One strategic feature of the conference was the opportunity to meet one-on-one with senior leaders from around the world. We could sign up ahead of time, but often these meetings just happened if you could find time. Just as an example, I spent time and received feedback from two British leaders of theological education ministries, the former head of Navigators, and two missions professors. The time was very intentional. Leaders were all broadly accessible, and there was no sense of celebrity amongst anyone. The way the leaders and participants related to one another was so admirable, and contrasted with many of the conferences I have attended in the past.
2. Cross-Cultural Engagement Issues on Display
For those of us who work cross-culturally, we never stop learning about cultural differences, many of which impact the way we proclaim and minister the gospel. Such differences were on display at the conference, and can help us learn to work more effectively alongside Christians around the world.
At one point an announcement was made for everyone to get in line. What ensued made me laugh. Most of the Africans just crowded to the front. The Asians deferred, and my Midwestern sensitivities let people “cut” in front of me as they seemed to be in a hurry.
There was one speaker who gave a very impassioned message. The content was great. And while in the US the passion would communicate the speaker’s sincerity, some of the Brits I spoke with were put off. They took it to mean the speaker had to yell because their argument was weak. Some from other cultures thought they were being disciplined and yelled at. Others felt shamed. The speaker spoke so fast the translators could not keep up. It’s a reminder to all of us who wish to preach in different cultures.
Is it pride to list the accomplishments of the speaker or is it pride if you make fun of the speaker? The Aussies were good at tearing people down that they loved and respected. The Koreans and many Africans showed honor by listing accomplishments. Many were completely thrown o by the humor. I fi nd that humor is one of the hardest things to communicate cross-culturally, and you had better know what you are doing or risk great offense.
It’s a wonder that Jesus holds us all together.
3. But United Around What?
Despite the joy of meeting with Christians from around the world, I had nagging questions that kept going through my mind: Who decides what represents the global evangelical church? And what are we to do with the dominating influence of Pentecostal practices and theology within the global evangelical movement? To just define the terms of engagement of this topic has spawned articles and books. Let me at least try to offer some observations:
1. Lausanne is not just ethnically diverse, but theologically as well, even more so when gathering emerging leaders. Participating requires a certain level of flexibility. It is a very organic movement, as the leaders allow a lot to happen that they may themselves not participate in. And participants have an even lower bar to clear, and from what I could tell, it essentially was whether they loved Jesus. As I sat there taking it all in, I wondered to myself what expression of the global church Lausanne represents. I believe someone else could have gathered another 1000 people and gotten a totally different group. But, in my experience, Lausanne is a fair expression of very broad evangelicalism.
2. The unity I sensed was a common bond that we were the blood-bought people of God who had placed their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sin. Is that evangelical? Maybe. This type of unity is easy and important. But the bottom line is that unity is also hard. I’m not going to unite in ministry with missionaries promoting the Insider Movement, but I am glad we are at Lausanne together. I believe they are making a critical error and I am glad we can engage each other. I’m not going to unite in ministry with faith healers, but I am glad they came to Lausanne as participants. I’m going to have to be pushed to embrace progressive views of creation care, but I am glad to listen to them. Theological differences eventually have real consequences. When David Platt spoke on the reality of an eternal conscious hell for those who reject Christ, there was significant pushback, coming from those impacted over the years by John Stott. But this is the place to have it. Lausanne is a movement worth investing in and I am grateful for the chance to be involved.
3. The most important problem I believe is the varying definitions of the gospel that appeared throughout the week. That might seem strange for an organization committed to world evangelization. Of particular concern is the question of whether gospel proclamation is even necessary. I think for many participants and even leaders within Lausanne, the answer is a weak, “yeah sure.” The sentiment follows Richard Stearns’ The Hole is Our Gospel, which in the end proved to be no gospel at all. I think it is good for those of us who emphasize the necessity of gospel proclamation to understand the contexts people come from (typically poor and marginalized), when they want to argue for primarily “living the gospel.” They have a fair point to make, even if they are indulging a critical theological error in the process.
4. When engaging in a setting like this where agreement is hard to find on many issues, the goal has to be to listen and learn. This argument obviously falls apart at some point when a line is crossed and the gospel is at stake. I am not suggesting setting theological convictions aside or pursuing unity by running to the lowest common denominator one can find. What I am saying is that if you only remain in your theological camp (in my case, Reformed), you will not meet many Christians. I listened to an African leader talk about getting followers. He seemed like a genuinely humble man, so I wanted to understand why he was using the language he did to express his leadership style. My leadership workshop small group was with two African American female pastors. The three of us shared stories as I tried to understand where they were coming from. I enjoyed learning from them. I tracked with a group that had a spontaneous meeting on power evangelism. I was curious to engage them to understand why they wanted to have healing ministries. I wanted to understand the westerners who spoke in such different theological terms than I am used to—for example, “mak- ing space for God in worship,” seeing Shalom as the unifying theme of scripture, believing that the cross and kingdom ethics should lead to a politically progressive view of creation care, that we should “embody the gospel,” that we should “live the gospel,” etc. Because I listened, I could engage. I was there to learn, but in the spirit of humility (hopefully!), I was also there to argue with my family.
5. The west is still in the driver’s seat, despite our efforts not to be. We sang with a talent- ed group of musicians, singing in Hillsong style with Chris Tomlin mixed in, in various languages, with strobe lights and fog. It felt like a mix of Willow Creek and Urbana. The worship team from Indonesia was almost an exact copy. The workshops on leadership by leaders from the global south copied John Maxwell. Many of the leaders were graduates of western seminaries. As I took this in I wondered if we were an expression of the global church or the western church projecting a version of church. I think the latter. As long as the money and rich educational opportunities are in the West, it is hard to think this might change anytime soon.
6. The Reformed community has a big microphone, but a small global imprint. You can’t come to that conclusion by just interacting with Lausanne at one conference, but if you begin to engage with the multiple world mission organizations, you will see it. First, you will find very few complementarian leaders, influenced by Edwards and Piper, having had Carson and Keller shape their ministry and hermeneutics. The mission leaders from the West are typically ecumenical, flexible, not exact on many theological convictions, and egalitarian. The global leaders are often similar, but tend to be even more exible, and some see no problem with the over-realized eschatology of the so-called prosperity gospel. None of these western missions leaders or national leaders from around the world have highly trafficked websites. I would even say that most of the Reformed community would not even recognize the names of the leaders of Lausanne. Second, books and resources are often downplayed globally, which is typically a hallmark of Reformed evangelicals. At Lausanne, for example, there were two tables with a few books for sale, the prominent one being on creation care. There did not seem to be much thought given to resourcing the participants. Lausanne has so many resources at their disposal, but seemingly has yet to resource them as well as they could.