As presented in an earlier post, Christianity in North America has experienced a move away from its position of dominance as it has witness the loss not only of numbers but of power and influence within society. “The United States is still, by all accounts, a very religious society. The pollsters affirm that Americans and Canadians believe in God, pray regularly, and consider themselves religious. But they find less and less reason to express their faith by joining a Christian church.” As a result, many historical denominations are now in serious decline, while others are just now beginning to recognize that they are now in their own mission field location.
This recognition of the North American religiosity shift to a post-Christian, neo-pagan, pluralistic mission field has lead many to return to the foundation of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world. “This involves the issue of ecclesiology (ecclesia = ‘church’; –ology = ‘the study of’). In the midst of our changing world, we are in constant need of continuing to engage in the study of the church, to explore its nature, to understand its creation and continuing formation, and to carefully examine its purpose and ministry.” The chief discussion that has emerged over the past few decades around these important issues of ecclesiology and missionary engagement in North America is known as the “missional church conversation.” While there are a number of prominent contributors to this dialog, by far the most influential has been the contributions made by missiologist Lesslie Newbigin.
The Influence of Lesslie Newbigin
Upon returning home to England in 1974 from missionary service in India for nearly 40 years, “Newbigin took up the challenge of trying to envision what a fresh encounter of the gospel with late-modern Western culture might look like.” In the book Foolishness to the Greeks, he posed the question: “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western Culture?”
Newbigin’s missiology was largely formed by the mission theology that took shape within the International Missionary Council (IMC) conferences of the 1950s through the 1970s. Perhaps the most significant of these conferences was the one convened in Willingen, Germany in 1952. At Willingen the conference recognized that the church could be neither the starting point nor the goal of mission. “God’s salvific work precedes both the church and mission. We should not subordinate mission to the church nor the church to mission; both should, rather, be taken up into the missio Dei, which now became the overarching concept. The missio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae.” It was here that this idea (not the exact term) missio Dei first surfaced. When discussing the paradigm shift that began at Willingen, David Bosch writes:
Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with the doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation. Willingen’s image of mission was mission as participating in the sending of God.
While the Trinitarian foundation for mission theology was later formulated as the missio Dei by Karl Hartenstein, and still later given fully expression by Johannes Blauw in his 1962 book The Missionary Nature of the Church, Lesslie Newbigin articulated his own expression in The Open Secret. Central to Newbigin’s understanding of mission is the work of the Triune God in calling and sending the church, empowered by the Spirit, into the world to participate fully in God’s mission. This theological assertion understands the church to be the creation of the Spirit: which exists in the world as a “sign” that the redemptive reign of God’s kingdom is present; it serves as a “foretaste” of the eschatological future of the redemptive reign that has already begun; and it serves as an “instrument” under the leadership of the Spirit to bring that redemptive reign to bear on every dimension of life.
In the following extended excerpt from an outstanding PhD dissertation on Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology, Michael Goheen provides an excellent summation of the significance of Newbigin’s lasting influence on mission theology:
First, Newbigin’s work has served as the catalyst for bringing the issue of mission in western culture to the forefront of the agenda of mission studies. The appearance of his book The Other Side of 1984marks a major milestone for a missiology of western culture. With unusual skill the book crystallized a number of issues which have stimulated vigorous discussion. The stream of books and articles written by Newbigin since that time has continued to focus the issue for many people. The Gospel and Our Culture movements in Britain, North America, and New Zealand, the Missiology of Western Culture project headed up by Wilbert Shenk, and a growing stream of publications on the issue bear witness to the stimulus that the work of Newbigin has produced in the last couple of decades.
Second, Newbigin played an active and central role in the International Missionary Council and the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches. After serving as a missionary in India for twenty-three years, Newbigin took the post of general secretary of the IMC and then director of CWME of the WCC. His influence was formative for many of the discussions throughout since 1948. Newbigin was shaped by the theology, missiology, and ecclesiology of the early ecumenical movement. Yet when there was a dramatic challenge to that paradigm, Newbigin was able to appropriate many of the insights of the new challenge. His flexibility along with his commitment to tradition makes his insight for the current ecclesiological discussions significant.
There is a third reason for focusing on the work of Newbigin. Not only has he provided an impetus for renewed reflection on the issue of mission in western culture and been an active participant in the ecumenical movement, Newbigin has also paid close attention to ecclesiological questions throughout his long and distinguished career as a recognized leader in the context of three settings: as a missionary in India; as an ecumenical leader in a global context; and as a missionary to the West. A glance at his bibliography reveals at once the interest that Newbigin has had in ecclesiological issues in his published work. His record as a missionary, bishop, ecumenical administrator, and pastor all testify to his commitment to the local church. Indeed, it is his vast experience in struggling for a missionary church in many different contexts that has nourished his deep and valuable theological reflection on ecclesiology. It is precisely the missionary ecclesiology developed by Newbigin that has been foundational for and formative of both his work within the ecumenical movement and his call for a missionary encounter with western culture.
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.
The Gospel and Our Culture Network
As Newbigin’s writings gained a larger circulation and the British programme received greater recognition, a version of the Gospel and Our Culture conversation began to emerge in the United States. A network began to take shape in the mid-1980s and by the early 1990s, under the leadership of George Hunsberger, the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) was publishing a quarterly newsletter and also convening a yearly consultation. “By the mid-1990s, the movement in the United States had begun to find its own voice beyond the influence of Newbigin, and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company began to publish a series of books under the moniker The Gospel and Our Culture Series.” To date the following volumes have been published in this series:
George Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, eds., The Church Between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (1996).
Darrel L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (1998).
George Hunsberger, Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality (1998).
Craig Van Gelder, ed., Confident Witness — Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America (1999).
Darrel L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (2000).
James V. Brownson, ed. StormFront: The Good News of God (2003).
Lois Y. Barrett, ed., Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness(2004).
While the Gospel and Our Culture Network does not offer a precise definition for “missional church,” they do provide what they refer to as “indicators of a missional church.” The indicators are an effort to identify what might be some of the key aspects that contribute to the church’s unique ability to better understand and therefore connect with the diverse cultures within the North American context.
1. The missional church proclaims the gospel.
What it looks like: The story of God’s salvation is faithfully repeated in a multitude of different ways.
2. The missional church is a community where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus.
What it looks like: The disciple identity is held by all; growth in discipleship is expected of all.
3. The Bible is normative in the church’s life.
What it looks like: The church is reading the Bible together to learn what it can learn nowhere else – God’s good and gracious intent for all creation, the salvation mystery, and the identity and purpose of life together.
4. The church understands itself as different from the world because of its participation in the life, death, and resurrection of its Lord.
What it looks like: In its corporate life and public witness, the church is consciously seeking to conform to its Lord instead of the multitude of cultures in which it finds itself.
5. The church seeks to discern God’s specific missional vocation for the entire community and for all of its members.
What it looks like: The church has made its “mission” it priority, and in overt and communal ways is seeking to be and do “what God is calling us to know, be, and do.”
6. A missional community is indicated by how Christians behave toward one another.
What it looks like: Acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of one another both in the church and in the locale characterize the generosity of the community.
7. It is a community that practices reconciliation.
What it looks like: The church community is moving beyond homogeneity toward a more heterogeneous community in its racial, ethnic, age, gender, and socioeconomic makeup.
8. Peoples within the community hold themselves accountable to one another in love.
What it looks like: Substantial time is spent with one another for the purpose of watching over one another in love.
9. The church practices hospitality.
What it looks like: Welcoming the stranger into the midst of the community plays a central role.
10. Worship is the central act by which the community celebrates with joy and thanksgiving both God’s presence and God’s promised future.
What it looks like: There is a significant and meaningful engagement in communal worship of God, reflecting appropriately and addressing the culture of those who worship together.
11. The community has a vital public witness.
What it looks like: The church makes an observable impact that contributes to the transformation of life, society, and human relationships.
12. There is a recognition that the church itself is an incomplete expression of the reign of God.
What it looks like: There is a widely help perception that this church is going somewhere – and that “somewhere” is a more faithfully lived life in the reign of God.
One final note from the writings of the Gospel and Culture Network: Darrell Guder emphasizes the importance of having congregations formed by hearing the Bible “missionally.” He points out that when missional renewal is happening, different kinds of questions are brought to the Bible. He writes:
Congregations are open to being challenged, to looking hard at their deeply ingrained attitudes and expectations. The missional approach asks, How does God’s Word call, shape, transform, and send me . . . and us? Coupled with this openness is the awareness, that biblical formation must mean change, and often conversion. Christian communities may discover that their discipling will require repentance and that their way of being church will have to change.
Other Notable Authors and Contributors
There are a number of other authors who have contributed significantly to the missional church conversation in the past decade. Two of the more notable voices have been that of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Their first collaborative effort was The Shaping of Things to Come  published in 2003. In that book, the authors built upon the twelve indicators first offered by the GOCN by adding three additional overarching principles that provides perhaps the best direction for what it means for a church to be missional. The additional principles include the following:
The missional church is incarnational, not attractional, in its ecclesiology. By incarnational we mean it does not create sanctified spaces into which unbelievers must come to encounter the gospel. Rather, the missional church disassembles itself and seeps into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.
The missional church is messianic, not dualistic, in its spirituality. That is, it adopts the worldview of Jesus the Messiah, rather than that of the Greco-Roman empire. Instead of seeing the world as divided between the sacred (religious) and profane (nonreligious), like Christ it sees the world and God’s place in it as more holistic and integrated.
The missional church adopts an apostolic, rather than a hierarchical, mode of leadership. By apostolic we mean a mode of leadership that recognizes the fivefold model detailed by Paul in Ephesians 6. It abandons the triangular hierarchies of the traditional church and embraces a biblical, flat-leadership community that unleashes the gifts of evangelism, apostleship, and prophecy, as well as the currently popular pastoral and teaching gifts. 
Hirsch and Frost believe the missional “genius” of a church can only be unleashed when there are foundational changes made to the church’s very DNA, and that means addressing fundamental issues like ecclesiology, spirituality, and leadership. It means there must be a complete shift away from a Christendom way of thinking, which, as mentioned above, has been attractional, dualistic, and hierarchical. 
Several other books that have added much to the missional church conversation in the past decade are included in the following abridged annotated bibliography:
Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).
In The Essence of the Church, Van Gelder shares his concerns for many churches taking a functional approach to ecclesiology. He then moves to articulate a missional ecclesiology, which he places in the context of God’s purposes within creation and his eschatological intention. According to Van Gelder, the church is the redemptive reign of God implemented in a fallen world. Furthermore, it is the Spirit which carries out the redemptive purposes of God through the church as the Spirit empowers it for ministry. After describing the church from a redemptive, Trinitarian theological perspective, Van Gelder reserves the second half of the book to give practical advice about what the church is, what the church does, and how the church should organize to best live out its missionary nature.
Milfred Minatrea. Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).
In Shaped by God’s Heart, Minatrea offers a good introduction to the missional church conversation. The book is organized in three sections. Part one is titled, “The Church in a New and Changing World.” In this portion of the book Minatrea discusses the difference between being “mission-minded” and “missional.” In part two, “The Nine Essential Practices of Missional Churches,” he presents the core of the book as he shares nine practices that he has observed in studying missional churches. Part three is titled “Structures and Strategies for Becoming Missional.” In this last section Minatrea shares strategies for church leaders who desire to move their churches towards becoming more missional. Additionally, each chapter includes helpful reflection and application questions to be used in group studies.
Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006).
In The Forgotten Ways, Hirsch describe the current form of church in two simple ways. A missional church is one that goes to where people are to engage them on their own cultural turf while an attractional model expects people to leave where they are and come join the church culture. He contends that the attractional, institutional church that in large part is the creation of the church growth movement, has created a spectator Christianity that is largely irrelevant at reaching 85 percent of the culture. However the book is much more than a simple attack on the attractional church or the church growth movement. Building upon theological reflection and missiological principles, the authors develops a sound missional theology for the church. The Forgotten Ways will certainly remain one of the most significant contributions to effective missional engagement.
Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
In The Missional Leader, Roxburgh and Romanuk draw upon many years of experience as consultants to church leaders across the United States and Canada. They offer a realistic approach to leaders who are struggling with what it means to be a missional church in a local context. The authors caution against adopting business models and church growth techniques. Instead they continually emphasize the importance of recognizing that the church is a spiritual entity that is lead and empowered by the Spirit. The goal of spiritual leadership therefore is to discern where and how the Spirit of God is working in the context of the local church.
Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code (Nashville: B&H, 2006).
Breaking the Misisonal Code is one of the most practical introductions to the missional conversation. The book is built upon the premise that the church is a community created by God to be sent as a missionary into a local context. To do so effectively means that the church must break the “missional code” of their context. Each church must function as a missionary people exegeting their culture in order to better present the Gospel. Throughout the book Stetzer and Putman provide numerous examples of churches that exhibit missional qualities. They also offer multiple definitions to bring clarity to missional terminology. For any church leader who desires to better understand the basics of missional practice Breaking the Missional Code would be a great place to begin.
Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era (Eagle, ID: Allelon Publishing, 2006).
In We Are Here Now, Keifert offers a framework for deep change in churches and leadership teams that are striving towards missional engagement. Similar to other books on the missional church, Keifert agrees that as a result of vast cultural changes the church is in desperate need of recapturing its missionary nature. However what sets We Are Here Now apart is that Keifert lays out a long-range plan of spiritual discernment and transformation for a local congregation. Keifert maintains that when it comes to serious missional commitment, there are no quick fixes and real change is shaped by Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and attention to each other.
Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).
Van Gelder writes that the premise of The Ministry of the Missional Church is to encourage churches to recognize the ministry of the Spirit in the midst of constant congregational change. He believes that God’s intent is often to use change either directly or indirectly to move a congregation in new directions of meaningful ministry under the leading of the Spirit. Furthermore, Van Gelder desires for congregations to understand that the Spirit-led ministry of the church flows out of the Spirit-created nature of the church. In other words, being precedes doing. Or to put it another way, the nature of the church establishes the foundation for understanding the purpose of the church and its ministry and determines their direction and scope. Van Gelder does an excellent job of showing that when a church begins with its nature, or essence as a Spirit-created community, growth and development are the natural outcome.
Craig Van Gelder, ed., The Missional Church in Context: Helping Congregations Develop Contextual Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
The Missional Church in Context is a collection of eight outstanding papers presented at a consultation held at Luther Seminary in December of 2005. The premise of the consultation, and exemplified by the book title, is that every context should be seen as a missional context, and every congregation as a missional congregation that is responsible to participate in God’s mission in that context. The book does not promote a method or model of ministry but encourages various congregational expressions to enter a discernment process, with the Spirit, to identify the theological foundations and insights in order to develop the capacity for ministry engagement. Again as indicative of the title, context does matter. Collectively the contributors state that the church needs to develop a “formation triad” that includes congregational formation (the shaping of a concrete Christian community), spiritual formation (corporate and personal attention to initiatives of God) and missional formation (local church’s identity and agency in its encounter with the immediate context). This text represents another important voice speaking on the significance of context in the formation of the local church.
Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
The Tangible Kingdom is a guide to the planting of missional communities written by two missional practitioners and church planters. One of the strengths of the book is the use of stories to illustrate the power of incarnational community. They show what it looks like to leave the safe “bubble” of much of modern evangelicalism and ventured out into the lives of those around us. Further it provides helpful direction on combating consumerism, living out our mission in the context of an entire community, and what it means to practice biblical hospitality.
Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways Handbook: A Practical Guide for Developing Missional Churches (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009).
The Forgotten Ways Handbook is a follow up to the 2006 publication by the same name. However, the handbook moves beyond the theological foundation built in the original The Forgotten Ways to a place of practice that very little resources provide. This extremely practical handbook includes many helpful tools including summary sections encapsulating the ideas contained in each chapter of the original book, suggested habits and practices to help readers embed missional principles, and adult learning-based techniques and examples from other churches that enable readers to process and assimilate the ideas in a group context.
Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
The most significant contribution that Missional Renaissance makes to the missional church conversation is McNeal’s attempt to establish a new way of measuring success in the church in the United States. For years the measure of faithfulness and vitality in the church has been in terms of growth in attendance, finances and facilities. However to assist the church in making a shift in a missional direction, McNeal argues that the church must begin to measure success by using a new scorecard. He asks, What would happen if we measured vitality in terms of growth in the area of people, service, prayer and outreach?
1. Darrell L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 1.
2. Craig Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Denominations: Helping Congregations Develop a Missional Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 2.
3. For a complete biographical sketch of Newbigin’s life see: Paul Weston,Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 1-16. See also, George Hunsberger, Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
4. Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Denominations, 2.
5. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 1.
6. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991), 370.
7. Ibid., 390.
8. John A. McIntosh, “Missio Dei” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau, Harold Netland and Charles Van Engen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 631-633.
9. Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church: A Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).
10. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: Introduction to a Theology of Mission(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
11. Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Denominations, 3.
12. Michael W. Goheen, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You”: J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology” (PhD diss., Utrecht University, 2000), 22.
13. “The GOCN is a collaborative effort that focuses on three things: (1) a cultural and social analysis of our North American setting; (2) theological reflection on the question, what is the gospel that address us in our setting? And (3) the renewal of the church and its missional identity in our setting.” George Hunsberger, The Church Between Gospel and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 290. For more information on The Gospel and Our Culture Network see www.gocn.org
14. Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Denominations, 4.
15. Walter C. Hobbs, “Method,” in Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, ed. Lois Y. Barrett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 160.
16. Darrell L. Guder, “Biblical Formation and Discipleship,” in Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, ed. Lois Y. Barrett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 70.
17. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003).
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