China syndrome… and the ministry of reconciliation
Posted by Iwan Russell Jones on 18 October 2010, 9:03
SUNDAY 17 OCTOBER – Sunday morning – and a bad start to the day. I set my alarm for 6.45 to go on an early morning whale-watching expedition with my hosts, Anton and Lenny. They’ve persuaded me that this is a great time of the year to see whales around the Cape coast, and I’m rather excited by the idea. But obviously not excited enough to get me out of bed this morning.
I sleep through the alarm and am eventually awakened some hours later by the sound of breakfast being prepared. Oops! The whale-watching will have to wait till another day – or, more likely, another decade.
The Congress starts officially today, but before it gets going some very disappointing news trickles out. Everyone here has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of a 250-strong delegation from China. The prospect of their involvement is hugely exciting. It seems to herald a brand new phase in the global story of Christianity.
The church in China is growing at a phenomenal rate, and the desire of Chinese Christians to play a full part on the international scene is evident in the fact that they’ve given a very large gift – more than was contributed by all the churches of Europe put together – towards the attendance costs of Christians from poorer countries at Lausanne III. That, in itself, says a huge amount about the character and generosity of a church that has been through so much suffering.
But it seems that the government of the ‘new’ China is clinging on stubbornly to its old oppressive ways and its disregard of basic human rights. The passports of everyone in the delegation have been confiscated and they’re not allowed to leave the country. The Chinese won’t be at Cape Town 2010. We’re all the poorer for that.
The news casts something of a shadow over an otherwise colourful and lively opening ceremony. There are African drummers and dancers, and choirs and big musical pieces all staged against projected images of Africa.
There are messages from the great heroes of the Lausanne movement – Billy Graham and John Stott – neither of whom can make it to the conference because of their advanced age. They’re greeted with warm applause from the thousands in the audience. And so they should be.
There’s no question that what Graham and Stott initiated at the first Lausanne Congress in 1974 changed the face of evangelicalism, ending the old polarity between evangelism and social action, and introducing new and creative voices from the non-Western world.
I can still remember my own excitement as a student, reading the papers that had been delivered by Latin American thinkers such as René Padilla and Samuel Escobar. This was fresh and relevant and thoroughly biblical; theology without the stale whiff of the senior common room. The Western church needed to hear those voices back then. We need them even more now.
Even so, for me, one of the best moments of the whole day came in the greeting from the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Norwegian theologian, Olav Fykse Tveit. A lot of evangelicals have no time at all for the WCC, and I’m sure that for many in the WCC, the feeling is entirely mutual. But Tveit said that, as a teenager, he’d been struck by the clarity and vision of the Lausanne Covenant.
Picking up on the main theme of this conference, he spoke movingly of ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ that has been entrusted to every follower of Jesus Christ (citing 2 Corinthians 5:18), and he challenged himself and us to a new commitment to this ministry.
He reminded us of what Desmond Tutu had once said about apartheid – that it was too great, too powerful a challenge for a divided church. In the same way, Tveit said, the needs of our world are too big, too pressing for a divided church. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the applause was quite as warm on this occasion. It should have been.
Photo: Lausanne Congress