How Billy Graham Brought Evangelism and Social Justice Together

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In 1974, Billy Graham convened an enormous conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“I traveled the whole world meeting such wonderful leaders,” Graham later told Lausanne global executive director Michael Oh. “But I found that they didn’t know each other.”

Graham wanted to assess the way political, ideological, and theological world issues affected evangelism, and to bring evangelical leaders to a common vision for both evangelism and social justice. He invited about 2,400 evangelical leaders from 150 countries.

The meeting turned out to be outrageously important. Not only did the participants make up “possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held” and signal the rising strength of conservative Christians worldwide, it also delivered unity on the most divisive issue of the day—whether social justice should be as highly prioritized as evangelism.

And it kicked off the Lausanne Movement.

“No one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership,” wrote George Washington University professor Melani McAlister for The Atlantic. Her forthcoming book is The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals.

“He used his status as the most important religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world,” she wrote.

In some ways, the first Lausanne conference was the culmination of a meeting 20 years earlier, when Graham was first introduced to British evangelist John Stott at Cambridge University.

The two became close friends during a mission at the school.

“The first time I visited Billy at his old log home with Leighton [Ford], the very first thing Billy asked me was ‘How’s John?’” remembered Doug Birdsall, honorary co-chair of the Lausanne Movement. “This should not have surprised me because just a year earlier when I first met John Stott in London on Lausanne-related matters, his first question had been, ‘How’s Billy?’”

Stott was among the small group of leaders Graham gathered in Montreaux, Switzerland, in 1960 to mull over how to unite evangelicals globally. The answer: Gather around evangelism, the only word that would unite them, Graham decided.

Out of the Montreaux meetings grew the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism, which drew 700 participants, including Stott.

And out of the 1966 Congress grew the Lausanne Congress, organized and fundedalmost entirely by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham and Stott both spoke, emphasizing the urgency of evangelism and addressing the argument over whether evangelism should be valued more highly than social justice issues.

They did it: Graham as “the indispensable convener,” and Stott as “the indispensable uniter.” The Lausanne Covenant brokered peace between the two sides (“we affirmthat evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty”) and gave walking orders for future partnerships in evangelism.

The Congress also gave walking orders to a Continuation Committee, which included both Stott and Graham and met in Mexico City in 1975. There, the Lausanne Movement was fleshed out, with Graham’s brother-in-law Leighton Ford elected as chairman in 1976.

At the same time, Graham was supporting a global outlook at the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

The week after the Lausanne Congress, in which the WEA was heavily involved, Graham “took time to attend the WEA General Assembly nearby at Chateau d’Oex,” the WEA stated. It wasn’t the first time he’d given input: in 1968, “at a time when the WEA needed added impetus, he stepped in and provided resources for the relaunch and internationalization of the work.”

Expanding evangelism to the entire world was immensely important to Graham. In one interview, he told Newsweek that the outcome of the 1974 Lausanne Congress may have been his most enduring legacy.

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Source: Christianity Today