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Conference defines evangelical message, not future

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- By most accounts, evangelical Protestantism is one of the great, growing religious movements internationally, as it is in the United States.

There was ample evidence of that at ''Amsterdam 2000,'' Billy Graham's grand assemblage of 10,700 evangelical activists from 209 nations and territories that convened here through last Sunday.

Underscoring the significance of the event, the Rev. David Barrett, editor of the forthcoming World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates the movement now numbers some 210 million.

The conference sharply defined the message, methods and mission of the evangelicals -- but it failed to clarify key aspects of their future.

One important unknown is who the top future leaders will be.

It was the last world meeting that will be led by Graham, who at 81 was recovering from surgery and unable to attend. Graham is preparing to turn his organization over to his son, Franklin.

Franklin, 48, says operations will continue unchanged. But he acknowledges he's no second Billy, and his conference address was devoid of any broad or stirring evangelical vision.

Evangelicalism ''became a distinct global reality in the second half of the 20th century,'' said the ''Amsterdam Declaration,'' a 10-page statement based on conference speeches and strategy discussions. And the gathering was a nostalgic final bow on the world stage for those who jump-started evangelicalism after World War II.

One workshop leader, a Baptist from Ghana, complained that the average age of main conference speakers was 65. ''Who is taking over, and why are they not given the opportunity to do things?'' he wondered.

The Rev. John Akers, the program chairman and a top aide to Graham for 23 years, said Graham wanted seasoned speakers to pass ''the wisdom of one generation on to the next.''

Graham's U.S. staff picked all the participants and speakers, and thus determined who got exposure from evangelicalism's deepening talent pool in the non-Western nations.

Akers, a former church history professor, thinks evangelicalism may be moving away from an era of famous leaders. But he said, ''If there is a new Billy Graham in the next generation, he is likely to come from one of the other continents.''

A related issue is whether evangelicalism can develop women leaders.

Bill Bright, 78, the retiring founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, shared the platform with wife Vonette, but the only other female plenary speaker was Billy's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, an evangelist who doesn't feel it's right for women to seek clergy ordination or bear church authority. However, she accepts that other women believe differently.

Another fuzzy area is evangelicals' relations with fellow Christians, about which Amsterdam said next to nothing, as opposed to other world religions, about which it said much.

The declaration sternly rejected the sort of religious pluralism promoted by liberal theology and secular society. ''Christ is the one and only Savior of the world,'' it proclaimed.

Though other religions may have elements of truth, it said, Jesus is the exclusive way to know God. Hell awaits those who do not repent of their sins. Everyone everywhere must be evangelized. The Bible is ''totally true'' and orthodox doctrines are essential.

A speaker from Sri Lanka, which is largely Buddhist, said preaching only one path may seem arrogant, but ''the real arrogance is for us to reject what the God of the universe says about himself'' to fit the cultural mood.

Another speaker, raised in India, told a news conference that it's simply an illusion to think Hindus or Muslims are not also evangelizing, or that only Christianity makes exclusive truth claims.

Intra-Christian relations saw no breakthroughs at the gathering. Even the prospering Pentecostals and Charismatics, who are part of evangelicalism, got little platform time.

After Holland's Roman Catholic primate brought greetings and read from the pope's response to a Graham letter, and a speaker praised a Catholic missionary, one Brazilian Protestant delegation went home in protest.

David Neff, editor of the U.S. evangelical magazine Christianity Today, said the conference, like revivalistic evangelicalism generally, would have gained by drawing upon non-Protestant riches such as the spiritual disciplines and ancient church fathers.

Relations with the World Council of Churches, which includes the Orthodox and a wide spectrum of Protestants, are especially complicated. Many WCC Protestants are evangelical in outlook. Other evangelicals remain outside both the Geneva-based WCC and the Singapore-based World Evangelical Fellowship. Graham and his allies seek neither a broader evangelical organization to compete with the WCC, nor closer ties with the council.

At Graham's invitation, the WCC did send one staff observer, the Rev. Kwame Labi, a Greek Orthodox priest from Ghana. He lamented the conference's omission of sociopolitical pronouncements, because matters of social injustice and poverty ''belong to the very essence of the Gospel.''

Evangelicals say believers should work on those issues, but the conference kept a narrow focus on evangelism.

The Rev. Gerald Anderson, retired director of the Overseas Ministry Study Center in New Haven, Conn., is a United Methodist and thus part of the WCC constituency. He thinks that as a result of liberal theology, ''the passion and commitment to world evangelism has largely disappeared from the heart of the ecumenical movement'' as represented by the council.

If world Protestantism has a two-party system, Amsterdam 2000 seems to have strengthened the conservative party.

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On the Net:

Conference site, http//www.amsterdam2000.org



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