Interview: Doug Birdsall, Executive Chairman of Lausanne

The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism is the premier global network of evangelical leaders.” The movement grew out of a 1974 International Congress in Lausanne Switzerland, which produced the Lausanne Covenant that called on the world “to be more intentional about world evangelization.” The Covenant, agreed upon by 2,300 people from 150 nations from all branches of the Christian church in the space of ten days, is considered by many Christian leaders to be one of the most important missions document in Protestant history.

Lausanne has begun to plan the Second Younger Leader’s Gathering in Malaysia in 2006. Some 500 people between the ages of 25-35, all leaders of their ministry, will be invited to attend an international forum along with older generations to celebrate God’s work and plan strategies for the future.

The Executive Chairman of Lausanne, The Rev. S. Douglas Birdsall explained the motive for the Younger Leader’s Gathering, the preparation for the June 2005 meeting in Hong Kong, and some of the core issues in the Church today in an interview with The Christian Post.

What is the vision for the Younger Leader’s Gathering?

The vision of Lausanne is the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world. We are dedicated to a whole generation of leaders who will make Lausanne's vision a reality. The Young Leaders Conference in Singapore was a watershed experience for me, and the 300 people there felt the same way. It was really the younger leaders that God used to launch the ministry.

Why Malaysia?

The church is growing faster in Asia than any other place in the world, so that just simply calls us to act in accordance with the reality. I embrace the global shift as part of what God is doing in the world. In a sense, this is a fulfillment of prayers. Reading Philip Jenkins in Ex-Christendom, it's thrilling to see the church growing in Asia. You study history and there's the sense that we're getting closer to the completion of the Great Commission.

How will the Younger Leader's Gathering run?

They will be informed of the status of the church around the world. Most ministries operate at a very local level, but because the church is global, there must be certain global conversations. Those who are being raised as leaders need to meet one another simply to be aware of where we are. Secondly, there is an element of celebration. Younger people can see their work in a global context and celebrate the amazing things God is doing around the world. Also, leaders can prepare for the work of the Church. The younger and the older generations need to inspire each other. There are twenty-eight year olds who are just beginning to move into positions of leadership, and they have plenty to share. I met dozens in Singapore, and their work has been a model and a source of encouragement to me. Lastly, we will share the spirit of Lausanne together – humility, prayer, and unity.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the spirit of Lausanne?

The Lausanne Covenant was prepared primarily under the authorship of John Stott in 1974 in Lausanne Switzerland. It has been the enduring constitution that has provided a united vision for evangelicals around the world, and what Lausanne has done is create the space for evangelicals to come together and deal with missions ideas.

What are some significant issues at this time?

One would have to do with how we get the gospel to the world. We have to rearticulate the supremacy and uniqueness of Christ in a pluralist world. This is an ageless truth that needs to be reframed in every generation. There are a lot of people in a pluralist world who say, ‘I am a Christian but I have no problem with my brother becoming Buddhist.’ They think everything is okay.

Another very important topic is the primacy of Scripture and the work of evangelization. We are more into experience and feelings than truth. Both are important. Jesus said go into all the world and make disciples. He did not say go into the world and make people raise their hands. If people don't get a solid diet of the Word of God, they will not develop into true Christians. We have lots of churches where people do not know Scripture very well. They are not armed with the Word of God to bear against temptation and cannot filter out heretical teachings. There is a famine of the Word of God among the people of God.

A significant challenge is to engage and impact Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism - the three major non-Christian religions. Much of the gain has been among nominal Christians, animists and tribal people, but we also want to see transformation among these three religions. We do not want to merely “evangelize” any of those groups.

Fourthly, there are hundreds of millions of people who are illiterate. We're such a word-oriented people, we tend to translate things into publications, but how do we translate into a recorded form? That's a huge challenge. One is the saddest things is to finish a Bible translation after decades and find out that nobody's reading it.

Lastly, on-going challenge is getting the gospel to the unreached peoples who need it most and have it least. That is the bread and butter of missions - establishing churches among those where there are none. Ralph Winter would say if everybody in the world invited somebody who they knew to church, there would be a billion and a half people who wouldn't get an invitation because there aren't any Christians where they are. The Bible understands nations as ethnic groupings, so there may be hundreds of nations in one nation. Many have no access to the Bible. Missions is a Lausanne contribution, and it continues to be a Lausanne priority.

And what were Lausanne's contributions to the solving of these major issues in Christianity?

Lausanne was very powerful until 1989. There were other things that took its place, such as the AD 2000 movement. They looked at the year 2000 and created a lot of excitement. ‘Here comes the end of the world.’ It's a false closure theology. People missed having this forum where we can discuss these things substantively. In a way, I can say Lausanne is back - meaning the opportunity for evangelicals to meet within the framework of the Lausanne covenant - has resurfaced.

I know that Lausanne held a meeting on May 25th in Boston. Can you tell us the purpose for that meeting?

At the heart of the Lausanne Group are six working groups: theology, strategy, intercession, communications, leadership development, and global CEOs. I would say that the kingpins of the whole movement have been the theology and strategy working groups, chaired by Chris Wright from the London Langham Partnership and Paul Eschelman, the Director of the Jesus Film Project, respectively. Together, we analyzed the initial findings of the fall Gathering. The Boston meeting last week was a preparation for the international meeting in Hong Kong, June 20-22, to think about the key issues before us and do some revitalizing various parts to relate with one another. Thirdly, each group did some calendaring for upcoming consultations for the Younger Leaders' Conference.
We were also doing some preliminary thinking about the third Lausanne conference to be held in 2010. We want to ensure that the Lausanne movement reflects the demographic and theological realities of the church, meaning that participation and leadership come from Africa, Latin America, and Asia in ways that are proportionate to the body of Christ there. In terms of theological realities, we are a movement made up of evangelicals, independents, charismatics, and Pentecostals.

However, we have been most encouraged by the response of younger leaders around the world who are eager for the spirit of Lausanne. Baby boomers and perhaps the Builders were enamored by 'the bigger is better,' but the world was changing in lots of ways and things were growing, but there is a danger to move from vision into height.

I would say the next generation is much more captured by authenticity than by height. I think that Lausanne in the tradition of John Stott, Billy Graham and others have been about integrity, humility, character, vision, action and cooperation - people who are Kingdom seekers, not Empire builders.

The younger generation has expressed a yearning in what Lausanne represents. So our challenge will be to find the right 500 people who really represent the best of this new generation.

The Rev. S. Douglas Birdsall is the Executive Chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He is also Director of Gordon-Conwell’s J. Christy Wilson Jr. Center for World Missions. Since 1980, Doug Birdsall has served as a missionary in Japan with Asian Access/LIFE Ministries, an organization that focuses on evangelism and church multiplication and is currently its President. He is a graduate of Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell, and Harvard University. He and his wife, Jeannie and three children live in Massachusetts.