World Evangelism…Our Sacred Task

An exclusive interview with Dr. Robert E. Coleman, the only United Methodist serving on the Continuing Committee of the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization.

Q What is the purpose of the Lausanne Continuation Committee for World Evangelization?

A The International Congress on World Evangelization last summer in Switzerland expressed a strong desire that a group be selected to implement the goals and wishes declared at Lausanne. To this end, a committee of 48 persons, representing 25 nations, was elected by the Planning Committee from names submitted by the Congress. Care was given, in the final selection, to geographical and denominational balance around the world.

Within the guidelines of the Lausanne Covenant (see highlights in box), the aims of the Committee is to further the total Biblical mission of the Church, recognizing that in this mandate, evangelism is primary. Our particular concern must be the evangelization of the 2,700 million unreached people on the earth, as well as the other millions of nominal churchmen who have not yet heard or responded to the true Gospel.

The Committee envisions its role to be that of a catalyst – to communicate what God is doing and what we believe He wants do to in the world, and to stir the people of God to more effective action. That is, we do not see ourselves setting up big programs and budgets on a global scale. Rather, our purpose is to provide a clearing house and implementation center for evangelicals of the world to take initiative.

Q How do you propose to do this?

A The members of the Continuation Committee in each major region of the world have been asked to form a broad network at the grass-roots level to foster and coordinate national strategies. This seems, to me, a realistic way to proceed. All of us recognize that the wide diversity of situations in the world call for a variety of approaches. Therefore, persons from different regions and cultures should work out their own programs.

Several times during the Mexico City meetings in January 1975, we broke up into continental groups to consider what goals should be set for the next few years, and what resources and structures would be needed to attain them. I think that everyone was anxious to see some fresh cooperative ventures in evangelism. We discussed such matters as improved training for clergy and debate begun at Lausanne in such areas as evangelism and social action, Christian ethics, and church renewal.

How these and other concerns will come forth in concrete proposals has yet to be decided. But whatever is agreed on, it will represent a broadly-based process by the people involved, carried out with sensitivity and openness.

Q What will be the relationship of the new organization to the W.C.C. (World Council of Churches)? To what extent will it differ in organization, theology, and function?   

A The Committee has no desire to become another W.C.C. In fact, we are opposed to any bureaucratic model that would presume global laity, better evangelistic methods, intensified cross-cultural ministries, and utilizing more effectively the mass media. The African and Asian groups were especially concerned with strengthening theological education. In the Arab world there was a cry for more full-time evangelists. The European continent reiterated the importance of continuing the authority. Hence the focus on regionalization. In keeping with this emphasis, the Lausanne World Committee has resolved to maintain a low profile for itself and to operate with a modest budget and staff. This stands in remarkable contrast to the W.C.C., as you know.   However, our most significant difference is in the realm of faith. The Lausanne Continuation Committee unanimously affirms an unequivocal commitment to Biblical doctrine and duty, especially as expressed in the Lausanne Covenant. Moreover, we are united in our Lord’s commission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). The W.C.C., with its syncretistic and universalistic understanding of the Gospel, cannot even agree on a definition of evangelism. I am afraid that theological liberalism has so taken over the W.C.C., especially since the Uppsala and Bangkok Conferences, that W.C.C. seems more concerned with the breakdown of political structures in society than with evangelizing a lost world. While the W.C.C. embraces millions of Bible-believing Christians, the official leadership of the Conciliar movement, with few notable exceptions, has tragically departed from its original missionary origins.

What this means for true evangelicals caught in this monolithic W.C.C. vice becomes painfully obvious. The World Council of Churches, by its departure from vital Biblical Christianity, does not and cannot provide a fellowship for the evangelical community of the world. In all candor, we must look elsewhere for any meaningful spiritual home. If we think otherwise, we are only fooling ourselves.

Q Can you assume that the Lausanne Committee speaks for the vast evangelical world community? What about other existing organizations that are seeking much the same ends?

A Your point is well taken. The Continuation Committee is only carrying out the wishes of those representatives from 150 nations gathered at Lausanne. We do not pretend to be the only body concerned with uniting evangelical Christians. Nevertheless, I think that it is fair to say that at the present time evangelicals of the world are not being pulled together by any existing organization. The World Evangelical Fellowship, probably the nearest thing to it, does not reach the vast majority of people. Something on a much broader scale is needed.

Certainly we must approach this task with deep sensitivity. Where there are already existing associations which share similar aims and spirit, we will need to seek the largest measure of cooperation, and use whatever flexibility is necessary to achieve our goals.

Take our situation in the United States, as an example. The National Association of Evangelicals, while appealing to the smaller conservative groups, does not represent the largest conservative denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention. Nor does it include the large Missouri-Lutheran Synod, among others. Yet the Southern Baptists and Missouri Lutherans have no part in the National Council of Churches.

On the other hand, within the N.C.C. denominations, like the United Methodists, there are multitudes left out. Some may actually feel more identity with some of the para-church groups, like Campus Crusade for Christ or Inter-Varsity, which provide spiritual ministry to many people across denominational lines. The charismatic movement is yet another dimension of this vast throng of basically Bible-believing people. Put these all together and you have a potential force staggering to contemplate!

Some framework is needed for a fellowship which appreciates distinctive church doctrines and the government of each group, yet unites around a common evangelical commitment to world evangelization. I believe that the Lausanne Covenant and purpose offers the best hope for this in our generation.

Q What is your personal expectation for Lausanne, and why are you willing to serve on its Steering Committee?

A Apart from the joy of association with this body of evangelical leaders, I count it a privilege to have a part in this daring dream. If, by God’s grace, we can approximate our goal, it will be the greatest ecumenical breakthrough in modern times. Admittedly, our aspirations at this point are projected largely on faith. But I would rather give myself to something great, even though exceedingly difficult, than to spend effort on a comfortable cause of little consequence.

And what greater task can we set before us than the fulfillment of our Lord’s Great Commission? In this supreme mission of Christ, I see every person involved who takes the Bible seriously. Our particular roles will vary according to gifts and calling, but all of us share the same objective.

Q Is it true that Billy Graham runs Lausanne? If not, what will make it an authentically open group?   

A In answer to your first question, I can say unequivocally that Billy Graham does not run Lausanne. Those who may have this notion simply do not understand what it is all about. The spirit of Lausanne is too big for any one person to manipulate.

It is true that Billy Graham has given inspiration to evangelicals of our time as no other single individual, but he has never tried to dominate the movement. The only reason that he took initiative and gave so largely of his resources in getting the Berlin and Lausanne Congresses together, is because there was no one else who had the facility to do it. For this we owe him an immeasurable debt, though he would be the first to deny it. Billy Graham, wherever possible for years, has sought to push others to the fore. This magnanimous concern was clearly evident when we met in Mexico City. He insisted that he have no responsibility on the Continuing Committee, though he did accept our unanimous invitation to become Honorary Chairman of the Consultative Council.

Q What things about the Lausanne Covenant make it the possible ideological-theological point of polarity for evangelicals around the world? What about those who can’t buy its strong position on the inerrancy of Scripture? To what extent will leadership of Lausanne be protected against the termite influence of those with other views?   

A Your concern is appreciated. Doubtless there will come attempts to subvert the doctrinal content of the Covenant. The particular statement which you alluded to has already caused considerable foment. To say that the Scripture is “without error in all that it affirms” is indeed a strong witness. But it clearly aligns Lausanne with the convictions of the great Reformers, and to take a less definitive position in our day would open a “pandora’s box” of possible serious theological deviations.

There are many other aspects of the Lausanne Covenant which might raise objections, such as the strong emphasis upon social action or the simple life. And some may have semantic problems with the document. Where one cannot subscribe to every detail of the document, hopefully there will be some kind of an affiliate arrangement for those who may desire identity with its spirit. This is a matter which still needs clarification.

Q Will the historic Methodism of the Wesleys be entirely submerged in Lausanne? Or could Lausanne provide a means of vivifying our tradition?   

A I am confident that there is no desire by anyone that the Wesleyan message be lost in Lausanne. They sincerely want our witness to be heard! Unfortunately, in the past generation, the historic Bible based message of Wesley has been obscured in most of the official agencies and schools of Methodism. This has had the effect of so watering down our heritage that the United Methodist Church has lost much of its original evangelical identity. What, today, so often goes under the name of Methodism is not Wesleyan at all, but rather a form of semi-pelagian humanism.

Doubtless, this accounts for a smaller Methodist presence at Lausanne than, say, the Reformed tradition.  But as far as John Wesley is concerned, I do not recall hearing anyone mentioned more often at the Lausanne Congress. His clarion faith in an infallible Bible and his blazing heart for evangelism puts him at the very center of the Lausanne movement. So in regard to your last question, I think that Lausanne, emphasizing those basic motivations which gave birth to the great worldwide Methodist revival, dramatically calls attention to our spiritual roots.  Let me say something, too, about the balance of the Continuation Committee. Though I am the only United Methodist serving on it, Wesleyan theology is represented by some men from other communions of the world. I feel that in terms of our evangelical strength today, worldwide, the teaching of Wesley has been given a very fair THE NATURE OF EVANGELISM voice in Lausanne. If we would like more, then let us take to heart more earnestly what Wesley believed and enlarge our numbers through Biblical evangelism.

Q In the light of what you have said, could you sum up the implication of Lausanne for the Good News Movement?

A The Good News fellowship within The United Methodist Church reflects the same yearning which brought Lausanne into being. What is seen in our small sphere of the church is happening in com-world. Evangelicals are on the march.

In this sense, Lausanne gives visibility to our cause on a global scale. It will help us know a strength and solidarity which we could not have alone. We can see ourselves now as part of a vast and growing army of committed disciples from every nation. Our evangelical fellowship literally embraces hundreds of millions of like-minded people. Never before have we been so united. Before us are many struggles and disappointments. I am sure that there will be some agonizing trials as we seek to find ways to work side by side. But we must not let any secondary conflict divert us from our all-consuming mission of world evangelization. In this dedication we have come to  our finest hour.

Q As individual United Methodists, what can we do to relate ourselves and our churches to this worldwide evangelical movement?

A For the moment, we can align ourselves with the Lausanne Covenant.  Here is the best articulation in modern times of an evangelical consensus on basic issues. Congregations might find it stimulating to study in depth this document. A commentary on the Covenant has been prepared for just this purpose.  It is: The Lausanne Covenant, by John Stott, price, 95¢, and is available from Good News.

In addition, the major addresses and papers delivered at the Congress can be read with great profit. They are now available in book form and on cassettes. A series of six studies entitled “Reaching All,” developed from the Congress messages, also offers an exciting opportunity to become better informed about evangelizing  the world for Christ.

The most significant thing, of course, is that we take to heart the practical implications of our evangelical faith. This should find expression in a vital church evangelistic and missionary outreach on the local scene.

As cooperative programs are developed across the country, I would hope that United Methodists will assume a prominent role in the action. This should come naturally to us! We have always looked upon ourselves essentially as a company of Bible Christians united to pursue holiness of life and to herald the Gospel of redeeming grace across the earth.

Those who share this spirit, by whatever name they are called, certainly should be in the forefront of evangelism in our day. Here, without hesitation, we can work together as loyal sons and daughters of Wesley, and in so doing we will most clearly show the world that we are a Good News Movement.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List!

Click here to sign up to our email lists:

•Perspective Newsletter (weekly)
• Transforming Congregations Newsletter (monthly)
• Renew Newsletter (monthly)

Make a Gift

Global Methodist Church

Is God Calling You For More?


Latest Articles: