Lausanne’s Cape Town Commitment – Is there movement in the Movement?

‘Lausanne: Is there movement in the Movement?

In October 2010 the “astonishingly diverse”[i] Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization brought together 4,200 evangelical church and mission leaders from 198 countries. They met in Cape Town, South Africa, whilst hundreds of thousands more participated in meetings both around the world and online. During the Congress, the first draft of the Cape Town Commitment was issued, the fruit of a year’s labour from the Theology Working Group led by Chris Wright.

Roman Catholic Robert Schreiter writes of how a fellow observer at the Congress was heard to ask, ‘Is there movement in the Movement?’[ii] In other words, are there any significant theological shifts in thinking? That question is somewhat flawed, but I wish to address it here in this article. We will see that there are various possible answers to it, and a better question to ask.


Historical and Ecumenical Context

It is not possible to understand Lausanne without seeing the Movement as in some important senses a response to the other mission streams. It cannot, for example, have been an accident that Lausanne’s Third Congress took place on the centenary of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference. The 1910 conference had happened at a time when it was becoming clear that Christianity was on the rise and on the way to becoming a truly global phenomenon. Hopes ran high that the Church could be challenged and mobilised to fulfil the task of proclaiming the gospel to all non-Christian peoples. The First World War soon dented this confidence, and in the ensuing years the Church became embroiled in theological disputes. ‘Liberals’ and ‘Conservatives’ began to divide and a vision of ecumenical cooperation in mission began to crumble. The WCC, formed in 1948, saw itself as a natural successor to Edinburgh. Some evangelicals got involved, but many gave it a wide berth. In 1961 the International Missionary Council was brought into the WCC, and the developing, somewhat politicized, understanding of mission gave some evangelicals even greater cause for concern. For evangelicals, the conversion of the individual was felt to be paramount. When that happened, not only could the individual but society also be changed.

In 1961 the WCC formed a new body called the Commission for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME). The CWME was responsible for guiding the WCC in its mission theology and staged its first conference in Mexico in 1963. This was followed by the Uppsala conference of 1968, the Bangkok conference of 1973, and various others, the last of which took place in Edinburgh, June 2010.

During the 1960s, Evangelicals, largely through the leading of Billy Graham’s organization, began to group. In 1966 two meetings, one in the US and the other in Germany, saw Evangelicals coming together to discuss amongst other things, world evangelisation. These meetings exposed a ‘gap in the market’ for evangelical ecumenism, and in 1974 the first Lausanne was held. This is not the place for an analysis of this or the second Congress, held in 1989 in Manila. Suffice is to say that Lausanne I was notable for its recognition of the need for a holistic understanding of mission. Notable two-thirds world theologians, together with John Stott, were influential in this regard. Lausanne II sought to build on this.

If today there are three main discernible streams of Christian mission thinking, the third and not least, is the Roman Catholic stream. In 1962 the Vatican opened what was its 21st ‘ecumenical’ council, with 2,600 Bishops from every major continent and culture in attendance. Significant documents ensued, Lumen Gentium, Ad Gentes and Nostra Aetate, showing that mission was now firmly on the Catholic agenda. Timothy Yates writes, “Whether in these documents or in the later Evangelii Nuntiandi, the highest priority is given to proclamation, the gospel as a message to be communicated to all, committed to the church, whose prime duty is to proclaim.”[iii] If believing is important to the evangelical stream, and behaving to the ecumenical, it has been suggested that belonging is dominant in the Catholic stream[iv]; that is to say, the importance of belonging to the Catholic Church.

More could be said, for instance, about Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Redemptoris Missio. But suffice it to say that in all three streams there is widespread agreement that both evangelism and social action are necessary components of mission, and that unity and cooperation is important. It is also interesting to note how through the timing of their 2010 events both Evangelical and Ecumenical streams seem to want to lay claim to Edinburgh 1910 as a significant part of their heritage.


Can we measure movement?

How much of what we have seen in recent years may, then, be considered a genuine convergence? Has Lausanne continued to move? If so, in what direction?  And how can we tell? One way would be to attempt an analysis and comparison of typical beliefs. Bosch did this in a paper in 1981 comparing the Melbourne (WCC) and Pataya (Lausanne) conferences, and found big differences[v]. I suggest that if he were to do the same study today, fewer differences would be found.

WCC mission theology or theologies are difficult to pin down, being usually in the form of reports rather than statements, being of necessity a consensus document and therefore somewhat tentative. And theology is dynamic, always changing and developing. So here, very tentatively and recognising the dangers inherent in the use of any model, I want to briefly note six key marks of WCC mission theology[vi], and see how the Cape Town Commitment compares both to those marks and to the two previous Congresses of its own Movement.

The world is the locus of God’s saving activity

This has been a key feature of WCC mission theology since Mexico 1963[vii]. Schreiter speaks of the Cape Town Commitment’s “warm embrace of the world”[viii] and wonders if he sees movement in an evangelical theology of mission. For him, this ‘warm embrace’ seems to be in tension with Reformed theology’s traditional antipathy toward a ‘fallen world’. But if we take the whole Commitment into consideration, Cape Town’s framing of the Confession of Faith in the language of love is not an abandonment of anything at all. It still claims the world is fallen. What has really changed in comparison to past Lausannes is that the language and whole posture is more positive in tone. The creation is fallen, but God still loves it and has plans for it. There is also a clear and unambiguous embrace of earth-keeping and environmental involvement as part of mission that has not been seen before. The word creation can be found a stunning 52 times in the Commitment, compared to just 3 times in the Manifesto and no times at all in the Covenant[ix]. This change reflects global changes in the understanding of climate change and environmental issues that has taken place since the last Congress.

The Kingdom of God is a new social order

WCC theology has seen a very strong focus on change and transformation in the here and now. Cape Town’s positive stance toward creation and the world is not based on an over-realized eschatology. For Cape Town, the motivation for justice, social action and reconciliation is found in the ‘now and not yet’ of participation in the Messiah’s mission that will culminate in the eternal reign of God[x].  One can surely hear echoes in this of Chris Wright’s own mission theology and broad understanding of redemption:  “Is the church… applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ to all the effects of sin and evil in the surrounding lives, society and environment.”[xi]

Sin is corporate as much as it is individual

The WCC has tended to focus on sin as it is institutionalised in corrupt and unjust systems. Cape Town affirms that individuals, society and creation are broken and suffering because of sin, and as such all are included in mission[xii]. Whilst this is true, the document as a whole does however reflect the traditional evangelical inclination to focus on the sin of the individual.

Salvation involves humanisation and social action is at least as important as evangelism

If humanization is the “restoration of all humanity in all its glory”[xiii], then, “[t]he salvation we proclaim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities”[xiv]. Cape Town basically quotes the Lausanne Covenant at this point.  Crucially it then goes on to quote in full –and thus adopt – a key paragraph of the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission – that evangelism and social action belong together, with evangelism having social consequences and social action evangelistic consequences. This represents on the one hand a clearer expression of the relationship of the two issues than Lausanne has seen before, and a refusal to fall into the either the WCC tendency to prioritise the pursuit of shalom without personal shalom, or the evangelical tendency to relegate the social dimension.

Rene Padilla, however, wants to critique the Movement on this very issue. For him, the Movement is still seriously flawed in this. While Lausanne has as its mission statement the strengthening, inspiring and equipping of the church for world evangelization, it merely aims to exhort with regard to social responsibility. Padilla sees enshrined in this mission statement the perennial secular-sacred dichotomy[xv]. And in view of the Cape Town Commitment on this very point, it only seems a matter of time before Lausanne’s mission statement must change to reflect this more integral understanding of mission.

Reconciliation will ultimately be cosmic

The theme of Koinonia, and God’s purpose of bringing all creation into it, has been central for the WCC, at least since the publication of The Nature and Mission of the Church (2005)[xvi].

For Lausanne, it has been noted that whereas Matthew and Luke seem to have provided a theological basis for the previous two Congresses, John and Paul are distinctly seen in this one[xvii]. This can particularly be seen with reference to the prominence of the theme of reconciliation. In Part 2 of the Commitment it is recognised as one of the six key issues facing the global Church today. Whereas WCC theologies tend towards a strong and welcome leaning toward unity, love, justice and peaceful relations between people, Cape Town continues in the same vein as Lausanne I, in clearly speaking of the need for a double-reconciliation of believers with God and with all creation[xviii]. Reconciliation between God-people and people-people are “inseparable”[xix]. However, whereas the Lausanne Covenant had said unequivocally that, “reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God”[xx], the Cape Town Commitment can be seen to be more comprehensive in its scope by steadfastly holding the two together. It, moreover, envisions cosmic reconciliation in terms of the ultimate “integration of the whole creation in Christ”.[xxi]

Openness to truth in other faiths

It is perhaps in this area that the Lausanne Movement continues to retain its clearest distinctives to the WCC. This is evidenced Cape Town by words such as ‘lost’ and ‘unreached’ – indicating the clear belief that mankind without personal knowledge of Jesus Christ is lost and therefore unreached. Whilst dialogue is mentioned, it with regard to respectful listening rather than a seeking after further truth. Again, whereas the Lausanne Covenant was unequivocal in its denial of any dialogue, “which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies”[xxii], the Cape Town Commitment speaks more gently to the issue. Indeed, the language of love both frames the document and features throughout.


So, is there movement in the Movement?

Robert Schreiter has tried to analyse the Lausanne Movement from the perspective of what he calls the chosen genres of the documents produced. For Schreiter, Covenant bespeaks a “chosen people setting out on a journey together with their God”, (cf. Exodus 24) and speaks more to the participants as an aid to self-understanding than it does to outsiders[xxiii]. Manila’s Manifesto is more obviously outward in orientation, belying a sense of consolidation and carrying the idea of proclamation wrapped up in a theological self-understanding taken from Matthew 28;19-20. For Schreiter, Cape Town’s word Commitment speaks of long-term investment, and has “a certain matured quality … that reflects a movement that has become much more self-assured.”[xxiv]

So, in the telling use of genres, yes – there has been movement toward a more self-assured, mature position. And in Corries’ 6 points of WCC mission theology, yes – there has been movement toward a more positive and loving stance, and one that is impressively comprehensive. Again and again it seems to consciously refuse to be one-sided on issues, and seeks to be truly integral. It seems that, Padilla’s comments aside, Cape Town managed to have their cake (the importance of the individual), and eat it (the importance of the world).

But there is one particular issue in which there is no movement from Lausanne’s traditional position. And that is when it comes to the issue of world Evangelization. And in this, Lausanne must be heard to speak with a prophetic voice in the Church and wider world of global mission. It continues to make the case for world evangelization when other streams of mission thinking are often strangely silent on the issue.

“We recognize with grief and shame that there are thousands of people groups around the world for whom such access has not yet been made available through Christian witness. These are peoples who are unreached, in the sense that there are no known believers and no churches among them. Many of these peoples are also unengaged, in the sense that we currently know of no churches or agencies that are even trying to share the gospel with them. Indeed, only a tiny percentage of the Church’s resources (human and material) is being directed to the least-reached peoples… their presence among us in our world 2,000 years after Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations, constitutes not only a rebuke to our disobedience, not only a form of spiritual injustice, but also a silent ‘Macedonian Call’.”[xxv]

Hunt writes of the way in which Cape Town gave leaders and delegates from the two thirds a voice hitherto unseen at previous Congresses[xxvi]. This notwithstanding, Padilla’s critique must surely be heard.  At a time in which more than two-thirds of all Christians live in the global south, the extent to which the North and the West continue to exert power is disproportionate to their numbers.[xxvii] Reflecting on Lausanne III Padilla continues to lament the number-crunching Americans with their charts and plans to reach ‘so called’ unreached people groups. Padilla’s angst is in a very real sense justified – so often the unreached people group idealism is more about management mentality that thinks of mission in very simplistic, and frankly unacceptable, terms. Indeed, another positive sign from Cape Town is that this kind of idealism does not dominate the Commitment at all. However, if the biblical witness is to remain authoritative for the Church’s life and mission, then Cape Town is right to insist that world evangelization must remain a priority. It is in this sense that Lausanne remains unchanged and seems to continue to sound the same note as Edinburgh a century ago.

But there is a further issue to which Lausanne III speaks a word of caution. In 1982 Andrew Walls was one of the first to note the rise of the importance of the church in the global south.[xxviii] These days Europe itself is clearly receiving missionaries from Africa, who in some cases have seen tremendous results[xxix].  Yet, as we celebrate the growth of the Church in the global south and east, and their increasing influence here in the North and West, it must not give cause for complacency. Cape Town deserves to be heard on this point, too.

“We rejoice in the growth and strength of emerging mission movements in the majority world and the ending of the old pattern of ‘from the West to the Rest’. But we do not accept the idea that the baton of mission responsibility has passed from one part of the world Church to another. There is no sense in rejecting the past triumphalism of the West, only to relocate the same ungodly spirit in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. No one ethnic group, nation, or continent can claim the exclusive privilege of being the ones to complete the Great Commission. Only God is sovereign.”[xxx]

The real question, then, is not if there is any movement in the Movement, but about the kind of movement and the kind of non-movement. That is the better question to ask. And the answer is that Cape Town’s movement towards a more positive tone, greater theological comprehensiveness, and continued and compelling insistence on reaching the unreached is a gift to the wider Church. Lausanne has shown that it is alive and moving. It is, however, too soon to tell what kind of impact this latest Congress will have on the wider Church and world. If it is a herculean task to come together to articulate such a broad and expansive understanding of mission, more so, the task of inculcating the vision in the Church. It remains, also, to be seen how Lausanne will resolve some of its inner tensions and grow to more truly reflect the movement in world Christianity.

[i] Jonathan Bonk, ‘Has the Lausanne Movement moved?’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.57

[ii] Quoted in Robert J. Schreiter,  ‘From the Lausanne Covenant to the Cape Town Commitment: A Theological Assessment’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.88

[iii] T. Yates, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p.190

[iv] Paper given by John Corrie at Trinity College, Bristol, January 2010. Cf. [accessed 27 April 2011)

[v] Bosch quoted in Corrie Paper in Ibid.

[vi] Ibid. WCC’s themes are in italics

[vii] Cf. D. Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1991),p.383

[viii] R.J. Schreiter, ‘From the Lausanne Covenant to the Cape Town Commitment: A Theological Assessment’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.90

[ix] Cape Town Commitment, Part 1:7A and Part 2:5

[x] Ibid., Part 1:10

[xi] C.J.H. Wright, The Mission of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006), p.322

[xii] Cape Town Commitment, Part 1:7A

[xiii] J. Kapolyo, ‘Human/Humanity’, in Corrie, J., Ed.,  Dictionary of Mission Theology (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), pp.171-173

[xiv] Cape Town Commitment, Part 1:10B

[xv] C.R. Padilla, ‘The Future of the Lausanne Movement’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), pp.86-87

[xvi] World Council of Churches, The Nature and Mission of the Church, Faith and Order Paper No. 198 (Geneva: WCC, 2005); Cf. Ephesians 1:10

[xvii] R. J. Schreiter, ‘From the Lausanne Covenant to the Cape Town Commitment: A Theological Assessment’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.89

[xviii] Lausanne Covenant, Part 1:8B

[xix] Cape Town Commitment, Part 2:B1

[xx] Lausanne Covenant, Part 5

[xxi] Cape Town Commitment Part 2:B1

[xxii] Lausanne Covenant, Part 3

[xxiii] R. J. Schreiter, ‘From the Lausanne Covenant to the Cape Town Commitment: A Theological Assessment’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.88

[xxiv] Ibid. p.89

[xxv] Cape Town Commitment, Part 2:D1

[xxvi] R. Hunt, ‘The History of the Lausanne Movement, 1974-2010’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.84

[xxvii]C.R. Padilla, ‘The Future of the Lausanne Movement’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2011), p.87

[xxviii] Andrew Walls, ‘The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture’, Faith and Thought 108 (Nos. 1 and 2, 1982), pp.39-52

[xxix] Cf. Asamoah-Gyadu’s article about Pastor Sunday Adelaja in the Ukraine. J.K., Asamoah-Gyadu, ‘African Initiated Christianity in Eastern Europe: Church of the “Embassy of God” in Ukraine’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 30, No.2 (April 2006), pp.73-75

[xxx] Cape Town Commitment, Part 2:F2



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