Category Archives: Mission

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part III

Today I finish my series on Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, 1986). I introduced the series with this post and covered the first three essentials here. I will cover here the final four of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for a gospel engagement with Western culture.

  • A critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism: Newbigin was a ecumenist; he worked to bring together people from varying theological dispositions for the sake of mission. He was not one to bash denominations wholesale. What he does here, then, is critique a type of denominationalism that does little more than reveal a privatized faith with no ability to impact on the larger culture. Here is what he means: we tend to treat denominations as the means by which we choose what beliefs best suit us as individuals. We shop around, looking for a group that holds tight to what we deem most critical. Not all bad. But it’s subtly consumeristic. The unintentional result is a Christianity that is highly privatized. It’s what is best for me. It’s what I like best. it’s what most connects with me. Denominations house those who’ve come to the same decisions by themselves. Newbigin says, “Denominations cannot confront our culture with the witness of the truth since even for themselves they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who share the same private opinions.” While still retaining denominational affiliation, Newbigin argues for a truly ecumenical movement that brings together the array of denominations “in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole community in that place.”
  • An understanding of and respect for non-Western Christianity: One of the saddest realities of church history is the fact that Christian mission was not able to shake off Western hegemony. Missionaries heralded not only the gospel but Western culture as they spread the world. We made converts not only Christians but also Westerners. What happened in the process was catastrophic: we robbed the gospel of its inherent capacity to inhabit (and transform) a culture, any culture. Yale Divinity professor Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam, has written about the “infinite translatability of the gospel”- that the proclamation of Christ as Lord can and should be expressed distinctly in the mosaic of world cultures. The gospel does not create one world culture- it redeems and brings to fullness every culture. I recommend Sanneh’s book Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West (beware- he is not easy to read, but who from Yale is?). Back to Newbigin now: “The fact that Jesus is much more than, much greater than our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes […] We need their witness to correct ours, as indeed they need ours to correct theirs.” If Western Christianity is to impact post-Christian Western culture, it must recognize its place within the broader scope of God’s work within the world, and it must seek to listen to the voices of Christian leaders from other places.
  • A humble boldness to proclaim the truth of Christ as Lord: here I must simply quote Newbigin:
The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. It has always been the case that to believe means to be turned around to face in a different direction, to be a dissenter, to go against the stream. The church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner, and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is the King and Head of every human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the One who alone is that King and Head.”
  • Praise: I love how Newbigin beautifully ends his reflection with a call for praise. How are we to have this humble boldness to speak truth to our culture? Newbigin says it is not the product of human heroism but rather the “spontaneous overflow of a community of praise.” Reflecting on his own experience of being involved in two very different churches- Orthodox and Pentecostal- Newbigin says, “they have this in common: their life is centered in the action of praise- praise that is literally “out of this world” and is by that very fact able to speak to this world. Where this is present, the radiance of that supernatural reality is enough to draw men and women into its circle.” A missionary encounter with our post-Christian culture will always begin with praise. Our witness to our world is at the heart the overflow of a gift, says Newbigin. If we are not repeatedly astounded by the magnitude, reality, and cost of that gift, our missionary work will not endure.

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part II

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read here. You’ll need to read it in order to make sense of this one. Here are the first three of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for the church engaging culture and bearing witness to Christ and His inbreaking Kingdom in a modern/postmodern world.

  • A recovery of the doctrine of eschatology: The “eschaton” means “the last things,” so eschatology is the study of the “last things”or the “last days”- themes prophesied about in the Old Testament and discussed directly in the New Testament. Most people mistakingly believe eschatology refers only to the events surrounding Christ’s second coming. However, since the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in last days. All the NT authors believed this, and so should we. Christ’s Kingdom on earth is both a present and a future reality. Theologians call this the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the Kingdom. What Newbigin is saying here is this: As Christians, we must resist the temptation to travel to the extremes. The first extreme so rejects the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it causes people to “opt out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life” and instead only focuses on personal piety in preparation for final judgment. In other words, people say things like, “This world is going to hell and I’m just holding on until Jesus comes back.” Here there is no passion to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This perspective is entirely unbiblical and Newbigin is alerting us to its danger. The other extreme so embraces the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it mistakingly equates all political and social advance as God’s reign, grossly de-emphasizing the uniqueness and fullness of the Kingdom that is reserved only for Christ’s second coming. This has been the classic belief (and mistake) of mainline Protestant denominations. Newbigin reminds us that “even the best social order is- in God’s sight- an organization of sinful men and women and therefore always prone to corruption.” No amount of social advance can remedy or reverse the disease of the soul- sinful nature. We must live in the tension between these two extremes. A proper eschatology will propel us into a type of work for justice and compassion that is not an end in itself but rather a sign and foretaste of what is to come when Christ returns. We do not engage in social justice because it’s “the right thing to do;” we do it because we are called to enact today what someday will be the only reality. In a sentence, we must embrace an eschatology that thrusts us into God’s redemptive work now rather than sitting on our hands awaiting our own personal redemption later.
  • A biblical view of freedom: Newbigin argues here for a freedom that simultaneously upholds the truth of the Gospel while reserving the right for others to dissent. We’ve all been nurtured in an Enlightenment understanding of freedom that defines it as the ability to make our own decisions about what is good and true. Newbigin points out that is is precisely the opposite of biblical freedom. That type of “freedom” leads to destruction. Newbigin concludes, “True freedom is a gift of grace  given by the one who is in fact Lord; that gift, freely given, can only be received in freedom. It follows that the church cannot bear witness to that gift unless there is freedom to refuse it. Yet the church must still bear witness that this is the only true freedom: to belong wholly to the One by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom.” If the church is to engage our culture, we must do so without an arrogance that belittles or a forcefulness that manipulates.
  • A de-clericalized theology: I think Newbigin’s pastoral brilliance emerges here. Though a scholar with a robust academic pedigree, he refuses to disconnect theology from real life. He laments the relegation of theology to scholars without input from the laity (everyone other than the pastors/leaders). Newbigin boldly states, “We are in a situation analogous to one about which the great Reformers complained. The Bible has been taken out of the hands of the layperson; it has now become the professional property not of the priesthood but of the scholars.” To engage in a world that is increasingly secularized, Newbigin reminds us that we must foster conversations where “real-world” people wrestle with the meaning and application of the Gospel. What I love and find insightful is his realization that the Gospel is not a “toy” for academic play but the pronouncement Christ’s Lordship in every human realm and place. It can and must speak to every person where they live, work, and play. Church leaders need to be instructed by those who are speaking and embodying Christ on the ground, in the midst of the messiness and darkness of a lost world. When this happens, Newbigin says, the fatal divide of the public and private will be brought back together.

Foolishness to the Greeks

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!

Lausanne Congress underway in S Africa

For ten days in 1974, Billy Graham and John Stott gathered together some 2,700 Christian leaders from virtually every corner of the world to discuss issues related to global evangelization. The event- held in Lausanne, Switzerland- was historic. No time ever in the history of the world was there such a diverse gathering of Christians. The convention produced one of the most influential documents in evangelicalism, called simply the Lausanne Covenant. Among other tenets, the document is best known for embracing a vision of evangelism that holds together the work of gospel proclamation and social justice. Fifteen years later Lausanne II was held in Manila, and right now the third Congress in in progress. This time over 4,000 leaders from about 200 nations have descended upon Cape Town, South Africa (Chinese leaders were banned from attending by the Chinese government, sadly but not surprisingly).

You can watch videos and read advance papers from the Congress at the Lausanne website here. Take a look at this short video to learn more about the history of the Lausanne Movement. And join me in praying for the leaders who are seeking the Lord for the future of global evangelism.

Is the missionary impulse fading?

After a long hiatus due to a busy season of traveling and fundraising, I am eager to begin blogging here again. Through a subscription to the magazine Books & Culture (my Father’s Day gift from my wife), I heard about an article I find very interesting. It appeared in the Houses of Worship column of the Wall Street Journal and is titled “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire.”

Brad Greenberg, the author of the article, argues that worldwide evangelization has lost its passion, intensity, and ambition in our current era. I liked some parts of his article and disliked others. Here I will provide his argument and my response. You can read the full article here.

He argues that the term “missions” carries with it a negative connotation in “most Christian circles”- even conservative theological ones.

  • This may be true in small part, but, in my understanding, it is an unfair caricature that the majority of Christians hold this negative view of missionary work. Most conservative churches give a portion of their budget to missions and esteem the calling and vocation of missionary.

He also states that Christians need to balance actions and words.

  • The author is a few centuries late in delivering this bit of advice, as missionaries have been operating in this tension of word and deed for quite a long time. Perhaps most famously but certainly not the first to argue for this was John Stott at the Lausanne Convention in 1974.

Greenberg quotes a statistic from an evangelical scholar which states that only 2% of missionaries enter Middle Eastern countries, where Christian missionary work is illegal.

  • While the statistic is may be accurate, he is likely not taking into account the covert missionary operations that these closed countries require. Also, he does not seem to be aware of the missionary work of Asian and Indian believers in the Middle East.

He also labels most Americans who participate is short term missions as “vacationaries,” alleging that the motivation is not primarily the advance of the Gospel but some other less wholesome one.

  • Maybe he’s on to something here…?

Despite my concerns with the issue and particularly his unfair and narrow caricature of modern-day Christianity, I think the article is a reminder to us of the vital role of missions. Perhaps we have lost some of our ambition for the Gospel to reach every corner of the world. What do you think?