History of Missional Church – Part I

The British Gospel and Culture “Programme”

The British version of the Gospel and Culture movement was initiated by Newbigin in Britain during the 1980s and came to be known as a “programme.” Newbigin had been entrusted by the British Council of Churches with the task of planning a major national conference pursuing Christian engagement with contemporary Western culture. It was shaped largely by his writings during that period, which included three significant books: The Other Side of 1984 (1983), Foolishness to the Greeks (1986), and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989). The major themes of each of these books not only played an important role in the formation of the British “programme” but they continue to influence the missional conversation today.

The Other Side of 1984 was a published essay that Newbigin prepared for the British Council of Churches conference held in 1984; thus, the name of the book. In it, Newbigin presents two major themes. First, that Western culture is in crisis because it has too closely tied itself to an Enlightenment worldview. Newbigin argues that those in the west believe that science and technology holds the answers to unlimited progress. Moreover, in the west scientific explanations have replaced dogmatic explanations. However, the shift to a world dominated by science and technology has not led to a rational and meaningful world, but instead has led to a crisis of meaning and purpose which can only be remedied by a serious reaffirmation of faith.

The second theme concerns the loss of influence the church has had upon the culture. According to Newbigin, the church’s voice has been marginalized in large part because it has surrendered its place in the public sphere and retreated into the private sector. Newbigin desire is not to have the church return to a position held during the time of Christendom; he simply believes that faith must always be involved in the dialogue with other patterns of thought.

In Foolishness to the Greeks, Newbigin provides an excellent analysis of the central features of Western culture. He asks the question, What would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and Western culture; especially a culture that has fragmented life into the artificial distinctions between facts and values, public and private lives, and particulars and absolutes. Newbigin places Christian truth claims in constant dialogue with modern issues. He interacts with the tensions between the truth of Scripture and science, politics, and the institutional church. In each case he asks, What must the church claim to know, do, and be in a post-Christian culture?

Finally, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin continues the theme of contextualizing the gospel in a postmodern, pluralistic culture. He writes on the necessity of shaping the gospel within culture and yet insisting that the gospel cannot endorse everything in culture. Moreover, the work of contextualization is not something set aside for individual Christians alone, but for Newbigin it is at the core of the mission of the church. Describing the congregation as “the hermeneutic of the gospel,” he underlines the nature and purpose of the renewed communities of God’s people.