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I Understand
Volume 3.1 / Global Christianity and the Reformed Evangelicals


Global Christianity and the Reformed Evangelicals

Darren Carlson

This past summer 1,000 young leaders and mentors from over 140 countries for the 2016 Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering in Jakarta, Indonesia. Formed by Billy Graham and John Stott in 1974, Lausanne is the heir of the Edinburgh missions conference of 1910and has held conferences and consultations since its founding. It’s original purpose is expressed in the Lausanne Covenant and further expanded in The Cape Town Commitment. The intent of the latest gathering was to bring together influencers in global mission so that they could meet and collaborate.

1. Brief Snapshot of the Conference

The conference schedule was quite full. Mornings were dedicated to corporate worship, exposition, and leadership panels. This was followed by a one-hour session with assigned, mentored, small groups, where each person shared their life story and testimony. Workshops on various topics were next, and an evening session focusing on global witness capped each day. The ethnic diversity on stage was wonderful—I counted only three white North Americans out of about 25 people that spoke.

The theme of the conference was “United in the Great Story,” and the Bible expositions were centered around themes familiar to those who love biblical theology. Evening sessions covered topics such as the unreached, creation care, personal evangelism, persecution, and ministry amongst the poor and marginalized. The platform speakers came from a variety of backgrounds. It’s probably the only conference I will attend that will have David Platt and Becky Pippert speak back-to-back. One of the highlights for many was listening to two Chinese pastors and an Iranian woman shared their stories of ministry and imprisonment. Vaughn Roberts led a dynamic session on same-sex attraction and during the question and answer time, it became apparent how different the world engages this topic. Many in the room came from backgrounds that consider same-sex attraction to be demonic, so to have a faithful man and minister of the gospel say he is celibate and deals with same-sex attraction was surprising for many leaders from different contexts, especially Africa.

The primary function of the conference was to connect attendees, starting with a private online platform and supported with lots of free time for spontaneous meetings. The hope was that these connections might bear future fruit. The stories and background of each participant were so unique. My roommate was a Brazilian missionary to Kuwait now headed to serve in Edmonton. I was part of a group where a Korean missionary to Burundi was sharing while an Indian woman translated it into French for an African pastor. My “connect group” was made up of 6 people from all over the world. The testimonies were so different, and yet the same.

One strategic feature of the conference was the opportunity to meet one-on-one with senior leaders from around the world. We could sign up ahead of time, but often these meetings just happened if you could find time. Just as an example, I spent time and received feedback from two British leaders of theological education ministries, the former head of Navigators, and two missions professors. The time was very intentional. Leaders were all broadly accessible, and there was no sense of celebrity amongst anyone. The way the leaders and participants related to one another was so admirable, and contrasted with many of the conferences I have attended in the past.

2. Cross-Cultural Engagement Issues on Display

For those of us who work cross-culturally, we never stop learning about cultural differences, many of which impact the way we proclaim and minister the gospel. Such differences were on display at the conference, and can help us learn to work more effectively alongside Christians around the world.

At one point an announcement was made for everyone to get in line. What ensued made me laugh. Most of the Africans just crowded to the front. The Asians deferred, and my Midwestern sensitivities let people “cut” in front of me as they seemed to be in a hurry.

There was one speaker who gave a very impassioned message. The content was great. And while in the US the passion would communicate the speaker’s sincerity, some of the Brits I spoke with were put off. They took it to mean the speaker had to yell because their argument was weak. Some from other cultures thought they were being disciplined and yelled at. Others felt shamed. The speaker spoke so fast the translators could not keep up. It’s a reminder to all of us who wish to preach in different cultures.

Is it pride to list the accomplishments of the speaker or is it pride if you make fun of the speaker? The Aussies were good at tearing people down that they loved and respected. The Koreans and many Africans showed honor by listing accomplishments. Many were completely thrown o by the humor. I fi nd that humor is one of the hardest things to communicate cross-culturally, and you had better know what you are doing or risk great offense.

It’s a wonder that Jesus holds us all together.

3. But United Around What?

Despite the joy of meeting with Christians from around the world, I had nagging questions that kept going through my mind: Who decides what represents the global evangelical church? And what are we to do with the dominating influence of Pentecostal practices and theology within the global evangelical movement? To just define the terms of engagement of this topic has spawned articles and books. Let me at least try to offer some observations:

1. Lausanne is not just ethnically diverse, but theologically as well, even more so when gathering emerging leaders. Participating requires a certain level of flexibility. It is a very organic movement, as the leaders allow a lot to happen that they may themselves not participate in. And participants have an even lower bar to clear, and from what I could tell, it essentially was whether they loved Jesus. As I sat there taking it all in, I wondered to myself what expression of the global church Lausanne represents. I believe someone else could have gathered another 1000 people and gotten a totally different group. But, in my experience, Lausanne is a fair expression of very broad evangelicalism.

2. The unity I sensed was a common bond that we were the blood-bought people of God who had placed their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sin. Is that evangelical? Maybe. This type of unity is easy and important. But the bottom line is that unity is also hard. I’m not going to unite in ministry with missionaries promoting the Insider Movement, but I am glad we are at Lausanne together. I believe they are making a critical error and I am glad we can engage each other. I’m not going to unite in ministry with faith healers, but I am glad they came to Lausanne as participants. I’m going to have to be pushed to embrace progressive views of creation care, but I am glad to listen to them. Theological differences eventually have real consequences. When David Platt spoke on the reality of an eternal conscious hell for those who reject Christ, there was significant pushback, coming from those impacted over the years by John Stott. But this is the place to have it. Lausanne is a movement worth investing in and I am grateful for the chance to be involved.

3. The most important problem I believe is the varying definitions of the gospel that appeared throughout the week. That might seem strange for an organization committed to world evangelization. Of particular concern is the question of whether gospel proclamation is even necessary. I think for many participants and even leaders within Lausanne, the answer is a weak, “yeah sure.” The sentiment follows Richard Stearns’ The Hole is Our Gospel, which in the end proved to be no gospel at all. I think it is good for those of us who emphasize the necessity of gospel proclamation to understand the contexts people come from (typically poor and marginalized), when they want to argue for primarily “living the gospel.” They have a fair point to make, even if they are indulging a critical theological error in the process.

4. When engaging in a setting like this where agreement is hard to find on many issues, the goal has to be to listen and learn. This argument obviously falls apart at some point when a line is crossed and the gospel is at stake. I am not suggesting setting theological convictions aside or pursuing unity by running to the lowest common denominator one can find. What I am saying is that if you only remain in your theological camp (in my case, Reformed), you will not meet many Christians. I listened to an African leader talk about getting followers. He seemed like a genuinely humble man, so I wanted to understand why he was using the language he did to express his leadership style. My leadership workshop small group was with two African American female pastors. The three of us shared stories as I tried to understand where they were coming from. I enjoyed learning from them. I tracked with a group that had a spontaneous meeting on power evangelism. I was curious to engage them to understand why they wanted to have healing ministries. I wanted to understand the westerners who spoke in such different theological terms than I am used to—for example, “mak- ing space for God in worship,” seeing Shalom as the unifying theme of scripture, believing that the cross and kingdom ethics should lead to a politically progressive view of creation care, that we should “embody the gospel,” that we should “live the gospel,” etc. Because I listened, I could engage. I was there to learn, but in the spirit of humility (hopefully!), I was also there to argue with my family.

5. The west is still in the driver’s seat, despite our efforts not to be. We sang with a talent- ed group of musicians, singing in Hillsong style with Chris Tomlin mixed in, in various languages, with strobe lights and fog. It felt like a mix of Willow Creek and Urbana. The worship team from Indonesia was almost an exact copy. The workshops on leadership by leaders from the global south copied John Maxwell. Many of the leaders were graduates of western seminaries. As I took this in I wondered if we were an expression of the global church or the western church projecting a version of church. I think the latter. As long as the money and rich educational opportunities are in the West, it is hard to think this might change anytime soon.

6. The Reformed community has a big microphone, but a small global imprint. You can’t come to that conclusion by just interacting with Lausanne at one conference, but if you begin to engage with the multiple world mission organizations, you will see it. First, you will find very few complementarian leaders, influenced by Edwards and Piper, having had Carson and Keller shape their ministry and hermeneutics. The mission leaders from the West are typically ecumenical, flexible, not exact on many theological convictions, and egalitarian. The global leaders are often similar, but tend to be even more exible, and some see no problem with the over-realized eschatology of the so-called prosperity gospel. None of these western missions leaders or national leaders from around the world have highly trafficked websites. I would even say that most of the Reformed community would not even recognize the names of the leaders of Lausanne. Second, books and resources are often downplayed globally, which is typically a hallmark of Reformed evangelicals. At Lausanne, for example, there were two tables with a few books for sale, the prominent one being on creation care. There did not seem to be much thought given to resourcing the participants. Lausanne has so many resources at their disposal, but seemingly has yet to resource them as well as they could.

4. Why So Small

Let me focus on this last point and ask why the Reformed community has a small global imprint:

  1. The Young Restless Reformed movement was born in the West. It is new and it is young. Many of those impacted by John Piper and others in the late 90s are just now getting into leadership positions. Michael Oh, the President of Lausanne, would be an example. There are others as well. Outside of Southern Seminary, there are just not a lot of Reformed men and women in significant global leadership positions yet.

  2. The Reformed movement has taken the most hold amongst people with a certain level of education. That is not to say that Reformed theology is out of reach for the 68% of Americans without a college degree. But, a lot of writing in the Reformed movement is hard to read, even for those who have had the opportunity to get Masters degrees. And then couple that with the level of education that most Christians around the world have, the primary means of dissemination of doctrine is through speaking. Do you know very many people in the Reformed community thinking about oral learners? Most Reformed organizations emphasize books.

  3. A lot of people tend to celebrate missionaries like Taylor, Studd, Brainerd, and Carey. They were certainly Calvinists. But there have been hundreds of other missionaries who have gone out because of Jesus that did not share those theological convictions. And in some cases their impact outstrips many of the people we read about. Our heroes tend to be those we agree with.

  4. I think an error many (all?) well-known Reformed pastors and teachers have made is to abandon TV. That has led TBN to represent western Christians to the global church. If you walk through slums, you will not find books or good internet speeds. You will find satellite dishes, all of which tune into TD Jakes, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyers, and more.These Christians have no way of knowing how the church in the West feels about these teachers, when they are the only ones they watch.

This is not meant as a harsh critique of the neo-Reformed movement that has swept across the US in recent decades. Movements must start somewhere. Recently there have been some encouraging signs that the revival of Reformed doctrine is taking hold in pockets around the world. In the coming years it will be interesting to see if the Reformed community will engage many of Evangelicalism’s institutions and organizations, or if they will start more organizations and eventually end up similar to our fundamentalist brothers and sisters—alone.