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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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?”[5]

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.”[6] 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.[7]

While the Trinitarian foundation for mission theology was later formulated as the missio Dei by Karl Hartenstein,[8] and still later given fully expression by Johannes Blauw in his 1962 book The Missionary Nature of the Church,[9] Lesslie Newbigin articulated his own expression in The Open Secret.[10] 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.[11]

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 1984 marks 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.[12]

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.