CAPE TOWN, South Africa-One way to grasp the breadth of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization-with its 4,000 delegates from more than 200 countries all assembled in Cape Town's downtown waterfront convention center-is to sit down to dinner at almost any table for eight. At my first meal, prior to Sunday night's opening ceremony, I sat between two pastors, one from Estonia and another from Chad.
Mark Nelson, who sat on my left in a forest green clerical collar, teaches at the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary and runs a missionary internship program to Siberia. He said his Estonia is "the most secular country in the world." Once a majority Lutheran country, Estonia now has only 16 percent of its people who profess faith of any kind in God, he said. Nelson is married to an Estonian but is Canadian born, very white, and Anglo-Saxon.
Christophe Hadama, who sat on my right in a full-length, pale blue djellaba, every day crosses a bridge over the Chari River to get from his home in Cameroon to the Evangelical University of Chad's capital, N'Djamena. For two years he has been training other pastors at the college as representative of one of three Protestant denominations in Chad-a country that is more than half Muslim but Hadama claims has a growing evangelical presence. Hadama is very tall and a very black North African.
Both men highlight the emerging if unstated theme of the Third Lausanne Congress: Christianity may be dying in the West but it is thriving-despite obstacles and hardship-in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The conference, which stretches across seven days, will close Oct. 24 with communion hosted by Lausanne Movement international director Lindsay Brown and Ugandan Anglican Archbishop Henry Orombi (WORLD's 2006 Daniel of the Year). All-day sessions will try to bridge the divide between the West and the Rest by looking at issues that range from the rise of secularism to the spread of poverty. Additional emphasis will fall on ministering to refugees (at 3 percent, a growing segment of the world's population), reaching the world's estimated population of 28 percent who have never heard the gospel, and providing effective ministry in Muslim countries. Popular speakers at the event include Sri Lankan Ajith Fernando, Costa Rican Ruth Padilla DeBorst, apologist Os Guinness, and U.S. pastors John Piper and Tim Keller.
The first congress took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974 under the leadership of evangelist Billy Graham and theologian John Stott, and launched, among other things, a movement to reach "unreached people groups"-a term first coined at Lausanne. The second gathering was in Manila in 1989.
Nearly unmentioned at Cape Town during the opening evening events was whether any of the over 200 delegates from China who were refused exit from their home country during the past week would make it to the once-a-decade event. The delegates "were all either harassed or being seriously warned not to attend in previous months," said Bob Fu, president of the human rights group China Aid. "Most of them were prevented, and some were even beaten." That group, according to Fu, included prominent legal scholar Fan Yafeng, who spoke to National Public Radio about the detentions last week.
The Chinese delegates themselves issued a statement on Friday accusing the government of using "a variety of means" to prevent them from attending the Cape Town event, including "persuasion, surveillance, obstruction, detention and confiscation of passports at international airports." They said most "did not make it to the meeting" as a result.
Lausanne organizers said they received word, as the event began, that the Chinese delegation-the second largest to the Congress-"were disallowed by their government from attending."
The absence of the Chinese, said Peter Tarantal, chair of the South African Lausanne Committee, "is a great disappointment . . . and particularly acute given that South Africa and China enjoy such good bilateral relations."
Lausanne Movement executive chair Doug Birdsall said Congress planners "have no intention of challenging the Chinese government's principle of independent, autonomous, and self-governed churches," adding, "We very much regret that our intentions and the decentralized invitation process to our Chinese brothers and sisters have been wrongly perceived." China's refusal to allow any delegates to attend Lausanne apparently stemmed from the presence of unauthorized house church members among the delegation.
Orombi, as honorary chair of the event, will preside over a long-planned program highlighting the church in China on Monday evening.
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