I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town 2010, a gathering of 5,000 evangelical Christians that was arguably the most representative gathering in church history. Not anything like perfectly representative—no Çatholic or Orthodox, and most of the Chinese delegates got stopped at the airport by their government—but probably closer than any other meeting in modern times. (Was Nicea representative? I don’t know.) Each country had a committee that chose their own participants, and the numbers from each country reflected the best statistics available for how many evangelical Christians live in that country. About two thirds of the participants were from the non-Western world.
The practical impact was that the vitality and optimism of the worldwide church shone through everywhere. Any time I turned to my neighbor and asked, “Who are you?” I got a fascinating story, a glimpse into a world very different from my own. It often revealed amazing achievements that nobody in the western world knows anything about. An English friend of mine, Ian Buchanan, commented how encouraging he found it, in contrast to the shrinking church environment in which he lives. Personally, I loved being outside of the success and celebrity filter that rules everything in America. You will not get rich or famous preaching in Sri Lanka. You are more likely to get arrested. But what happens in Sri Lanka is every bit as important as what happens in Los Angeles.
The planning process for Cape Town 2010 involved representatives from every region of the world. Those who held forth from the platform were a broad range of nationalities and regions—with a wide representation from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
And yet—and yet—the presentations were heavily flavored by a modern western sensibility. The program was not really multicultural, despite the good and sincere efforts of the planners to include everybody in the process.
Why? It’s a classic case of a blind spot. The western leaders, while trying hard to be inclusive, didn’t see how their presumptions and assumptions skewed the process.
For example, precision. The program was deeply planned. Everybody who spoke had to develop a script long before the event. Time limits were precise, and a huge countdown clock faced the podium showing how much time was left. That kind of planning was necessary to fit everything in—not only speakers but testimonies, music, dance, drama, video clips and break-out discussions. The program was always interesting, flooding us with information—too much, in some people’s estimation—and stimulating all the senses. It was a fantastic program, but it was a western program with global participation. If there had been an Africa Day, or a Latin America Day, they might have provided the same content but with a very different look and feel. There was no part of the program where an African could really feel at home. Believe me, there are no countdown clocks in African meetings!
Another factor was language. All presentations were in English, with simultaneous (headset) translation into seven other languages. The choice of English was dictated by the limitations of the translators. They could translate into Russian from English (for example), but probably not from Arabic or Spanish into Russian. Everybody had to start from English, unless you had a huge cast of shifting translators. The only other alternative would be parallel translation from the podium. That takes twice as long, and by the time it gets from Spanish to English to Russian, you’ve lost a lot of versimilitude. The planners had good reason for not choosing this option. However, watching Latin American and African speakers struggle their way through English scripts, you knew something important got lost. A fiery Latino speaker is a very different creature than a Latino struggling through an English script with a thick and almost impenetrable accent. I know what the Latin Americans would have preferred. Take twice as long!
These two factors alone—precision and language—meant that the program remained what its planners hoped to avoid. It was a western production inviting global participation. The global participants were grateful for the invitation, but they were guests at somebody else’s party. They were not necessarily able to be themselves. And that was a great loss at the core of the conference’s purpose.
Blind spots happen whenever we communicate across cultures. Planning a conference is a small and simple thing, compared to combating poverty, disease or ignorance, or trying to communicate a message. We never see our assumptions. Of course a clean and well-planned event is desirable to everybody! Of course translation should be conducted in the most time-efficient way possible! Of course more is better! Of course we should ignore or correct superstitious thinking! Of course we need accountability according to our reporting systems! Of course, of course.