Monday is for Missiology: Lausanne Part 3: Don't Be Naive about Social Justice

I have been distracted from my series on Lausanne. But, in light of the fact that I spoke earlier this year at Orlando 2011, the Lausanne follow-up meeting, I decided I needed to get out all my thoughts on the subject.

In the previous two segments, I have an introduction to Lausanne and a suggestion that collaborative movements like Lausanne not be afraid of doctrine.

Today, I continue providing some unsolicited advice about such collaborations. Now, I should say that I am not involved in Lausanne as anything other than a guy who wants to see the movement succeed where many others have failed. The good folks at Lausanne tell me they read my musings, and for that I am grateful, but keep in mind that I do not speak for them and only want them to succeed.

Today, my exhortation revolves around social justice. I am a few weeks away from releasing new research on shifting views of social justice among evangelical pastors. And, it is probably not a great secret that social justice is growing as an emphasis. I have seen that statistically and have observed it anecdotally. It is good, it is right, and it is important– and we evangelicals need more, not less, social engagement.

Yet, we would be naive at best, and reckless at worst, to not consider that social justice has been “discovered” by Christians before– not once, but twice in the last century. Both times it ended badly according to most observers, inside and outside of evangelicalism. First, in the Kingdom of God emphasis tied to what would later be called the “social gospel” and later in the Missio Dei movement after the Willingen conference on mission.

Before I share a caution, let me again, as I have many times at the blog, share my belief that the growth of interest and participation in social justice is a good thing. Glenn Beck’s comments about social justice are uninformed and not helpful– they mix unhealthy uses of the term with the healthy. It’s like saying we should not talk about “grace” because the others use it wrongly. We should care about social justice.

The Lausanne Covenant (1974) explains the intersection of evangelism and social justice this way:

We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression.

They phrase it well.

Of course, this is a widely debated issue. It is not my intent here to settle the issue, but to encourage that we not rush headlong into the mistakes of the past– that we not be naive about the issues. I have written extensively on the subject of evangelism and social justice, so I am concerned about this connection.

Yet, some seem dissatisfied with where Lausanne’s original declaration landed– they wanted (and perhaps expected) a change. For me, I think that would have been a mistake– we needed an elaboration and not a reconsideration.

Yes, a shift on social justice could lead to the mistakes of the past. Yet, it is unlikely, I think. I do not think that history really repeats itself, but it does “rhyme.” Thus, a shift here must be carefully considered– and we must not be naive about social justice. We are not so much smarter than those who went before us and stumbled on these issues.

Tim Stafford, writing for Christianity Today, explained the tone at the conference, “Strikingly, evangelicalism’s past debates over evangelism taking priority over service seemed finished. Speaker after speaker emphasized how integrally the two are related in witness.”

It was striking indeed. Clearly many thought (going in) that this was to be a central topic of debate. Many were expecting a shift– and expressing concern about it. J.D. Payne had an insightful post about the issues at hand at the time (excerpted below). Yet, that article was so widely retweeted (often a sign of affirmation) that it became a “top tweet” (see the graphic) going into the conference. When one of your top tweets is raising alarm concerning the topic, it is obviously on the mind of many.

Capetown Tweets.png

Some seemed to expect a shift. In the Christianity Today article, it felt as if Tim Stafford was disappointed in his first sentence (please forgive me if I am wrong here, Tim) when he wrote:

Cape Town 2010 provided no theological or missiological breakthroughs. It did, however, provide something Lausanne international director Lindsay Brown hoped for: a ringing affirmation of the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the imperative of world evangelization. “I think there’s been slippage,” he told me as the conference began. But slippage was hard to detect in participants’ enthusiasm for traditional evangelical affirmations.

I think some were hoping for shift (one man’s “slippage” is another man’s “progress.”) It depends on what the desired shift is. Clearly, going in, some were hoping for a shift to a new view of how social justice integrates with the gospel and the church. And, I should add, that I think those who wanted a shift are evangelical sisters and brothers in Christ with a passion for the gospel and the mission. My concern, however, was that this shift would have unintended consequences because, well, it always has. (I won’t rehash that here as I have written extensively on this already.)

Yet, it seemed clear many wanted, and other did not want, that shift. For example, while I visited (as an attendee, not a speaker, an refreshing experience) the Orlando Lausanne sponsored “conversation,” I was stuck by Andy Crouch’s stated desire to revisit the balance of evangelism and social justice. He called it “the unfinished business” of Lausanne and social justice at that meeting.

When I asked Andy about his Orlando comments later via emails, we shared a little back and forth on the subject. He would like to propose that both evangelism and justice are both intrinsically part of the calling of the church. Andy will be writing a book on it which, I hope, will bring more clarity to the conversation where some think that the church’s sole function is evangelism.

Yet, I am also cautious about Andy’s proposal. (Ironically, I am cautious about a book I have not read!) The reason is that these attempts often do not go well and that explained some of the angst leading up to Lausanne. Many felt that the Lausanne planners promoted (or at least hinted at) an agenda of rethinking social concern– some (who did not want a shift) were concerned about the emphasis before the meeting; some (who wanted a shift) were disappointed and let down that it did not come.

For me, I think Lausanne struck a good balance at past meetings and, at the end of the day, at this meeting. The tweet I mentioned earlier came from an article from author, professor, and my friend J.D. Payne who wrote about it this way (at the Lausanne site, by the way):

Two years ago, I was attending the annual Evangelical Missiological Society in Broomfield, Colorado when a major announcement was made regarding Cape Town 2010. As with everyone else who has followed the outcomes of Lausanne I (Lausanne, Switzerland) and Lausanne II (Manila, Philippines), I was excited to know that a third congress was scheduled to occur. However, as I became familiar with the numerous topics to be addressed, mainly dealing with social and ethical challenges facing the Church, I wondered where was the emphasis on evangelism. I simply filed the matter away in my mind, wondering if I had been hyper-sensitive to the issue (After all, I am a professor of evangelism.).

As time passed, I still did not hear a great deal of emphasis on the topic of global evangelization. I heard about a multitude of other extremely urgent and important matters such as migration, human-trafficking, urbanization, globalization, poverty, Islam, bioethics, AIDS/HIV, and the Majority World Church. I heard a great deal about the need for the Church to address the major humanitarian issues of the day. Again, very timely and important topics to which the Church should respond.

But where was the spirit of 1974? Where was the emphasis on reaching the unreached people groups? Where was the emphasis on evangelizing the different population segments of the world? Where was the focus on church planting?

I am glad that the shift that some promoted (and others expressed concern about) did not occur, but it would be wrong to think that it might not have occurred. It still may.

I think Lausanne has (again) struck the right balance this time, but we should not be surprised to hear this conversation again. It is worth having, but we should not be naive about social justice. We should recognize that those who’ve walked this path before has stumbled, but I believe we can (and must) find that balance– and I like where Lausanne landed.

I’d encourage you to read the actual commitment and Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action book for more information.

More soon about Lausanne, social justice, and Lausanne shifts in future posts…

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

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