Nestled in an alpine valley in southwestern Switzerland lies the picturesque French village of Chateau d”Oex. It was here, in this land of chalets and rushing streams and gentle herds of milk cows, that I spent the summer of my 18th year. The above photo can give you an idea of what the village looked like; I’ll try to give you just a little sense of what it felt like—it was magical.
In the lower left-hand corner of the photo you can see a white multi-level building, with balconies around each level, set on a hill above an expansive lawn. This is Hotel Alpina Rosat, my home for that summer of 1974. If you zoom in you can read the name of the hotel painted on the upper level. And if you don’t know or don’t recall how I came to be there, you can always go back to that story (https://jancriley.blog/2017/10/21/no-souls/ ) and read or reread.
My arrival in Chateau d”Oex in late May put me there in time to witness a farm task that is traditionally a festive event for the people of Switzerland. As the weather warms and spring grass again begins to grow, herds of dairy cows brought down into the valleys for the winter are taken back up to their summer pastures in the mountains. The cows, sometimes adorned with flowers and always wearing bells around their necks, move calmly through villages guided by farmers and children, sometimes even a few goats. You can hear them coming long before you see them. The bells around the necks of the cows have a special meaning: the bigger the bell, the better the milk producer. I came across a short video clip posted on youtube showing the reverse process, the “arrival of the cows” in fall when the cows are brought back down for the winter, if you’d like to see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKSTCociPV4
If you look again at the photo of Chateau d’Oex, you will see a road looping around behind the hotel. One cold morning (I had come from Mississippi, so the weather felt wonderfully cold) not long after we arrived, our group of student workers was alerted by the sound of bells and ran outside to watch the cattle moving calmly along this road. In this photo of part of our group, you can see me sitting on that same road. Those of you who know me are not at all surprised to see everyone sitting on the retaining wall except me. That’s telling, I know.
Not far away from Chateau d’Oex, about 24 miles as the crow flies but closer to 50 miles when navigating mountains by train or car, is the city of Lausanne. Situated on the shore of Lake Geneva and surrounded by vineyards, this strikingly beautiful city was once a draw for intellectuals and artists, attracting such thinkers as Rousseau and Voltaire as well as the great English poet Lord Byron. By the time I was there Lausanne had become much more commercial and was known as a university and conference town. It was here that for ten days in the summer of 1974 a conference would be held that is considered by many to be “the most important world-wide evangelical gathering of the twentieth century.” While the official title of the conference was the International Congress on World Evangelization, it would come to be known as The Lausanne Congress, or simply Lausanne ‘74.
The idea for the conference began in the heart and mind of evangelist Billy Graham in August, 1972. Graham believed there was a need “to reframe Christian mission in a world of political, economic, intellectual, and religious upheaval.” He believed that the only way to accomplish this would be for Christian leaders from around the world to gather together and “unite in the common task of the total evangelization of the world.” The idea became a reality when some 2,700 evangelical Christian leaders from 150 nations, half of which belonged to the developing world, came together that summer in Lausanne, Switzerland. The recognized leaders of the Congress were Graham, of course, and a highly respected English Anglican priest and theologian named John R. W. Stott.
Those attending the Congress were expected to be and were deeply involved in the process of drawing up an agreement that would be called the Lausanne Covenant. This Covenant would not be a creed, but a statement of shared perspectives that would foster cooperation and hopefully spark collaborative efforts for years to come. The process by which this agreement was reached by such a diverse group of leaders representing many denominations from 150 countries has been called a “case study in cooperation.”
Several months before the Congress began, papers to be presented were sent to all who would be participating. Response papers were required from each one as a condition of attending. These responses were then analyzed and summarized. From this summary the first draft of the Covenant was developed near the beginning of the Congress. This draft was distributed, attendees were asked for their comments, and a new draft was produced. This procedure was repeated once more before the final document was completed and presented to the group. Guiding all of this activity was the chief architect of the Covenant, John Stott.
Thinking about how labor intensive this process must have been boggles my mind. All of this took place before the days of computers, so everything had to be done by hand. The papers had to be translated into many languages, the responses translated, then summarized, then compiled…unbelievable. Yet Stott felt strongly about the necessity of hearing the voices of everyone, of letting them know their thoughts were valued, that they as people were valued. The result was that at the end there were no surprises. Trust was built, connections were forged, unity was achieved. And that unity was essential to the ideals of the Lausanne Movement.
While the Congress meetings were limited to those registered for the conference, open sessions where the papers were presented were open to the public. This meant those of us working at the hotel in Chateau d’Oex could attend sessions on our days off. I remember making the hour-long trip to Lausanne twice during those days, once by train and once by car—whose car, I don’t know now and didn’t know then. As we commonly did that summer, we hitchhiked. Depending on who happened to be driving the car that stopped to pick us up, hitching could get us where we wanted to go a lot faster than the train and at no cost. Needless to say, this was our preferred method of travel. Always an adventure!
Walking into the Palais de Beaulieu, the venue where the Congress was held, was both overwhelming and thrilling to me. The huge conference room was packed with people from all over the world, conversing with each other in languages I’d never heard. I had become accustomed to hearing French, German, and Italian since I was in Switzerland after all, but this was something else. I rarely use the word since it has become overused to the point of becoming meaningless, but the experience was truly awesome, in the highest sense of the word. Emblazoned across the wall high above the enormous stage, displayed in six languages, were the words “Let The Earth Hear His Voice,” the theme of the Congress. Translators were positioned in a cluster of booths. Above the speaker’s podium hung a large projection screen, a necessary feature if we actually wanted to see the speaker. If you’d like to see what it was like, you can access a blog (link below) that posted pictures and messages in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Congress in 2014.
Both Graham and Stott spoke, but I wasn’t able to attend when either of them was speaking. I remember hearing two speakers. One was Michael Green, an English Anglican priest and Christian apologist. The other was Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla. I listened intently to his explanation of integral mission (also called holistic mission), a term he had coined to express Christianity’s dual priority of both evangelism and social activism. Padilla’s message resonated in me and was to have a lasting impact on my thinking.
Even though I didn’t hear much of what was presented at the Congress, I still had the benefit of hearing from several of the leaders who attended since it had been arranged for them to come and speak to our group at the hotel. We heard different voices, different perspectives. The discussions this sparked among us students were varied and deep, and we didn’t always come to a place of agreement. But we talked, and we listened, always maintaining a respect for each other’s views. As you can imagine, this had quite an impact on this teenage girl from Mississippi.
At times during the Congress some of its leadership made their way to Hotel Rosat. I was never sure why they decided to have some of their discussions there instead of in Lausanne. Maybe they felt the need to get away from all the noise and activity of the city and the conference. Maybe the quiet serenity of the village made talking and listening to each other easier. For whatever reason, they came. In this photo, taken by one of the other students, you can see Billy Graham and two others sitting on the hotel lawn, relaxed and engaged in serious discussion.
One day, the news came to us that a group of the leadership would be coming to the hotel and would be staying for lunch. As you know if you read my story about confronting the WMU woman from Mississippi (and I hope you did; otherwise, you’re missing an important part of the story), my work assignment for the summer was in the dining room. As it turned out, the group of about eight people arrived and were seated at one of the tables assigned to me. After they were seated, I headed back to the kitchen to begin serving them. I found everyone there buzzing with excitement and heard the words, “John Stott is at your table!” At this point all I knew about him was that he and Graham were the leaders of the Congress, and that made him a big deal. I asked which one he was. A slim man with thinning hair was pointed out. My first thought was that he was really old; he would have been in his early 50s then. Let me just say, my perspective on age has changed.
Meals at the hotel were served family style, meaning there was one menu for each meal of the day so there was no ordering involved. My responsibility was to get the plates, bowls of food, and beverages on the table, and make sure everyone had what they needed. With this group, I started out a little nervous and being very careful not to spill anything on anybody. I certainly didn’t want to become “renowned” for being the one who had dumped a bowl of food or pitcher of water on John Stott that summer! Serving the meals this way gave me time to interact with guests during their meals. Some of the men in the group began to ask me questions. I responded, then asked them questions. Stott was especially engaged in our conversation and in my answers. I was delighted by his witty remarks, and thoroughly enjoyed the lively banter that soon developed between us. I loved to hear him talk.
Had I known he was affectionately known as “Uncle John” by thousands of students, or that in his younger years he had once dressed as a homeless man, left all his money behind, and lived on the streets of London for three days in order to better understand and develop a deeper level of empathy for those who found themselves in those circumstances—had I known this and so much more about this incredible man, I would have expected him to be as he was: authentic. As it was, this was something I sensed about him as we interacted during that meal. I knew I liked this man; he was real.
When the meal was over, the group stood and began to leave. Stott rose from his seat, and for the first time I noticed how tall he was. Then he did something totally unexpected, something that has stayed with me for all these years. He walked over to me, took my hand in his, looked directly in my eyes, and said something. Then he bowed deeply and kissed my hand. He straightened back up, said goodbye, turned and left the room, leaving me standing there, speechless, with my hand still out in the air. I wish I remembered what he said to me but I don’t, and didn’t know even then. I think I was too stunned by his taking my hand for his words to register. What I do remember is how what he did made me feel: I felt as if I had just been blessed by a great man of God. Later I realized, I had been.
How the expression “the spirit of Lausanne” first came into being is unknown. Some have attributed it to Graham, but he admitted he didn’t remember. An appendix to the 2013 republication of Stott’s book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness explains it like this: “The phrase ‘the spirit of Lausanne’ arose out of the 1974 Congress. It captures the Movement’s ideals: dedication to prayer, and to the study of God’s Word; a desire to work in unity and partnership; a clear reflection of the hope of the gospel; and humility in service.” Whatever its origin, Stott adopted the phrase, and others identified him with the phrase. It has been said by many that “John Stott is the spirit of Lausanne,” for those ideals represent who he was. His interactions with all people, even leaders of other Christian traditions or those of other faiths or “nones” with whom he disagreed, were marked by his willingness to listen and gracious spirit.
Make no mistake: there were disagreements and conflicts even within the leadership of the Lausanne Movement. Graham and Stott had become lifelong friends since they first met at a conference at Cambridge in 1955, but there was a critical issue on which they did not see eye to eye. Graham saw the Christian mission as one of evangelism only, and believed that preaching the gospel was all that really mattered. Stott firmly believed that evangelism was only part of the mission. Equally important was a concern for people’s bodies, for their physical needs and well-being. He insisted that a call to social action must be included in the Lausanne Covenant. Neither of them ever convinced the other to change their position, but the two friends were able to respectfully maintain a unity of purpose while retaining their distinctiveness. As the movement progressed, this issue led to a confrontation between the two that could have derailed its future. If you’re interested in what happened and how it was resolved, I’ve put a a link to an article below. As it was, the ideals of “the spirit of Lausanne” held firm and the Movement continued, leading to a second Congress in Manilla in 1989 and third Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010. As was hoped, collaborative efforts begun from connections made at the first Congress have continued to grow and expand.
Stott and others were concerned that the apparent “success” of the Lausanne Congress would lead to its being hailed as a “great victory” and so miss its essential spirit. In his commentary on the Lausanne Covenant, Stott wrote: “Several speakers voiced the hope that the Congress would be marked more by evangelical penitence than by evangelical triumphalism. ‘Triumphalism’ is an attitude of self-confidence and self-congratulation, which is never appropriate in God’s children. But the spirit of Lausanne was a spirit of humility and a spirit of penitence.”
Before that summer I had never given much thought to the term “evangelical” or its “—ism”; I don’t know that I was even aware of its existence. In Mississippi, what was talked about in those days was being Baptist. The events of this summer were my first introduction to an expanded worldview, and I was thrilled by what I had experienced and learned. That summer I was touched by, blessed by, the spirit of Lausanne. To me, what was exemplified at the Congress was evangelicalism. What I didn’t know, what it took me many years to learn, was that there are different kinds of evangelicals, and different brands of evangelicalism.
There was something else I didn’t know. Back in the USA, a few years earlier, two men had met. Now plans were being made, born of a shared desire to change the face of a denomination. Eventually, their plan would succeed in changing the look of evangelicalism in American. And the resulting look would bear little, if any, resemblance to “the spirit of Lausanne.”
Stott, John R. W. Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (Langham Global Library, 2013))
The Story of the Lausanne Covenant: Case Study in Cooperation
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the First International Congress on World Evangelization