Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, spoke to The Christian Post this week while in Washington, D.C., to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, among other events. During the interview, Tunnicliffe addressed the controversy surrounding the WEA’s recent visit to China, the group’s role in the upcoming Lausanne conference, and what its members are doing to help Haiti.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
CP: WEA leaders met with the TSPM/CCC (Three-Self Patriotic Movement/China Christian Council) church leaders in November. Did you also meet with house church leaders? If not, why not?
Tunnicliffe: WEA is one of the three global church bodies: the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and WEA. This is recognized in many countries, including China. So the invitation was extended to us by the TSPM and CCC. They were our host so we chose on this occasion to meet with just our host. Our goal as a world body was to build relationships with the official structures within China.
CP: Would you like to respond to ChinaAid Association’s criticism of WEA regarding its neglect to mention the house church Christians in its report on the visit? WEA only spoke positively about the official state churches in China but did not speak about the more than 80 million Christians who worship in house churches. How do you respond to the house churches’ concern that you neglected to stand up for them?
Tunnicliffe: I think it is important to look at what happened in context. WEA, out of any evangelical organization, has the longest history, over 150 years, of promoting religious liberty and freedom. And that is a core principle for us and we’re committed to that. It is part of who we are and we believe that religious freedom and human rights are tied together. We are not going to step away from that kind of commitment. In fact, we will continue to be a strong advocate for that.
I think the reality of different contexts and as the world changes we need to look for a variety of mechanisms for promoting religious liberty and freedom. There are some examples in the Bible that I think can help us in our understanding of how we engage. I think of the two prophets: Elijah and Obadiah.
Elijah is fiery, in your face, outspoken, a prophet speaking out for social justice in the public. Obadiah worked inside the palace and he worked quietly behind the scenes, but again, very committed to justice. And sometimes you can think the job of Obadiah, because he was connected to the structure of power, was an easier job. But in reality it is a more difficult job I think.
WEA is a signer of the Zurich Statement on religious freedom in China. That statement said one – there have been significant improvements within religious liberty within China within the last 30 years. This is a document signed by a number of religious liberty advocates. I think sometimes we failed to give credit to where improvements have been made. I think that is an important principle.
The second thing the document said was more needs to be done. So I think that’s important too. The third thing the document said is we believe there are different approaches to working for human rights within China. Some are public and some are private.
Now, stepping back to WEA, the purpose of our trip to China – it was a really historic visit, it was the first visit of WEA senior leaders at the invitation of the official church structures in China for a visit to begin building a relationship. The primary purpose of the trip was not advocacy for any movement within China, but it was simply to build understanding.
The challenge in many contexts, not only in China, is that evangelical Christians have been stereotyped often times by the media who portrays them as having a certain political perspective or certain bias. So part of our goal going to China is to de-stigmatize the understanding of what evangelicals are around the world; so to create a clear understanding of who evangelical Christians are around the world.
I think from the Chinese perspective, their goal was to simply communicate out of their context what was happening in the churches associated with TSPM/CCC.
But I think another important principle that WEA operates out of is that we never discuss in public what we talk about in private. And so we have both public meetings with the Chinese churches and private conversations. The reality is if you are building trust then don’t betray your trust on what you say in public meetings.
So we recognize that some people’s role within our evangelical world community is to be a constant public voice pointing out issues. WEA’s role is to seek to determine what are the best mechanisms for different contexts, and this applies to China and other parts of the world. So WEA has both a public and private voice.
Sometimes we have to determine what is appropriate. For us, we used our inside voice in terms of our conversation. Because we are committed to a long term relationship with Christians in China and this was simply a first step.
CP: What role is WEA playing in the Lausanne Congress later this year?
Tunnicliffe: I think this is a historic event in many ways. Lausanne ’74 facilitated by Dr. Billy Graham was a major event for a particular generation. It shaped a lot of Christian leaders out of that. Then there was the ’89 event in Manila.
Very early on after Doug Birdsall became chairman for Lausanne, he and I met in London and the context there was we felt there needed to be a strong partnership between our movements. Understanding the Lausanne movement is a movement of individuals in many parts of the world who are connected through this common vision of world evangelization. WEA is also a movement, but we are a movement of institutions and organizations and structures who also have the same commitment to world evangelization.
So the feeling was in order to maximize the impact of Cape Town 2010, it was absolutely essential that Lausanne and WEA to collaborate together to one, demonstrate the unity in the body of Christ, that we’re not competing movements but we are complimentary movements. Secondly, in holding a major congress like Cape Town it is really important that we deliver the impact what happens in Cape Town back to the grassroots.
That will happen in a variety of ways. One is there will be a global conversation that is taking place through technology and the GlobaLink. But also because now WEA and Lausanne are linked, the impact of Lausanne, it is our hope and prayer, that it will be pushed back through our structures, through our alliances, denominations and through the churches and leaders in a much more systematic and significant way.
And that Cape Town will continue to help shape the understanding and conversation on world evangelization.
In terms of your question, we are collaborating on every level. At the senior leadership level, at the invitation level, at the participation and program level. Just as important is at the post-2010 level. One of the great things that Lindsay Brown, the international director of Lausanne, said is he believes that Lausanne’s best fruit grows on other people’s trees. So the idea is that we don’t need a whole lot of new structures to be developed.
For example, there will be a focus on poverty. It makes absolute sense to link it in to our Micah Challenge because that is a structured, programmatic initiative that people can engage in right away. We merged, for example, our peace building and reconciliation initiatives. So it’s not collaboration around 2010, but it’s going to be ongoing collaboration.
CP: How can the Lausanne Congress strengthen the Christian body? Will it focus on evangelism strategies to full the Great Commission?
Tunnicliffe: Again the singular goal of the Lausanne movement is world evangelization. It is our hope that as in the two previous congresses, it will help to shape this generation’s understanding of the importance of how we engage as Christians to share the good news to the ends of the earth.
The world is very different than how it was in ’74 and ’89. So how will this generation of leaders be shaped in their commitment to share the good news around the world. It is our combined hope with Lausanne that this will sharpen our focus in terms of the opportunities and needs for the gospel.
There were very specific criteria established by Cape Town 2010. In terms of countries, they were allotted so many people, but they had to fit into many categories such as age, gender, role – ministry, marketplace, or clergy. Certainly the emphasis will be on younger leaders, 25 to 40 year olds. I think it’s making way for this new generation of leaders that are emerging around the world. So there will be a strong emphasis on younger leaders.
CP: What is the WEA doing to help the quake victims in Haiti? Does WEA have an alliance member there?
Tunnicliffe: Our hearts are grieved by the level of destruction that has taken place in Haiti. There is a vibrant church there and there some levels of cooperation and an emerging evangelical alliance there.
But I think what we have learned, and it goes back to our history, when major disasters happen, Christians are very quick to respond but what we learned from the tsunami in Southeast Asia is that so often there is lack of cooperation and collaboration. Not intentionally, but because there was no structure to do that.
Therefore it leads to a waste of resources sometimes and a lack of clear impact. So what we have been working on in WEA for the last three years is to work with some of our partners. We’ve been working with Integral Alliance, which is a network of major Christian and relief development agencies mostly in the global north; Micah Network, which has 300 Christian relief, development, justice organizations primarily in the global south; and World Vision, which is a part of WEA.
What we have been working on is a strategy for when a major disaster happens to form a united strategy of major impact. We are actually several months away from finalizing our works in doing that. Having said that, what our global partners have been doing – you know WEA is not a relief and development organization, though relief and development organizations are part of our movement – is they have combined their efforts together in terms of communications and on the ground activities so they are collaborating together to create greater efficiency and impact.
I think what is important in a disaster to understand is this: there is a mechanism in place at the grassroots level, the church, that can respond, but the church can only do so much. You need the professionalism of the relief and development community, because the professional response is absolutely essential to do it properly.
So what we have done on our Web site is to list the agencies that are partnering with us who have a long term involvement in Haiti.
The danger is that some people are in a church in the United States and they see the quake on TV and they think, “What should I do?” Sometimes the inclination is let’s collect clothes, let’s get on an airplane to help. Sometimes that is not the best thing to do. In the midst of the confusion it only adds to the struggle.
Churches can work with trusted organizations and partners and use them as vehicle for organization.
I got an e-mail last night for our evangelical fellowship in Thailand. They said they want to send a gift of finances to Haiti. They went through the tsunami five years ago and their church now wants to work through WEA partners in Haiti. So we got the church in Thailand now helping the work in Haiti, and that is how the body of Christ should work.
CP: Is there anything you want to add?
Tunnicliffe: WEA is launching a new leadership institute this year. It’s going to do several things. It’s going to help Christians, hopefully, be able to work together more effectively through building unity, collaboration and association. One of the courses we are launching is in the area of public square engagement.
We believe that there is a great need within the evangelical community worldwide to be theologically equipped to be engaged in the public square, whether in public or in the media. A commitment to, for instance, to be non-partisan and to engage in dialogue. Sometimes as evangelicals, we look for enemies. That is one strategy. If there is an enemy out there we can see it and go after it. And we see that in many places in the public square.
The other alternative is saying that we may not agree fully or a lot with a particular structure, but are we willing to be in conversation and in dialogue in order to bring influence. Do we want to shout from the sideline or engage from within? And I think that we need to be equipping ourselves in ways where we can work together with partners that we may have difference of opinions with for a number of issues but on one particular issue we may find the same commitment.
Part of what we want to see around the world is for WEA to strengthen the engagement of Christians in order to facilitate transformation. That’s not to say we are looking for theocracies around the world. So that is what we’ll do as we move into the future.