The Church has many faces
General Director Steve Clifford is heartened by the sense of "shared mission" at a diverse global gathering of Christians...
As I sat looking across the vast Cape Town International Convention Centre, packed full with more than 4,000 delegates, I was overwhelmed by the sense of this being a snapshot of the Church. Gathered for just the third time since 1974, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation had come together from 190 of the world's 220 countries. The conference was made up of men and women of all shapes, sizes, skin colours, hair textures and, of course, preferences of ministry and theological understanding. Yet we are the Church - brothers and sisters in Christ.
We worshipped, prayed and opened Scripture together as we sat not in rows but around tables. At my table sat an Anglican bishop from Khartoum in Sudan, an Ethiopian Mennonite who is head of missions in his own country, a Korean missionary recently returned from having lived in China for 15 years and a businessman from Hong Kong. At times we struggled to understand each other, and yet we shared a common cause and a passion to see our nations, and indeed all the nations of the world, reached with the Gospel.
I was moved to tears one day, as this vast congregation engaged in musical worship and, one after the other, leaders representing many different nations led in their own language. I was reminded of how the Apostle John, in the book of Revelation, describes a great assembly in the age to come. While we might not be singing a Graham Kendrick tune, a wonderful song of worship and adoration will be sung.
Alive and kicking
Don't let anyone tell you the Church is finished. The Church is alive and kicking. I saw it at the Cape Town congress. I heard the stories, met the people and rejoiced as I learned of large numbers of people coming to Christ in some of the world's most difficult places. Certain nations that have been described as "closed" are in reality wonderfully open to the Gospel, as local believers engage in evangelism despite immense personal danger.
At times this means some are martyred for their faith. This is a tremendous personal challenge when I consider some of the issues that occupy my life or upset me. Here are people losing families, jobs and education. They're being imprisoned, attacked and even killed for their faith.
It became wonderfully clear as the Congress developed that the worldwide Church is passionately committed to a Gospel that involves both words and actions, which means being good news as well as speaking the Good News. The Church around the world, week in and week out, is getting its hands dirty. You name it, we're involved.
Christians are involved in digging wells, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and challenging injustice wherever it may be found - human trafficking, the Indian caste system and the Rwandan genocide, to name just three. The challenges remain enormous.
A large delegation from China was refused permission to travel to Cape Town at the last minute. There are still unreached people groups that have never heard the Good News. There remain big cities that need fresh approaches to communicating the Gospel because they are populated by people who have been displaced from their homelands (more than 200 million worldwide). And the Church also can't ignore huge global issues regarding the environment and our responsibilities as guardians of God's creation.
As the Congress progressed it became obvious that the centre of gravity of Christianity was no longer in the northern hemisphere or the West. The passion, vision and challenges were coming primarily from the southern hemisphere and the East, spoken out by mainly younger male and female church and mission leaders. For the small team from the Alliance that attended and participated in the Congress, perhaps the most exciting element was the realisation that God seems to be speaking the same challenge to leaders right across the nations of the world.
Time and time again people spoke of the need for unity - not unity for unity's sake, but unity for purpose and for a shared mission. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 was quoted repeatedly: "that they might be one ... so that the world might believe". This is the message that we at the Alliance have sensed God has been giving to us as a team. There is something in our unity (not our uniformity) that not only brings pleasure to our Father in heaven but releases a dynamic in mission. Are we willing to put aside some of our preferences, our ways of doing things?
Are we willing to recognise that we are part of one family, the family of God, with one mission, the mission of God? Are we willing to ask ourselves the hard questions? How else can we together reach our villages, towns, cities, schools, universities, neighbourhoods; work and leisure places; our family, friends and neighbours; our nation with the truth of the love of God for each and every one, the Good News of the Gospel? We can't do it on our own, and no single Church, ministry, network or denomination has what it takes. But maybe together we can be part of the answer to the great prayer of Jesus in John 17 and play our part in fulfilling His Great Commission.