The story of Lausanne begins with the evangelist Dr Billy Graham. As he started preaching internationally, he developed a passion to ‘unite all evangelicals in the common task of the total evangelization of the world’.
In 1966 the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in partnership with America’s Christianity Today magazine, sponsored the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin. This gathering drew 1,200 delegates from over 100 countries, and inspired further conferences in Singapore (1968), Minneapolis and Bogotá (1969), and Australia (1971). Shortly afterwards, Billy Graham perceived the need for a larger, more diverse congress to re-frame Christian mission in a world of social, political, economic, and religious upheaval. The Church, he believed, had to apply the gospel to the contemporary world, and to work to understand the ideas and values behind rapid changes in society. He shared his thinking with 100 Christian leaders, drawn from all continents, and they affirmed the need. It would be a timely gathering.
In July 1974 some 2,700 participants and guests from over 150 nations gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland, for ten days of discussion, fellowship, worship and prayer. Given the range of nationalities, ethnicities, ages, occupations and church affiliations, TIME Magazine described it as ‘a formidable forum, possibly the widestranging meeting of Christians ever held’.
Speakers included some of the world’s most respected Christian thinkers of the time, including Samuel Escobar, Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry and John Stott. Ralph Winter’s plenary address, in which he introduced the term ‘unreached people groups’, was hailed as ‘one of the milestone events in missiology’. Some were calling for a moratorium on foreign missions, but Winter argued the opposite. Thousands of groups remained without a single Christian, and with no access to Scripture in their tongue, so cross-cultural evangelization needed to be the primary task of the Church.
A major achievement of the congress was to develop The Lausanne Covenant. John Stott chaired the drafting committee and is best described as its chief architect. This was to be a Covenant with God, publicly declared, and a Covenant with one another; it has proved to be one of most widely-used documents in modern church history. The Covenant has helped to define evangelical theology and practice, and has set the stage for many new partnerships and alliances. On the last day of the congress, it was publicly signed by Billy Graham and by Anglican Bishop Jack Dain of Sydney, Australia. It has since been signed personally by thousands of believers, and it continues to serve as a basis for unity and a call to global evangelization.
Reflecting on the impact of the 1974 congress, John Stott writes, ‘Many a conference has resembled a fireworks display. It has made a loud noise and illuminated the night sky for a few brief brilliant seconds. What is exciting about Lausanne is that its fire continues to spark off other fires.’
Over 70% of the congress urged that a Continuation Committee be established, to build on what had been achieved. In January 1975 this group, appointed by the congress, met in Mexico City with Bishop Jack Dain in the chair. Some members pressed for an exclusive focus on evangelization; others favoured a broader, holistic approach. The Committee agreed on a unified aim to ‘further the total biblical mission of the Church, recognizing that in this mission of sacrificial service, evangelism is primary, and that our particular concern must be the [then 2,700 million] unreached people of the world.’ This aim continues to characterize The Lausanne Movement.
The Committee invited Gottfried Osei-Mensah of Ghana to serve as its first General Secretary, and re-named itself The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. It was united by the Covenant and by what Billy Graham first called ‘the spirit of Lausanne’, a spirit exemplified by prayer, study, partnership and hope - in, we trust, a spirit of humility. According to Leighton Ford, the Committee’s first chairman, ‘the Lausanne spirit was a new and urgent commitment to world evangelization in all its aspects, a new attitude of co-operation in the task, and a new cultural sensitivity to the world to which we are called.’ When the Committee met the following year in Atlanta, its defined aim was broken into four functions: intercession, theology, strategy and communication. A working group for each was set up, and all four of these groups remain now.
Throughout its history, The Lausanne Movement has preferred to remain structurally lean. It strives to be a catalyst for new partnerships and strategic alliances among like-minded missional Christians who pray, plan and work together on global evangelization. Its few staff are largely seconded; its committee chairs are volunteers, often shouldering the Lausanne role on top of other major responsibilities. Its structures are simple, with tentacles reaching into 200 nations. Lausanne does not claim to be widely-known; it does not strive to make a name for itself, but to serve the Church.
Since 1974, dozens of Lausanne-related conferences have been convened. Global gatherings include the Consultation on World Evangelization (Pattaya 1980), the Conference of Young Leaders (Singapore 1987), the Forum for World Evangelization (2004 Forum) and the Younger Leaders’ Gathering (Malaysia 2006). Lausanne has inspired many regional networks and issue-based conferences such as the Asia Lausanne Committee on Evangelism (ALCOE), Chinese Co-ordination Centre for World Evangelization (CCCOWE), a series of Nigerian congresses on world evangelization, and several international consultations on Jewish evangelism.
The second major congress, known as Lausanne ll (Manila, Philippines, July 1989) drew 3,000 participants from 170 countries including Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but sadly not China. Lausanne ll produced The Manila Manifesto, as a corporate expression of its participants. This statement of 31 clauses elaborated on The Lausanne Covenant, after 15 years. Lausanne ll was the catalyst for over 300 partnerships and new initiatives, in the developing world and elsewhere. Its significance is best seen through the wide influence of such initiatives.
Lausanne gatherings have often produced landmark documents known as Lausanne Occasional Papers (LOPs). Most of the early LOPs focus on Christian witness to specific groups such as Hindus, Buddhists, refugees and nominal Christians. The 2004 Forum in Pattaya generated 31 LOPs on a wide range of areas, including bioethics, business-as-mission, the persecution of Christians, and globalization.
The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Cape Town, South Africa, 16-25 October 2010. The goal of Cape Town 2010 was to re-stimulate the spirit of Lausanne, as represented in The Lausanne Covenant, and so to promote unity, humility in service, and a call to active global evangelization.
Some 4,000 leaders from 198 countries attended as participants and observers; thousands more took part in seminaries, universities, churches, and through mission agences and radio networks globally, as part of the Cape Town GlobaLink.
Begun in the year leading up to the Congress, and extending beyond it, is the Lausanne Global Conversation at www.lausanne.org/conversation. This is engaging evangelical leaders on every continent.
Christ’s last command on earth has never been rescinded. We want many more to hear and respond to the gospel of Christ, and to grow in their faith, and themselves to become evangelists, for the glory of God. We must work together as we proclaim and defend the eternal message in a contemporary and culturally appropriate manner. The next chapter of the Lausanne history is currently being written.