Building a Solid Theological Foundation for Mission Policy and Praxis

The Lausanne Movement started at a momentous point of evangelical convergence in the twentieth century.

It had been preceded by the amazing growth of evangelical missionary activity after World War II and the surge of the United States as a dominant nation in both world politics and Christian mission sending. Protestant missionary enterprise and missiological reflection had entered a critical period, a time of radical criticism of traditional missionary activity, within the framework of wars and movements against European colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, and the ideological battles of the Cold War period.

The genius of Lausanne was the ability to keep the motivation and momentum of missionary activism and at the same time to be self-critical in a mature way. This kind of balance characterizes the tone of the Lausanne Covenant: “We are deeply stirred by what God is doing in our day, moved to penitence by our failures, and challenged by the unfinished task of evangelization” (Introduction). Such balance made the Covenant a source and inspiration of commitment to action but also a proposal for a renewal in missionary policy and practice. Correction and reform of missionary practice was to come from theological conviction as the Covenant offers a solid theological frame for its proposals.

During the three and a half decades in which the Lausanne Movement has developed (from 1974 to present), there has been intensive growth in missionary activity. Using David Barrett´s data, we see that by 1970 there were 2,200 foreign mission sending agencies, by mid-1998 that figure had grown to 4,650, and by mid-2008 the number had slightly declined to 4,550. The income of global foreign missions was estimated at three billion US dollars by 1970, growing to 11.2 billion by mid-1998 and to an estimated twenty-three billion by mid-2008.1

This growth of activity and income includes missionary initiative now coming from churches in the Majority World of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What is more difficult, if not impossible, to trace or measure is the quality of the missionary activity in relation to what degree the proposals of the Lausanne Covenant were put into practice.

I am of the conviction that the Lausanne Covenant, and the documents that registered the reflection on action that followed the 1974 Congress, are a good evangelical basis for developing missionary policies and shaping missionary practice in the twenty-first century. As I pointed out in a previous article, John Stott edited documents in the book Making Christ Known2 that record the process of action and reflection that took place in the twenty-five years between 1974 and 1989. These documents strike a balance between theological foundations and pragmatic consequences. Let me point to four areas in which the Lausanne Covenant exerted self-criticism and which are still points that those developing mission policies and shaping missionary practice would do well to pay attention to today.

1. Gospel Content
The Covenant begins with a restatement of theological convictions that are characteristic of evangelicalism. It starts with a trinitarian confession, a statement about the purpose of God, the authority of the Bible, and an expression about the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ.

These points have to do with the content of the message that missionaries and evangelists proclaim (Par. 1-3). It is in paragraph one that, after stating God´s initiative in the sending of his people to mission, a confession comes: “We confess with shame that we have often denied our calling and failed in our mission, by becoming conformed to the world or by withdrawing from it” (Par. 1).

Within the postmodern trends of Western culture that are promoted at a global scale by the media, one way of conforming to the world is to water down the message in those aspects that are contrary to the “spirit of the age.” This watering down provides a “user friendly gospel” such as the popular formulas of the so-called “prosperity theology,” which is administered according to the practices of the great business corporations.

The person and work of Christ are central in the gospel. Every missionary and evangelist must be possessed by the Spirit of the Lord that in turn makes the person of Christ real to us here and now. Without a Christ-centered gospel there is no Christian mission.

2. Holistic Mission
The Covenant also expresses the concept of a holistic mission that retains the evangelical emphasis on proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ while also describing the kind of missionary presence it requires, and the call to discipleship and incorporation into the Church:

In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church, and responsible service in the world. (Par. 4)

We find here self-criticism of the type of dualistic spiritualization that had come to be prevalent in the practice of evangelical missionaries:

We express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive… both are necesary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ.

Today, the number of missionary projects that practice holistic mission has increased significantly. There are also many mission fields in which the only way to enter is through projects of service to desperate human needs. The challenge continues to be how to keep a balance. We cannot serve in the name of Christ without at some point offering a reason for our commitment and pointing to the source of our motivation and the strength and power that keeps us going.

3. Mission in Partnership
At several points, the Covenant addresses the issue of partnership in mission. Paragraphs 8 and 9 are most explicit about it. They state that in view of the urgency of the task of evangelization, “a re-evaluation of our missionary responsibility and role should be continuous. Thus, a growing partnership of churches will develop and the universal character of Christ´s Church will be more clearly exhibited” (Par. 8).

The Lausanne Movement provides many opportunities for networking and cooperation and the evangelical outlook in this area seems to be very positive. During the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization, an Issue Group on Partnership and Collaboration acknowledged that “the divisions in the Body of Christ are a primary roadblock to seeing major breakthroughs in world evangelization.” They also stated that “the natural tendency of Christian ministries, organizations, institutions, etc., is toward disintegration and fragmentation.”3 However, they committed themselves to work in a Task Force toward the development of an International Partnership Network, and then launched the “Company of the Committed,” which started to work immediately in the facilitating of information exchange.

Phill Butler, a mission statesman who has worked for years in the area of networking, has published a useful handbook written with a hopeful note and a practical approach based on experience. He states that “despite centuries of division, disappointment, and even despair, hundreds of individuals around the world are now proving every day that God´s people can work together.”4

With the notable growth of missionary concern and commitment in the Majority World, partnership in mission now faces a new challenge: the cooperation of old well-established mission agencies with their Asian, African, and Latin American counterparts. As we think of mission in the future, this new global situation should be kept in mind and faced with creativity. Elsewhere I have proposed that there is a need for new patterns of interdependence in mission. Partnership within global disparities requires special attention to the New Testament principles of mutuality and reciprocity that are evident in the Pauline patters of missionary practice.5

4. Preparation for Mission
The Lausanne Covenant states: “We confess that we have sometimes pursued church growth at the expense of church depth, and divorced evangelism from Christian nurture” (Par. 11). The paragraph also explains the need to improve theological education as well as leadership training in churches around the world.

This is a crucial point in mission policy making today. At present, evangelicals continue to be challenged by this confession. Thus, in Latin America we are embarrased by the fact that the reported significant church growth is not accompanied by moral and social transformation, and that the political clout that numbers have given to evangelicals has not been used in a significantly different way from traditional corrupt politicians. At the same time, with a misguided sense of urgency, some powerful mission boards have concentrated on church growth and have abandoned their contribution to theological education and Christian nurture, two things which are desperately needed.

Another aspect of the same principle at stake is the enthusiastic sending of missionaries without adequate training, nurture, and structures of financial and pastoral support. A study of missionaries, conducted in fourteen countries by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, tried to understand the reasons for missionary attrition, the early return of missionaries to their sending base before completing even their first assigned term. Both old and new sending countries were affected by this problem. The frequency of the problem required a self-critical and realistic approach. The book Too Valuable to Lose summarizes the results of the study.6

A second study carried on in twenty-two nations during 2002 and 2003 tried, among other things, to follow up on the corrective measures proposed by the first study. This second study shows that there are reasons for rejoicing because there is in fact an improving situation and there is hope for the future. The principles proposed by the Lausanne Covenant in terms of concern for depth and adequate training (Par. 10 and 11) and spiritual maturity (Par. 12 and 14) are a good theologically-based foundation for what could be called “Best Practices” in missionary sending.

Three and a half decades after the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, evangelicals around the world are still convinced that “worldwide evangelization will become a realistic possibility only when the Spirit renews the Church in truth and wisdom, faith, holiness, love, and power.”

So the planning and practice of mission requires the spirit of expectancy reflected in the call of the Lausanne Covenant: “We therefore call upon all Christians to pray for such a visitation of the sovereign Spirit of God that all his fruit may appear in all his people and that all his gifts may enrich the Body of Christ” (Par. 14).


1. Comparative data taken from David Barrett and Todd M. Johnson’s 1998 article “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1998.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR) 22(1): 26-27; and David Barrett, et. al., 2008. “Missiometrics 2008: Reality Checks for Christian World Communions.” IBMR 32(1): 27-30.

2. Stott, John, ed. 1996. Making Christ Known. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans.

3. Claydon, David, ed. 2005. A New Vision, A New Heart, A Renewed Call. Vol 1. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey Library. 558.

4. Butler, Phill. 2006. Well Connected. Federal Way, Washington, USA: Authentic-World Vision.

5. Escober, Samuel. 2002. “New Patterns for Interdependence in Mission.” In The Urban Face of Mission. Eds. Manuel Ortiz and Susan S. Baker, 97-114. Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA: P & R Publishing Company.

6. Taylor, William D, ed. 1996. Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Pasadena, California: USA: William Carey.

Samuel Escobar was born in Peru and ministered in Latin America under the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He was chair of missiology at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, USA. He spoke at Lausanne 1974 and was a member of the committee that drafted the Lausanne Covenant. Presently he lives and teaches in Spain.