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The Cape Town 'Conundrum'

The Cape Town 'Conundrum'
A reflection on the Cape Town Commitment statement

By Tim Thornborough
October 24, 2010

How do you distill hundreds of talks, plenary sessions, discussions and conversations at Lausanne into a single document? That's the conundrum facing Chris Wright and his team as they work to prepare "The Cape Town Commitment" - the definitive, final summary document that will emerge from the Third Lausanne Congress.

"It's like standing under the Niagara Falls with a hosepipe," said Wright, chairman of the Lausanne Theology Working Group. "We're trying to get everything that's been said here into something small."

Wright is international director of Langham Partnership International, a group of ministries founded by John Stott that provides literature, scholarships and preaching training for pastors, churches and seminaries in the majority world.

Each of the conferences to date, at Lausanne and Manila, has issued a statement that has tried to express the dominant ideas that have come out of the meetings.

"The Lausanne Covenant" (1974) focused on world evangelization and expressed a new awareness of the number of unreached people groups and a fresh discovery of the holistic nature of the biblical gospel and of Christian mission.

"The Manila Manifesto" (1989) gave birth to more than 300 strategic partnerships in world evangelization, including many that involved cooperation between nations in all parts of the globe.

But what will be the major theme of "The Cape Town Commitment?"

Major Themes

"In the midst of that plethora of calls to action and priorities that come out of each day, we are discerning two in particular that seem to be getting applause every time they are mentioned," said Wright.

"The first is the need for the church to be more radically obedient in its discipling and discipleship. If the church does not obey Jesus, in teaching others to obey 'all that I have commanded you to do' -- to walk in the ways of compassion and generosity and love - then it will lead to disaster.

"We are hearing about lots of church growth -- but without adequate discipleship it will only lead to nominalism or the horrors of Rwanda. What kind of a gospel have we been teaching that can lead to that disaster like that?

"The second theme is that the church must be a community of authentic, reconciled people -- people who have renounced the divisions of tribe and cast and race and all the other things that divide us. We must put our loyalty to Jesus above all other things so that we love one another with the supernatural love that Paul talks about in Ephesians, "said Wright.

But why the need for a new statement? Does it imply that the previous statements were inadequate or have failed?

A Changing World

The first part of the statement explains the background:

"Almost everything about the way we live, think and relate to one another is changing at an accelerating pace. For good or ill, we feel the impact of globalization, the digital revolution, and the changing balance of economic and political power in the world.

"Some of the things we face cause us grief and anxiety -- global poverty, war, disease, the ecological crisis and climate change. But one great change in our world is a cause for rejoicing - and that is the growth of the global church of Christ.

"The fact that the Third Lausanne Congress has taken place in Africa is proof of this. At least three quarters of all the world's Christians now live in the continents of the Global South and the East.

"The composition of our Cape Town Congress reflects this enormous shift in world Christianity in the century since the Edinburgh missionary conference in 1910. We rejoice in the amazing growth of the church in Africa, and we rejoice that our African sisters and brothers in Christ hosted this Congress.

"We must respond in Christian mission to the realities of our own generation. We must also learn from that mixture of wisdom and error that we inherit from previous generations. We honor the past, and we engage with the future.

In an interview, Wright explained that the new statement is deliberately not being called a "covenant" because people fear that it is revising the commitments of the previous two statements. Wright is emphatic that it is not.

Past Failures

"The Lausanne Covenant called for greater efforts at discipling people into Christian obedience, and that Evangelicals should be more to be united. 40 years on we are, if anything, more disunited, he said.

"But it is the nature of covenants that they combine 'aspiration' with 'reality,' which is why they always involve confession and repentance. This should not surprise us, because when you look at biblical covenants, they do exactly the same," he said.

"When Joshua challenged the people, he said: 'This is what you promised God, and you've been unfaithful - you've failed.' But it doesn't stop you renewing the covenant, and committing yourself afresh to following the Lord."

As Part 1 of the document expresses it: "We confess that we have not been faithful to commitments made in those documents. But we commend them and stand by them, as we seek to discern how we must express and apply the eternal truth of the gospel in the ever-changing world of our own generation."

"I'm not in despair," says Wright. "We keep coming back in confession and repentance and saying: 'Lord we've failed again. But it's out of that heart longing and love for the Lord and his word that we renew that covenant."

Under Wright's chairmanship, the Theology Working Group will continue working on "The Cape Town Commitment" and hopes to issue Part 2 in late November.

---Tim Thornborough is the publisher of The Good Book Company which specializes in publishing Christian books and Bible Studies for gospel ministry. www.thegoodbook.co.uk

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