After graduating from college, I moved to London to work as “study assistant” to the Rev. Dr. John Stott, one of the revered founders of the 1974 Lausanne Gathering and an architect of its development into a global movement. At that point in my life, I was not fond of the term “evangelical.” Having grown up in a politically conservative evangelical environment, I had begun to recognize many reductionisms in my spiritual development. My horizons had expanded and broadened in my college years, and the narrow theological parameters and negative political associations of my evangelical upbringing seemed increasingly stale and repellent. I was ready for something different.

But as I began to work closely with Stott, I quickly realized that we were operating with different definitions of what it meant to be an evangelical. When I heard that word, it conjured up images of little yellow tracts or loud auditoriums or patriotic rallies. But Stott’s use of the word didn’t fit into any of my pre-existing images or categories. As concerned as he was for evangelism, conversion and the Bible, he had equal concern for the environment and conservation, social justice and the poor, political activism and cultural transformation. I began to wonder if I could be an evangelical if this is really what it meant.

The dissonance I experienced in my understanding of the term “evangelical” was partly a manifestation of an enduring ideological fissure in the American church. The Social Gospel Movement in the early twentieth century catalyzed a reaction from orthodox Christians that in many ways still defines American Evangelicalism today. In response to what appeared to be a limp and distorted interpretation of the gospel, a vast interdenominational movement emerged that reacted strongly against the exclusively social and temporal message of the social gospel, and instead emphasized eternal salvation for individuals as the paramount concern. Many leaders in this new movement believed that the growing liberalism and secularization of the country was a sign of the Lord’s return, and therefore they saw no reason to “polish brass on a sinking ship,” as evangelist D.L. Moody put it. The stress instead was laid on saving individuals off the sinking ship before it went down into the deep.

I believe that the American church is still suffering from some of these latent ideological divisions. Evangelical churches tend to focus strictly on evangelism, perhaps admitting the need for social justice but nevertheless insistent on retaining evangelism’s priority.[1] On the other hand, more “ecumenical” or mainline churches tend to focus on issues of social justice, often hedging from using explicitly evangelistic language. This is of course a caricature, yet diverse manifestations of this divide are so common throughout the Western church that it warrants this generalization.[2]

Two global conferences I attended in the last couple years exemplify this division. In July 2004, I attended the “Global Institute of Theology” in Accra, Ghana, sponsored by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. While the Institute had the appearance of being directed by non-Western leadership, the content and teaching of the Institute was driven almost entirely by one ideological concern: trade, development and globalization. Even as a concern to discuss evangelism, personal conversion, or spiritual warfare was expressed by participants, these concerns were sidelined by the overwhelming focus on issues of trade and development.

At the Younger Leaders Gathering, there was again the impression of non-Western participation in the planning and leading of the event. But this time, rather than being driven by a concern for trade and development issues, there was an almost exclusive focus on world evangelization and personal conversion. While the conferences were vastly different in their agendas, they both suffered from being far too influenced by the Western ideological division that has so profoundly shaped the Western missiological project over the last 100 years.

But the most remarkable thing of all was that at each of the conferences I encountered non-Western Christians who could have easily been a part of either. Again and again these non-Western Christians defied my ability to categorize them. Were they evangelical or liberal in their priorities? I discovered that they were both and neither. They had a deep concern for many of the things that American evangelicals care about: biblical faithfulness, evangelism and conversion, sexual and moral standards and purity, the centrality of Jesus, spiritual warfare and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Yet they also had concerns about things which are not often discussed at a typical American evangelical conference: fair trade, the environment and conservation, rights for women, a deep aversion towards war, even resistance to global capitalism. Was this a case of confused priorities? To the contrary, it appears that as Christianity flourishes in environments beyond the historical baggage of Western Christianity, our non-Western brothers and sisters are re-discovering a more balanced form of “evangelical” Christianity that we have neglected.

The late missiologist David Bosch once wrote, “…one’s theology of mission is always closely dependent on one’s theology of salvation, one’s soteriology; it would therefore be correct to say that the scope of salvation—however we define salvation—determines the scope of the missionary enterprise.”[3]In other words, if the parameters of salvation are conceived only as wide as the soul of the individual, then the concomitant mission of the church will be interpreted as strictly evangelistic. If, on the other hand, the parameters of salvation are extended to the temporal and sociological dimension, perhaps to the neglect of the spiritual or eternal realm, then the church’s mission will be limited to the level of social justice. Thankfully, there is burgeoning leadership in the church that avoids this unfortunate bifurcation, and conceives salvation as what I believe the Bible claims it to be: the total restoration of creation and the coming of God’s Kingdom into a broken world. Although the spirit at the Younger Leaders Gathering did not reflect this view, there is hope in the voices of many younger leaders themselves that a new “center” to evangelicalism could emerge that defies and reshapes the older categories.

Thankfully, this broader conception of salvation and the corresponding mission of the church is not as novel as some of us younger folk think. As I discovered when I went to work for Stott, there is a rich and variegated tradition of Evangelicalism, even within the Lausanne movement itself that has not been so influenced by more recent obfuscations. In a recent interview in Christianity Today, Stott affirmed: “I am totally committed to world evangelization. But we must look beyond evangelism to the transforming power of the gospel, both in individuals and societies…My hope is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital but controversial topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armories of mass destruction, responding adequately to the AIDS pandemic, and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda does not remain too narrow.”[4]

After attending Lausanne’s Younger Leaders Gathering, it’s clear to me that there are a lot of people who hope so, too. Those voices may not have been heard from the big platforms, but they were strong and articulate and ran together like a great undercurrent beneath all that went on in the Gathering in Malaysia. For that reason, I plan to continue to stand in the stream that is Evangelicalism, for that current may have a significant part to play in the shaping of things to come.


[1] The 1974 Lausanne Covenant seems to drift in this direction. “[The church’s mission] includes both evangelistic and social action, so that normally the church will not have to choose between them. But if a choice has to be made, then evangelism is primary” (“The Lausanne Covenant,” paragraph 6, section a, Making Christ Known, ed. John Stott (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996, 29.)
[2] Lesslie Newbigin addresses this division at the level of the global church in “Cross-currents in Ecumenical and Evangelical Understandings of Mission, “The International Bulletin of Missionary Research 6, 4 (October 1982): 146-151.
[3] David Bosch, “Salvation: A Missiological Perspective,” Ex Auditu 5 (1989), 139.
[4] Tim Stafford, “Evangelism Plus: An Interview with John Stott,” Christianity Today (October 2006), 94.