Lausanne in the age of the Internet

Mary de Muth asks if the Lausanne Conference is a colossal waste of money, brains and time. I’m not going to bury the lede here: forget the question mark; I think it is.

I don’t know Mary at all and I don’t intend any disrespect to her, but by blogging about this she’s provided me some raw meat to get my teeth into. Let’s have a look at why she says it isn’t a waste, as that’ll help me spur my thoughts about why it is.

Now to be fair, Mary doesn’t say that it isn’t a waste. Mary’s argument is that we can’t tell, (because Lausanne isn’t actually intended to achieve anything specific anyway, and therefore can’t be measured) but at least lots of people are wasting lots of resources together:

The kingdom of God is a woman taking her most costly gift and pouring it at the feet of Jesus. Perhaps that’s a better picture of Lausanne–a gathering of people who pour their resources out on the feet of the Broken and Scarred One, in hopes that He would further His paradoxical kingdom…

On the other hand, it is a good networking opportunity, so perhaps that might be worthwhile:

But I have a feeling as I interact with people who love Jesus from all four corners of this big world that the impact in the kingdom through relationships, discussions, unity, conflict, hope, and divine appointments cannot be measured by simple economics.

So we can’t actually tell, and we should just stop thinking about it and hand it all over to God:

I don’t know what the kingdom result will be. I don’t know the deeper questions of provision and money and what could best be used. I do know that the Lord owns it all anyway, and He can do whatever He wants with what is His.

Well, yes, He can do whatever He wants with what is His, unless we happen to have thrown it all away first. So perhaps we should be thinking a little bit more deeply about what we’re doing and why.

The odd thing is that I’m normally in favour of things which promote Christian unity and things which don’t necessarily have measurable outcomes. But I feel that the organizers of Lausanne have so downplayed the idea of outcomes (while at the same time hyping the size, scope and importance of the conference) that the main driver for the conference appears to be “Let’s all get together and talk about mission.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I get together with people and talk about mission almost every day, and I expect most of the attendees do too. A global mission conference for people who don’t spend most of their days talking about mission would be a great idea, but this isn’t it.

And because there are no outcomes, paradoxically, the conference will be declared a great success. Things are always a great success if you don’t have any metrics by which to understand them; my last driving test was a great success if there wasn’t any expectation that I should pass.

It seems obvious to me why there is no expectation of achievement - because in a sense there’s very little left to discuss that can’t be discussed by other means. Look at the difference between Edinburgh 1910 and Tokyo 2010. In 2010, we don’t need to kick off a new global mission movement; we’ve already got one. We don’t need to have a great realisation that Jesus meant the bits he said about helping the poor, as we did in 1974, because we’ve already had that realisation. (I’m skipping Manila 1989 because, really, nothing interesting happened at Manila 1989.)

Ah, but what about the needs we can’t foresee until we discuss together? It’s a good argument, but the world is fundamentally quite different to what it was in 1974. In 1974, if I wanted to understand and respond to the issues that people were facing in mission, the best way to do that would be to get them all together and hear from them. In 2010, if I want to know the issues that indigenous South American missionaries, let’s say, are facing, I can just go and read their blogs. (Don’t give me the line about those who don’t have “access” unless you can name five attendees of Cape Town 2010 who don’t have email addresses.)

Travel is easier now, communication is easier now, conversation is easier now… but for some reason the “big convention” paradigm hasn’t changed. In a sense, trying to convene a global conversation is as stupid as it is arrogant because these days there’s a global conversation about mission going on all the time. The desire to centralize that discussion demonstrates a complete lack of awareness about what’s been happening in the world over the past thirty years, which has essentially been a history of decentralization.

There is, I know, this shibboleth that putting people in a room to have face-time together is somehow worth considerably more than all the discussions, mailing lists, meetings, blog posts, and so on that have gone on over the course of the past 21 years, but that’s economically (and environmentally*) unjustifiable. It’s also strategically unjustifiable because it requires removing everyone from their day-to-day experiences of mission at the coalface, where they’re best equipped to be sharing the issues that they face, and putting them in an alien and artificial environment to create alien and artificial conversations - as Eddie points out, it’s going to be hard to generate meaningful discussion in such a short time across so many cultures.

The hype coming out of Lausanne was that even if we couldn’t be there in person, we should still “participate” in this conversation on-line. How arrogant; how backwards. Lausanne should see itself as a small, limited participator in the global conversation, not its instigator.

* I would not be surprised if the take-away from this conference was a renewed emphasis on creation care, given the tendency that evangelicals have for “discovering” Biblical mandates twenty to thirty years after liberals have been championing them. (See 1974 for a case in point.) It would be deliciously ironic.