A 21st Century Reformation?

Report on the Theology Working Group

Budapest, June 20th, 2007

One of the most attractive things about the Lausanne Covenant for many of us is its wonderful balance and integration of things that have often polarized Christians:  the integration of faith and works, of evangelism and social action, of practice and reflection, of mission and theology.

Our commitment in Lausanne is

  • To practise what we believe, and
  • To think about what we practise.

That is to say, as Doug Birdsall is fond of saying, that

  • All our mission practice must be grounded in theological reflection, and
  • All our theology must result in missional outworking

And to this I would add, that both must be grounded in the Scriptures.  For the Bible gives us both:

On the one hand, the Bible gives us the mandate and models for action – ever since the first great commission – not the one at the end of Matthew’s gospel, but to Abraham, who received a command (‘Go’), a responsibility (‘be a blessing’), and a promise (‘through you all nations on earth will be blessed’, in Gen. 12:1-3).

And on the other hand, the Bible gives us the theological foundation for all our action – the mission of God to bring blessing to God’s world through God’s people for all God’s creation.

So we need both, the Bible gives us both, and the Lausanne covenant integrates both.  This is the conviction shared by the Lausanne Theology Working Group.  It was formed after Lausanne I in 1974, and was ably led by John Stott, John Reid and others over the years. It was re-constituted after the Lausanne Forum in Pattaya, 2004, when Doug Birdsall invited me to take on the Chair and re-establish the group with fresh membership.

We met in Limuru, Kenya, in February 2007, as a group of about 25 men and women from all around the world – people engaged in a combination of mission practice and theological reflection. Our agenda-setting overall theme was ‘Following Jesus in our Broken World’.  We chose the first phrase because all mission must be a reflex of our discipleship. Mission must be done by followers of Jesus, who are seeking to be like him in what they do and how they do it.  So what, then, is Christlike mission, mission in his image, mission that breathes the spirit of his humility, servanthood, and is marked by the cross, the resurrection and the ultimate victory of Christ?

And we chose the second half of the title because all mission must be in the reality of our world context – which is one of overwhelming brokenness.  But we deliberately said ‘our world’, not just ‘the  world’,  for we Christians have contributed our share of brokenness. Indeed we are often complicit in the things that cause suffering and brokenness in the world, and we ourselves are in need of healing and reconciliation. So we follow Jesus in mission, as sinners and failures, as those who are far from perfect and far from innocent – but who do so as a community of reconciled and forgiven disciples.

Under that title we explored six aspects of what costly discipleship in mission means in relation to our contemporary world, with discussion papers prepared by the following:

  • John Azumah    Following Jesus as Unique Lord and Saviour in a Pluralistic World
  • Mark Chan    Following Jesus as the Truth:  Postmodernity and Relativism
  • Chris Wright    Following Jesus in the Globalized Marketplace
  • Dewi Hughes    Following Jesus as His Community in the Broken World of Ethnic Identity
  • Jonathan Bonk    Following Jesus in Contexts of Power and Violence
  • Isaiah Dau    Following Jesus in a World of Suffering and Violence

These papers are to be published in a special issue of Evangelical Review of Theology in October 2007.  They were supported by a wide range of smaller case-studies from all participants, stimulating a very profound and often moving discussion.

Looking to the future, it was decided in Limuru that over the next three years, leading up to Lausanne III in Cape Town 2010, we would take up the three phrases in the Lausanne ‘slogan’  (which of course comes from the Lausanne Covenant – ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’.   Accordingly, we will ask what we mean by, and what are the practical and strategic implications of,

  • ‘The Whole Gospel’ – Feb 2008
  • ‘The Whole Church’ – Jan 2009
  • ‘The Whole World’ – Feb 2010

But if we are to explore these three, we need to make sure we also use the whole Bible.  For holistic theology and practice of mission require a holistic understanding and use of the Bible.  The Bible as a whole gives us the ‘whole counsel of God’ – that is, God’s whole mind, will, purpose, plan and mission.  The Bible shows us God’s priorities and passions.  The Bible as a whole shows us God’s heart

  • For the last and the least (socially, culturally and economically) as well as the lost (spiritually)
  • For those dying of hunger, AIDS, and war, as well as those who are dying in their sins
  • For the landless, homeless, family-less and stateless as well as for those who are without Christ, without God and without hope in the world.

The God who commands us to disciple all nations also commands us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

We still struggle to ‘relate’ these things to one another when we ought never to have split them apart in the first place. But sadly we did. We have been guilty of putting asunder what God has joined together. Lausanne, in its commitment to holistic mission, believes in the integration of all these things because anything less is untrue to the Bible.

The Lausanne Covenant speaks of ‘the entirety’ of the Scriptures, and about ‘all that it affirms’. May God protect us from selective hermeneutics, from polarized priorities and from segmented perceptions of the gospel.  My big concern is not just that the world church should become more evangelical, but that world evangelicals should become more biblical.

To be biblical is also to be prophetic. And when you study the prophets you observe that the great bulk of all they had to say was addressed, not to the world of outside nations (though they did have words for them), but to the people of God themselves.  The prophets confronted Old Testament Israel and demanded that they change their ways, if they were to have any hope of fulfilling their mission of being a light to the nations and a blessing on the earth. The dominant prophetic call was to repentance among God’s people, so that God could get on with the job of blessing the world.

Just as much today we need repentance and renewal in the church, as well as renewed passion for world mission.  Otherwise, the church may become, as the Lausanne Covenant puts it, “a stumbling block to evangelism when it betrays the Gospel”.  Arguably, in some respects and in some places it has already become exactly that.

Indeed, my hope for Cape Town 2010 is that it would launch and foster nothing less than a 21st Century Reformation – among evangelicals, who need it as much as any other Christian bloc.

For there are scandals and abuses in the world-wide evangelical community that are reminiscent of the worst features of the pre-reformation medieval church in Europe.

  • There are some mega leaders, like ancient prelates, wielding vast wealth, power and control – unaccountable, unattractive and unChristlike
  • There are multitudes of ordinary Christians going to so-called evangelical churches, where they never hear the Bible preached or taught. They live in scandalous biblical ignorance.
  • Instead they are offered, in the ‘prosperity gospel’ a form of 21st century indulgences, except that you pay your money not for release from pains after death, but for receipt of material ‘blessings’ here and now.
  • And there are evangelicals parading ungodly alliances with secular power – political, economic and military – identifying themselves (and the gospel they claim to preach) with  agendas and ideologies that reflect human empire not the kingdom of God in Christ.

Will we have the courage to identify and renounce such scandals and to seek a reformation of heart, mind and practice?

The 16th Century Reformation was criticized because it lacked missionary awareness and energy until much later. They were so obsessed with tackling abuses in the church that they neglected world mission.   How ironic and tragic will it be if 21st Century evangelicals are so obsessed with world mission that we neglect abuses in the church, and remain wilfully blind to our own idolatries and syncretism?

  • If reformation without mission was defective,
  • then mission without reformation will be deluded, self-defeating and even dangerous.

The Lausanne Covenant, like the Bible itself, commits us to the integration of both. May God grant us the will and humility to respond with equal commitment.

© Copyright 2007 Christopher Wright
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