Lesslie Newbigin is my hero. If I could travel back in time and study under any one person within the history of Christianity, I would choose Newbigin. Weird, right? Why not someone famous like Calvin or Luther? Or one of those Great Awakening heroes like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield? Or someone old-school like Augustine or Origen? I love (I really do) reading all these men. Their respective influences upon Christianity are immeasurable and unceasing. But I would choose a guy who is practically unknown by most Christians. A guy who was alive just 13 years ago. Lesslie Newbigin was the jack of all trades. Missionary. Theologian. Author. Ecumenist. Pastor. What I most admire about this man was his ability to both describe our modern culture with a piercing and penetrating discernment and prescribe an intelligent way forward for the church on mission. His life bore witness to his unyielding belief in the power of the gospel to transform a culture. And long before it was trendy to use the word “missional” Newbigin was calling the Western church to repent of its spiritual apostasy and indifference toward mission. He saw mission as not merely an activity of the church, but rather as primarily the activity of God, flowing out from the very nature and character of the trinitarian God.
A few years ago, my friend Mark gave me a book authored by Newbigin. It’s titled Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel & Western Culture. Newbigin’s intention is this: to “consider what would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and modern Western culture.” He explains with brilliance the effect of post-Enlightenment modernity upon the work of mission, then casts vision for Scripture speaking directly to this culture. Near the end of the book, he deals with the role of the church in this modern/postmodern world. Before prescribing 7 answers, he sets up the situation with these words:
A private religion of personal salvation that did not challenge the public ideology was perfectly safe under Roman law, as it is safe under ours. On these terms the church of the first three centuries could have flourished under the rule of Caesar precisely as this kind of evangelicalism flourishes under protection of our kind of society. But the authentic gospel cannot accept this kind of relegation… To make disciples is to call and equip men and women to be signs and agents of God’s justice in all human affairs. An evangelism that invites people to accept the name of Christ but fails to call them to this real encounter must be rejected as false.
But how is this to happen? How, in practice, is the church to challenge our culture in its public as well as its private aspects in the name of Christ? What kind of churchmanship will enable us so to preach the gospel that men and women are called to be disciples in the fullest sense- men and women and children whose personal and corporate life is a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s kingly rule over all creation and all nations? How, in particular, are we to do this, we who are sent not to one of the ancient world religions but to a society nourished in its deepest roots by a Christian tradition but governed in its explicit assumptions by a pagan ideology? And how can we be missionaries to this modern world, we who are ourselves part of this modern world?
These are the essential questions we must wrestle with as we have now come to realize that Christendom has disintegrated. Rather than lament the fact that America has become pagan and secular, we ought to embrace the missionary situation as an opportunity to boldly proclaim and embody the gospel afresh. Newbigin answers his questions above with what he calls “seven essentials.” I will cover these in a series of posts I plan to write over the next few weeks. So be looking for new posts soon!