Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

From the Lausanne Covenant to the Cape Town Commitment: A Theological Assessment

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

From the Lausanne Covenant to the Cape Town Commitment: A Theological Assessment

Article excerpt

The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization convened in Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2010.

It brought together over four thousand evangelical leaders, plus guests from other Christian traditions, to ponder where faithful Christians are called today in God's mission. The Lausanne movement, inaugurated in Lausanne in 1974, has been one of the most important voices in Christian mission over the past three and a half decades, with its congresses, working groups, and forums. Given its importance, it would be worthwhile to trace how its theology has developed through the course of its three international congresses: at Lausanne (1974), Manila (1989), and now Cape Town (2010). Can changes be signaled or trends detected? As one observer asked, Is there movement in the Movement?

This article is an attempt to assess the directions of the theology of the Lausanne movement from the perspective of a nonevangelical: in this case, a Roman Catholic who has great sympathy and respect for so much of what evangelical mission has achieved but who is nonetheless willing, as needed, to cast a critical eye upon its developments. I did not participate in the Cape Town congress or in any of its predecessors, so my reading of the theological statements reflects more the final form of those statements rather than how they were produced. I am familiar, however, with a good number of the Lausanne Occasional Papers, a number of which have been influential in my own work.

This assessment is in four parts. The first looks at the theological significance of the stated genre of the three statements: as "covenant" (Lausanne), as "manifesto" (Manila), and as "commitment" (Cape Town). What might these choices of genre be saying about the theological self-understanding of those who produced these statements? The second and third parts consider, first, the theological understandings of mission, and then the world in which mission is undertaken. What do these theological "frames" tell us of the theological assumptions that have shaped and are shaping the movement? The final part examines a number of specific theological themes that appear in the three documents and that have developed (or disappeared) over the course of these congresses.

This is obviously an assessment in very broad strokes, given the space allotted. It is intended to track some of the larger or more salient developments in evangelical mission over these past three and a half decades. But in so doing, it is hoped that this study will contribute to a greater understanding of what directions evangelical mission is taking--at least from the perspective of an interested outsider.


What might the genre chosen for each of these documents tell us about the theological self-understanding of those who wrote them and, albeit obliquely, the dynamics of the congresses themselves?

The fact that evangelical Christianity is a very diverse phenomenon--even as it holds firmly to certain biblical and theological tenets--makes any generalization at once hazardous and intriguing. Generalizations are hazardous because one could view evangelical Christianity as a monolith because of its shared convictions, overlooking its considerable diversity. But evangelical Christianity is also intriguing because of how it manages this very pluralism in light of its biblical faith. To use the phrase of the preamble to the Cape Town document, it seeks "breadth within boundaries."

Second, these documents are consensus documents; that is, they were intended to give a shared expression to the outcome of meetings in which thousands of people were involved. Their consensus nature is most evident in the careful wording found at certain points to articulate central but sometimes contested issues, such as the Bible as the infallible word of God, the place of spiritual warfare, or the role of women in evangelism.

These two caveats about the diversity of those who gathered and the nature of their consensus documents are important to keep in mind as one reads what follows here. …

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