By Lowell Bliss
Flourish, Fall 2011
In October, 2010, over 4200 evangelical leaders from 198 countries converged on Cape Town, South Africa for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, continuing the movement begun four decades ago by the prayerful efforts of Billy Graham and John Stott. The Congress’s stated goal was to present “a fresh challenge to the global Church to bear witness to Jesus Christ and all his teaching—in every nation, in every sphere of society, and in the realm of ideas.” In South Africa, the Third Congress embodied that challenge in a remarkable document entitled the Cape Town Commitment.
Among the many issues touched upon from the “nations, spheres, and realms” was creation care. The Cape Town Commitment makes assertions about that subject that are unprecedented in the history of the modern evangelical church: “The earth is created, sustained and redeemed by Christ,” it declares. “We cannot claim to love God while abusing what belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance.”
“Creation care is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.”
John Stott drafted the text of the Lausanne Movement’s original document, the Lausanne Covenant, and offered up the phrase that would become the rallying cry of all subsequent activities, namely that “World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” This three-part statement on wholeness suggests a way to describe how God moved at each of the three Congresses, and explains how creation care has finally found an undisputed place close to the heart of modern global evangelicalism.
A brief history of the Lausanne Movement
The first Congress was held in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland (hence the name of the movement.) A plenary speech there where Ralph Winter coined the term “unreached people groups” was so influential that this first gathering will forever be known as a great push to fulfill the Great Commission by bringing the gospel to “the whole world.” Fifteen years later, the Lausanne Movement reconvened outside the borders of Europe and North America. The explosive growth of the church in Asia, Africa, and Latin America found expression in the “whole Church” language of the Manila Manifesto (1989).
Last year’s Congress began by recommitting to the two previous declarations: “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.” In the preamble of the Cape Town Commitment, the delegates specifically list some of these world changes, namely “global poverty, war, ethnic conflict, disease, the ecological crisis and climate change.”
Such a specific list like this one included in the opening paragraphs is enough to signal that the Cape Town Commitment is a unique document. It names names. It takes responsibility. It seeks, for the first time in such a large representative body of global evangelicals, to define exactly what “the whole gospel” is. Remarkably, creation care is part of it.
John Stott, who passed away in July at the age of 90, was still honorary chairman of the Lausanne Movement at the time of Third Congress, but he has been replaced as a declaration draftsman by the man he has long mentored, Anglican theologian Christopher J. H. Wright. Chris Wright is the chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group and essentially the author of the Cape Town Commitment. He recently told Flourish:
The Cape Town Commitment has completed the journey that was set in motion in Lausanne 1974 (when it was acknowledged that the biblical gospel could not be confined to the evangelism of individuals alone but necessarily addresses the social dimension and contexts of all human life) by affirming furthermore the biblical truth that God’s sovereign providence and redemptive love extends over his whole creation. Our responsible use of and care for creation is thus rightly included within our concept and practice of integral mission. I wholeheartedly welcome this development.
A blessing on creation care
This past year, my nine-year-old daughter Bronwynn had a remarkable young student teacher in her classroom. The two bonded, so much so that at the end of the semester, Mrs.Wilde and her husband came to our house for a meal and then took Bronwynn out for ice cream. As I tucked Bronwynn into bed that evening, my advice to her was “Remember this feeling. There’s nothing sweeter than receiving the blessing of those you respect.”
I felt the same way when the Lausanne Movement released the Cape Town Commitment.
[The Commitment] seeks, for the first time in such a large representative body of global evangelicals, to define exactly what “the whole gospel” is. Remarkably, creation care is part of it.
“We support Christians,” the document reads, “whose particular missional calling is to environmental advocacy and action, as well as those committed to godly fulfillment of the mandate to provide for human welfare and needs by exercising responsible dominion and stewardship.”
This is a blessing; a blessing pronounced on organizations like Flourish and Eden Vigil. It is a fulsome blessing, too, on those of you who—whether for years or just recently—have nonetheless worked out a logic of the Love that can be hard to verbalize as effectively as Chris Wright has in the Cape Town Commitment:
We love the world of God’s creation. This love is not mere sentimental affection for nature (which the Bible nowhere commands), still less is it pantheistic worship of nature (which the Bible expressly forbids). Rather it is the logical outworking of our love for God by caring for what belongs to him. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” The earth is the property of the God we claim to love and obey. We care for the earth, most simply, because it belongs to the one whom we call Lord.
Drawing a line in the topsoil
While it is gratifyingly sweet that the leaders of the global evangelical church affirm a creation care calling, if that was all that
the Cape Town Commitment did, it wouldn’t mobilize the “radical obedient discipleship” and “radical cross-centered reconciliation” necessary to address today’s ecological crisis. Of all the global challenges named in the Commitment, the need for creation care action is one of only two ministries labeled as “urgent and prophetic,” HIV/Aids ministry being the other. But even this strongly exhortatory language is insufficient.
The Cape Town Commitment does one thing which above all else will have, we pray, an unimaginable impact in evangelicalism: It establishes creation care as part of the “whole gospel.” “Creation care is . . . a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.” I can’t imagine it being stated any more succinctly, boldly, or irrevocably. Here is a line, if not in the sand, then in the topsoil. The document explains its logic:
We care for the earth and responsibly use its abundant resources, not according to the rationale of the secular world, but for the Lord’s sake. If Jesus is Lord of all the earth, we cannot separate our relationship to Christ from how we act in relation to the earth. For to proclaim the gospel that says “Jesus is Lord” is to proclaim the gospel that includes the earth, since Christ’s Lordship is over all creation. Creation care is thus a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.
“ Creation care is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.” I’m empowered by repeating it, but still somewhat cowed by its audacity.
This is a blessing; a blessing pronounced on organizations like Flourish and Eden Vigil.
Director of Care of Creation Ed Brown was at Cape Town during the Third Congress and says, “The Cape Town Commitment‘s language reflects a perspective that is completely consistent with evangelical belief both biblically and historically. The attention this document is receiving may be a sign of how far our contemporary understanding of creation care has wandered from our historical roots.”
In other words, my awe at the Commitment’s boldness may betray a modernist reaction to a radical obedient discipleship that always should have included creation care. I may also be having a Baby Boomer reaction. The Lausanne Movement has made a concerted effort to cultivate “young leaders” (defined as those under 40.) No doubt, the prominence of creation care (like HIV/Aids or human trafficking) in the Cape Town Commitment is in part due to their welcome influence.
Finally, I may be having a North American reaction. The truth of the matter is, if the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization had convened in Orlando, not Cape Town; if the delegates had not been of such an international make-up, and if the chair of the Theology Working Group had not been an Anglican, then I suspect the Cape Town Commitment might not have embraced creation care so thoroughly. We would have negotiated the language deftly in our native tongue. It wouldn’t have been urgent and prophetic. Still, North American evangelical leaders of diverse persuasions have heralded the Cape Town Commitment and have stepped forward to sign it.
Brown praises this widespread endorsement of the Commitment. “What is needed now,” he says, “is what has always saved the evangelical community from itself: leaders, in particular pastors, who have the wisdom and spiritual insight to go back to the Bible for their source of truth, and the courage to communicate this truth to their people. I am convinced that once we understand what the Bible demands of us, action will follow.”
For there is one particular aspect of the Cape Town Commitment that will appeal to North American evangelicals: Though it is a historic, international document, the Commitment is meant to be read personally. By its own design, it is written in the language of love and discipleship.
“Our responsible use of and care for creation is thus rightly included within our concept and practice of integral mission.”
Such a challenge can only be taken up personally. Institutions don’t love; individuals do. This is true of our love for the Creator and his creation. It is true of our discipleship in creation care.
The cynic might look at a document like the Cape Town Commitment and say, “Something which belongs to everybody, really belongs to nobody.” I say, something that belongs to everybody, can therefore belong to anybody. I choose to make it mine.
Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil and the publisher of the Environmental Missions Prayer Digest. His forthcoming book, Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees, includes a lengthier discussion of the Cape Town Commitment.