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]


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