and youth movements, which continued to provide its leaders. Thus engaged, from the 1950s to the 1970s the WCC moved toward expansive understandings of the missio Dei, the "mission/sending of God," that could include much more than personal evangelism in the Christian mandate. Such understandings addressed the crisis of a mission that was seen as too narrow to address the challenges of the postcolonial world. Yet they could arguably, quite apart from stated theological commitments, devalue the need for personal conversion.
In the same period a trans-Atlantic and increasingly international conservative evangelical movement distanced itself from fundamentalism and separatism in the United States. …