Newbigin on the Church as Mission


I’ve been reading a fair bit of Newbigin of late for my PhD in missional ethics. Newbigin was not only a missionary (to India) but also a missional thinker who wrote a fair bit of the theology of mission between the late 1950s-1990s. As a significant player in the ecumenical movement he has been widely influential, and while I don’t agree with everything he says he is undoubtedly thoughtful and stimulating. Here’s some thought-provoking quotes from his work:

“It has become customary to speak of fellowship, service, and witness as three dimensions of the Church’s mission. I believe that careful reflection will show that this is a mistake . . . The basic reality is the creation of a new being through the presence of the Holy Spirit. This new being is the common life in the Church. It is out of this new creation that both evangelism and service spring . . . This new reality – namely the active presence of the Holy Spirit among men is the primary witness” (One Body, One Gospel, One World)


“Because the Church is the mission there is a missionary dimension of everything that the Church does. But not everything the Church does has a missionary intention” (One Body, One Gospel, One World)


“The most important contribution which the Church can make to a new social order is to be itself a new social order” (Truth to Tell)


“The Church must be visible and recognizable as the community that embraces the whole city in the Father’s love” (Truth to Tell)


A missional encounter happens when the unbeliever sees “the spontaneous overflow of a community of praise . . . the radiance of a supernatural reality.” (Foolishness to the Greeks)


“To be elect in Christ Jesus . . . means to be incorporated into his mission to the world . . . to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)


“The Church is not the source of the witness; rather, it is the locus of witness. The light cast by the first rays of the morning sun shining on the face of a company of travellers will be evidence that a new day is coming” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)


“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” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Note a few things here:

  1. Newbigin is committed to the idea of the missio Dei – that is, God has a mission, and it remains his mission. The Church is called to participate in that which God is doing.
  2. Newbigin was keen to counter the idea, from the early part of the 20th c., that Church and mission could be separated out. While I agree with Newbigin’s theology it’s worth noting that some undesirable unintended consequences followed. The formation of the World Council of Churches was based on very little doctrine (a simple confession of Jesus as Lord sufficed for membership), and unity became the be all and end all. Mission became nothing more than a unified church (but united in what!?)
  3. Newbigin also argues that mission is a whole life thing – every act has a missional dimension. Again, I’m sympathetic to his argument (given some careful argument and qualification), but this also led to some unexpected developments – namely the side-lining of proclamation evangelism. This is something the Lausanne movement (Billy Graham and John Stott) worked to restore, without losing the appropriate sense of holistic mission.
  4. Newbigin strongly believes that the life of the believing congregation is just as important as the message. Without a credible community the message becomes incredible (at points he pushes this further than I’d be happy with, but it remains a striking challenge)

If you haven’t ever read any Newbigin I hope this might wet your appetite. As with many of the great writers, don’t expect to agree with everything, and read discerningly. Yet, Newbigin is massively influential because of his stimulating and thought-provoking insight.

[if you want a starting point I’d suggest The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission or Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission]


Zeal without Burnout


I’ve just finished reading Chris Ash’s excellent book, Zeal without Burnout, and would highly recommend – it’s the kind of book that leadership teams should read together to talk about healthy (and unhealthy) patterns of life and work. The book contains a host of helpful stories, wisdom, Scriptural application, and keys such as God doesn’t need sleep, sabbaths, friends, or food – but you do! There’s also a very helpful little performance/pressure graph in the back by Steve Midgley. It’s an easy read packed full of biblical wisdom. Here’s nice bit from pp. 61-62 quoting the old Scottish minister William Still:

Some meddling ministers want to sort everybody out. God is not so optimistic. There are some who will die mixed-up personalities, and they may be true believers . . . Don’t try and do the impossible. Know your limitations, and know what God is seeking to do in the world and what part in it He wants you to play . . . Most people crack up because they try to do what God never intended them to do. They destroy themselves by sinful ambition, just as much as the drunkard and drug addict. Ambition drives them on.”

So do yourself and your team a favour – buy it, and get it read!

The Battle For Christianity

There’s a new documentary, entitled The Battle for Christianity, that was aired on Tuesday night about the current state of Christianity in the UK. It was shown on the BBC (and is now on iPlayer), and was presented by Prof. Robert Beckford. It’s really interesting for a number of reasons:

  • Beckford notes that while in general Christianity is declining, in evangelical churches it’s growing.
  • The churches that are growing fastest are also the ones that hold the views that ‘society’ finds hard to swallow.
  • The churches that are growing fastest are the churches that are reaching and loving their communities with things like CAP, Foodbank, homeless shelters, street pastors etc.
  • Migration is a significant factor in shaping Britain’s contemporary Christianity.
  • The liberal intelligentsia have no idea what to do with all this. They get a bit upset that their own tribe are dying out fast. And they call on the evangelicals to be more tolerant (in a way that displays their own intolerance). And they wish the church was more in line with society!!

There’s a nice line from the youth and young adult pastor of Hillsong, London. He says ‘we innovate the method, not the message,’ which seems to be the opposite of that which is stood for by dying liberalism.

It’s well worth a watch on iPlayer. I found it both illuminating and encouraging. Enjoy, and Happy Easter! He is risen.

Does your God have rough edges?


I’m currently reading C.S.Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm. In letter 14 Lewis discusses the nature of God. The following quote I found very striking and challenging. It’s worth reading slowly, carefully, and meditatively:

“That, by the way, explains the feebleness of all those watered down versions of Christianity which leave out all the darker elements and try to establish a religion of pure consolation. No real belief in the watered versions can last. Bemused and besotted as we are, we still dimly know at heart that nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. It is of the very nature of the real that it should have sharp corners and rough edges, that it should be resistant, should be itself. Dream-furniture is the only kind on which you never stub your toes or bang your knee . . . Servile fear is, to be sure, the lowest form of religion. But a god such that there could never be occasion for even servile fear, a safe god, a tame god, soon proclaims himself to any sound mind as a fantasy. I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven.”

Packer’s 5 ‘R’s of Repentance


A recent conversation with a friend directed me to J. I. Packer’s book, A Passion for Holiness. It’s a long while since I read it, but thumbing through it convinced me I need to revisit this little treasure. One helpful nugget is toward the beginning of chapter 5 in which Packer unpacks the nature of true repentance in 5 ‘R’s as follows:

  1. Recognition that one has done wrong and failed God
  2. Remorse at the dishonour one has done to God
  3. Requesting of God’s pardon and cleansing
  4. Renunciation of the sins in question and resolve to live right for the future
  5. Restitution to those who suffer material loss through one’s wrongdoing

What is clear here, to state the blindingly obvious, is the God-ward direction of repentance. Packer is clear that repentance and reconciliation needs to operate on the horizontal, but first and foremost it is God whom we have wronged, and it is God that we need to come to in repentance. As a result of this, we will seek reconciliation with others. The second thing that struck me in Packer’s brief outline was the thorough and practical nature of repentance. It’s not enough to say a silent sorry in solitude. Renunciation, resolve, and restitution are part of the Packer package. Packer closes his summary with one final reminder regarding the ongoing nature of true repentance:

“Such is repentance – not just the initial repentance of the adult convert, but the recurring repentance of the adult disciple.”

As another friend in our conversation said, I think I need to repent of my repentance!

15 Ways to Attract, Retain, and Integrate New People Into Your Church

An friend recently asked me how we do ‘hospitality’ stuff at Grace. The following is what I sent him, and I thought it might be useful for others too – so take a look, and let me know what you think. What’s missing? What could be done better? Any help greatly appreciated.

1. First, think about your virtual front door – how’s the website – is it welcoming, inviting, clear etc. You might want to think social media under this too
2. Have someone from the front on the door – makes a connection straight away for newbies
3. Make sure all your language from the front is inclusive and accessible. This is Keller’s ‘as if’ principle – you do everything ‘as if’ your friend, neighbour, local counsellor etc was present – because hopefully one day they will be
4. Use a simple connect card so that visitors can fill something in if they want to – you may want to vary whether you announce it from the front as part of the service or have it lying round a welcome table at the back for your welcome team to use
5. Encourage the congregation to keep being welcoming and friendly – we encouraged our folk to use the first five minutes after the service to say hello to someone they didn’t know
6. Serve decent coffee and doughnuts after the service – its just loving your neighbour!
7. Have people on the exit door to initiate a little conversation with visitors – friendly, not heavy!
8. We then circulate info (from the conversations with new people) to the connect team and leaders via email so that we’re keeping a rough track of newcomers – tends to just be a name, a little background, and how many times they’ve visited. We don’t put their whole life-story out on email for obvious reasons!
9. If you can get a contact in a natural way make sure someone on the team follows that up – ideally within 24-48 hours. That contact might be more info, a simple word of welcome, or an invite to lunch or a small group (if appropriate)
10. Develop a culture of hospitality within the church – i.e. having people back (especially newbies) for Sunday lunch – great way to really connect to people
11. Try and encourage people to join a small group after they’ve been coming for 3-4 visits – again, best way to connect people into the life of the church
12. Have a termly ‘new folks’ lunch at which leaders and staff are present – could include a short 15 mins on history and vision of the church
13. have a range of ‘new folks’ courses’ – might be explore, might be more like a new members day – depends where they’re at – you want a number of things that you can plug folk into
14. Run (as regularly as necesssary – twice a year for us) a new persons day – at which you can talk about church vision, values, membership etc.
15. Follow up courses/days with a visit to see where people are at and how to help them in their next step
If all this is happening its likely that you’ll be seeing a steady stream of visitors attracted, retained, and integrated into the life of the church