The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization is taking place in Cape Town, South Africa October 16 — 25. More than 4,000 participants have come from almost 200 countries. Flyn Ritchie, president of Christian Info Society (which publishes this website), is currently there; he sent the following report October 21.When I landed in Cape Town the other day, I completed a round trip (of sorts) in my journey as a Christian believer. I am back on African soil for the first time since I was saved, while traveling through Zambia, in 1977.
I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my own pilgrimage; but I’ve also developed a renewed appreciation of the simple words and acts, carried out by so many anonymous — and sometimes well recognized — people all over the world.
It is that proclamation of the gospel, accompanied by caring deeds, which led to the dramatic growth of the church in the global south (not least in Africa) over the past century. And that’s what the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization is building on in Cape Town.
Thirty-three years ago, at 25 years of age, I hitch-hiked into Cape Town, on the southern tip of the African continent, after covering the 2,000-plus kilometres from a farm outside Lusaka, Zambia.
I arrived at the farm with some blend of New Age and Marxist beliefs, but became a Christian through the influence of the farmers with whom I stayed and worked for three months — and under the prompting of an Australian evangelist preaching in a local Baptist church.
My life turned around — both spiritually and physically. In the slightly naïve, and derivative, words of a new believer (from my diary): “I can see the Lord has really answered my prayer. By God’s grace, and through the work of the Blands [the farm family], I was saved — and whenever I stop to think about it, I feel really excited and grateful. Imagine me going to heaven, when all this time I’ve been so blind to the truth. All I can say (although it still sounds strange to my secularized ears) is Hallelujah!”
Instead of carrying on my long trip to New Zealand, I set my course to back to Europe, to L’Abri, a Christian community in Switzerland, which my Zambian hosts thought would suit a young man of many questions. Some of my questions were answered there; but I also met my wife Margaret, and we moved back to Vancouver.
Thirty-three years later (missing my wife, five children, daughter-in- law and granddaughter) I am back in Africa, in a reflective mood.
Some 5,000 people crowd the halls and assembly rooms at the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization — including participants, volunteers and others, from just under 200 nations. They reflect the incredible diversity of the church today.
The underlying purpose of the event is to “see Christ’s final command on earth fulfilled — to make disciples of all nations.” From this vantage point, the goal seems within reach.
Every day, I meet people who make it abundantly clear why the gospel continues to spread — why Christianity is both the largest and fastest growing faith on earth.
Let me take just a few examples from Africa. Ntsiuoa, a doctor from Lesotho, works in an AIDS clinic. Asheber, from Ethiopia, says thousands of Muslims are coming to Christ; he and his flock are busier discipling than evangelizing. Sarah, a Ugandan who runs an electricity transmission company, spends the rest of her time working with widows.
Today we visited The Warehouse, which works with churches in rich and poor areas, including ‘informal settlements’ (formerly townships, some might say suburban slums). We toured the Warehouse itself, where the staff and volunteers pray an hour every day before they carry on with their more mundane work. They educate, they train, they provide food, they encourage justice rather than charity – but mainly they “seek to change the lives of the poor by restoring their dignity and building meaningful relationships with them.”
Not all stories at Lausanne suggest victory. At my table group of six people — we meet twice every day — we hear from Hikari that in Japan the number of Christians remains stalled at below one percent; from Paul that many young Koreans no longer buy the ‘soul winning’ approach to the gospel, and are dropping out of church; from Matt that New Zealanders are comfortable and apathetic about the gospel message.
But the key is that they — and multitudes more like them — carry on in their work, spreading the message of the gospel, person by person.
I am reminded of the comments by long-time CBC TV journalist Brian Stewart, who covered many international crises as a foreign correspondent: “I’ve found there is no movement, or force, closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises and the vast human predicament, than organized Christianity in action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good. It is these Christians who are right ‘on the front lines’ of committed humanity today, and when I want to find that front, I follow their trail.”
Kevin Jenkins, the new president of World Vision International, expressed a related approach. Trained as a lawyer, and formerly president of Canadian Airlines and other corporations, he said: “I’m a product of evangelism.”
He was asked by a legal client whether he was at all interested in spiritual matters. Billing out his time at $100, he said “Sure.” In due course, he and his wife became Christians. He added: “When you’re a product of adult evangelism, you have a passion for evangelism.”
Well, that hasn’t really described me over the years. I’ve always believed in it, of course, and when people asked, I’ve always told them I was “saved in Zambia” — rather than that I became a Christian, or something less in-your-face.
Because I was saved — from a life separated from God. I didn’t find God in Zambia, he found me. But I was helped on my way by regular people, some of whom turned out to be more flawed than I could see at the time.
One passage from my diary about the farm in Zambia reminds me of the simplicity of my hosts’ approach. “On Tuesday night, there is always a sort of service in the living room — where Gordon reads from the Bible and explains it; Eddy and Joanna play guitar and lead hymns; and most people say prayers and thank God out loud. But most nights we just pass time in regular ways — reading, talking, playing Scrabble, etc.”
At Lausanne, we have heard many heroic and impressive stories. There are giants among us, and most are leaders in one way or another. But the majority of the participants are still regular folks, representing thousands of other regular folks. And it is the eternal significance of their stories that remains with me in my hotel room tonight as I mull over my return to Africa.