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Why I Love the Missional Church

“Missional” is the latest buzzword in evangelical circles.  Some want to be missional.  Some claim to be missional.  Others simply don’t understand what missional means.  Wherever you find yourself, you absolutely must read this:

The following is an extended quote from Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  If you are unfamiliar with Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), he is the pioneer of missional theology.  Trying to understand the missional church without reading Lesslie Newbigin is something like trying to understand Lutheranism without reading Luther or Reformed theology without reading Calvin.  It simply doesn’t make sense.

I am personally just coming to learn this.  For the past four years I’ve been interacting with the missional church but have not spend a lot of time with Newbigin.  I’ve read the important disciples of Newbigin with great profit (Guder, Van Gelder, Hunsberger, Roxburgh).  These names are also “must reads” for the missional conversation, especially because they represent the North American understanding of missional church.  To extend my previous metaphor, they are the Melanchthon, Beza, and Bullinger of the missional church!  I would even add the third generational missional thinker Alan Hirsch as an important read (though he is writing from an Australian context which is slightly different).  However, no one is as critical as Lesslie Newbigin.

So here is an extended excerpt on his understanding of the missional church:

“What, then, is our role?

“Jesus is both totally compassionate and yet totally uncompromising about what is involved in coming to the fullness of life.  There can be no compromise with false ideas about what makes for fullness of life.  To give bread to the hungry is an action of divine compassion and as such a sign of that which alone can satisfy the infinite desires and needs of the human spirit.  If the sign is confused with that which it signifies, the gift of life is forfeited.  In serving human need, Jesus remains master.  The servant who washes the feet of his disciples is their master and lord, and it is in serving that he exercises his lordship (John 13:13-14).

“What does this say about the way in which the Church is authorized to represent the kingdom of God in the life of society?  It excludes, certainly, the idea that it will be by exercising the kind of power which the “rulers of the Gentiles” exercise (Luke 22:25-26).  But it excludes also the idea that Church simply “responds to the aspirations of the people.”  And it excludes ideas which have been too prevalent in “evangelical” circles, ideas which portray the Church in the style of a commercial film using modern techniques of promotion to attract members…How can the Church be fully open to the needs of the world and yet have its eyes fixed on God?  I think there is only one way.

“…I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation.  How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?  I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.  I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one.  But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.

“Insofar as it is true to its calling, this community will have, I think, the following six characteristics:

  1. It will be a community of praise.  That is, perhaps, its most distinctive character.  Praise is an activity which is almost totally absent from “modern” society [due to the dominance of skepticism and doubt].
  2. It will be a community of truth…The reigning plausibility structure can only be effectively challenged by people who are fully integrated inhabitants of another.
  3. It will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.  It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it – or, rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community.  It is, I think, very significant that in the consistent usage of the New Testament, the word ekklesia is qualified in only two ways; it is “the Church of God,” or “of Christ,” and it is the church of a place.
  4. It will be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world…The Church is sent into the world to continue that which [Jesus] came to do, in the power of the same Spirit, reconciling people to God (John 20:19-23).  This priesthood has to be exercised in the life of the world.  It is in the ordinary secular business of the world that the sacrifices of love and obedience are to be offered to God.  It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released into the world through the work of Christ is manifested.  The Church gathers every Sunday, the day of the resurrection and of Pentecost, to renew its participation in Christ’s priesthood.  But the exercise of this priesthood is not within the walls of the Church but in the daily business of the world…The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world.  The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of their Christian faith.
  5. It will be community of mutual responsibility.  If the Church is to be effective in advocating and achieving a new social order in the nation, it must itself be a new social order.
  6. Finally, it will be a community of hope.  As I already said, I think that one of the most striking features of contemporary Western culture is the virtual disappearance of hope.

“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noontime of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns.  Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era.  It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel.  But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, chapter 18).

Why do I like this so much?  In this short excerpt, Newbigin challenges a lot of common thoughts about the church today:

  1. Against mainline Protestants and some emergents, Newbigin says that compassionate deeds are necessary “signs” of the gospel but are not the gospel itself.  The gospel itself is necessary.
  2. Against the Christendom mentality of the distant past, Newbigin says that the gospel cannot be forced.
  3. Against those who seek a political Christianity, Newbigin says that the gospel will not go forth through politics.
  4. Against the contemporary attractional church, Newbigin says that the gospel is not commercial.
  5. Against pluralists Newbigin, says it is all about Jesus Christ.
  6. Against those who minimize Christian leadership, Newbigin says that leadership is absolutely essential (he says this explicitly in the chapter following this one.  He uses the image of a military general – not one who sits in an office – but one who equips his troops and then proceeds to the front line of battle!)
  7. Against those who emphasize Christian leadership too much, Newbigin says that a leader’s primary role is equipping and encouraging.  He firmly believes in the priesthood of all believers, especially a priesthood that is scattered about in all aspects of society.  The gospel will only go forth through a whole community of priests.
  8. Against those who say the gathering of the community is not necessary, Newbigin says that it is essential that we gather to be equipped and praise.  The local congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel
  9. Against those who emphasize the institution of church or gathering of the community too much, Newbigin says that it is only when this community is sent and dispersed that it will impact all aspects of society.  The “exercise of the priesthood” does not take place in the walls of a building, but out and about.
  10. Also against those who emphasize the institution of the church too much, Newbigin says that it does not exist for itself “but for the wider community.”

At the end of the day it is the Church, in its local manifestation, that is sent to all aspects of its context to be a sign, foretaste, and instrument of the Kingdom of God.

Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society provides all this and so much more (this is only a summary of one chapter out of 20).  Of course, Newbigin does not simply state what he is against, his whole book is a proactive proposal for the gospel in a pluralist society.

So for those who are interested in the missional church I commend to you Lesslie Newbigin.  For those who claim to be missional I provide Newbigin as a standard to compare yourself and your community.  For those who want to be missional I present Newbigin and ask, “are you sure you’re ready to be this?”

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  1. October 4, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Okay, I’m in. I ordered it.

  2. Andrew Ford
    October 5, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    . . .sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace. . . love it! Nice post, very helpful – a moment of clarity in the conversation. Thanks Brian. Do you think an average guy like me could handle Newbigin’s book right away or should I read something else first?

  3. Brian McLaughlin
    October 5, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    You can handle Newbigin’s book, but it is tough reading. It took me a couple weeks – had to read slowly. You should borrow my copy and start with the last 3 chapters. In the first half of the book he is talking about pluralism in society. It is interesting, but more philosophical. The second half, especially at the end, is where he gets to the church’s role. That is when it gets really exciting!

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