In response to the last post on the history of the missional church conversation, Brian McLaughlin asked a great question regarding differences in the missional conversations that were taking place in the U.S. in the mid 1990s with those that were going on in the U.K. under the influence of Lesslie Newbigin. In other words, if the U.S. version of the Gospel and Our Culture Network was birthed out of the influence of Newbigin, were (or are) there any differences in the missional ecclesiology of the two?

I believe the best place to look to answer this question is a wonderfully insightful doctoral dissertation by Michael W. Goheen titled “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You”: J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology. A pdf file of the nearly 500 page paper can be found here.

Following is an extended excerpt (with a few added links) of chapter ten, The Nature and Relevance of Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology, where Goheen addresses the above question:

The book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Guder 1998) presents an opportunity to examine the relevance of Newbigin’s ecclesiology in the North American context. The book is clearly indebted to Lesslie Newbigin. The co-ordinator of GOCN/NA and one of the authors of this book, George Hunsberger, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Newbigin (1987).

Newbigin’s thought is also clearly influential in Darrell Guder’s Be My Witnesses (1985). The authors of Missional Church explicitly acknowledge that debt early in the book (Guder 1998:5). Their ecclesiology can be seen as an attempt to take the insights of Newbigin and formulate them in the North American setting. Moreover, this book represents what might be called an “official ecclesiology” of the Gospel and Our Culture Network in North America. It is co-authored by six leaders of that movement.

Three central features characterize the ecclesiology of this book: it stresses the negative legacy of Christendom, it emphasizes the communal witness of the church, and it accents the critical side of the church’s relation to culture. All three of these features are important in Newbigin’s writings. Newbigin believes that Christendom is one of the primary factors that cripples a missionary consciousness in the church. He also emphasizes the communal dimension of mission: “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection.” The importance of a critical stance toward culture is captured by numerous phrases he employs: discriminating nonconformists, radical dissenters, radical critics and misfits with a relationship of conflict, dissenting otherworldliness, and radical discontinuity with its cultural context.

While all three of these ecclesiological features are found within Newbigin’s writing, a comparison between Newbigin and Missional Church reveals differences at each point.

First, Newbigin’s analysis of Christendom is much more ambivalent than that of the authors of Missional Church. The evaluation of the latter is entirely negative while Newbigin sees many positive features in Christendom. He believes that the Christendom settlement was a worthwhile attempt to translate the universal claims of Christ into social and political terms. Through this thousand-year period the gospel permeated many aspects of social, political, moral, personal, and economic life and western culture continues to live on the capital of that period. Undoubtedly it was his missionary experience in a country where the gospel did not have a lengthy history that enabled Newbigin to evaluate the Christendom experiment much more positively.

For the writers of Missional Church Christendom necessarily distorts and even eclipses the church’s mission. Acceptance of power contradicts the posture to which the church is called. For Newbigin Christendom posed many dangers to the church’s mission — dangers that were unfortunately realized. Nevertheless Christendom provided an opportunity for the church to work out the claims of Christ’s Lordship in its mission. He believes that faithfulness to the mission of the church demanded that it not refuse responsibility for the public order. Faithfulness to Jesus who was Lord of history and culture required the church to bring politics under the authority of Christ in spite of the dangers and temptations. Part of the history and legacy of Christendom is what Oliver O’Donovan calls the ‘obedience of the rulers’, the fruit of which remains in the West to the present day (O’Donovan 1996:212-216). Missional Church leans toward an interpretation of Christendom that neglects important emphases in Newbigin’s writing.

Second, while Newbigin affirms the importance of the communal witness of the church, he believes that the primary missionary encounter between the church and the world takes place in the callings of individual believers in society. On the one hand, “the most important contribution which the Church can make to a new social order is to be itself a new social order” (1991h:85). On the other hand, the church must “equip its members for active and informed participation in the public life of society in such a way that the Christian faith shapes that participation;” believers are to act as “subversive agents” in a culture shaped by a story that is in tension with the gospel. Christians ought to seek responsible positions of power and leadership to shape the public life of culture (1991h:84). Newbigin does not contrast the individual and communal dimensions of the church’s mission but maintains them with equal emphasis.

The most striking contrast between Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology and the ecclesiology formulated in Missional Church is found at this point. Newbigin believes that the primary way in which the church pursues its missional calling in culture is by “continually nourishing and sustaining men and women who will act responsibly as believers in the course of their secular duties as citizens” (1989e:139). Here, in the life of believers in culture, the primary missionary engagement takes place. This insight permeates the rest of his ecclesiology.

By contrast, Missional Church does not mention the mission of believers in culture. This remarkable difference between Newbigin and the authors of Missional Church shows up at other points as well. For Newbigin the importance of the mission of the laity demanded ecclesial structures that would equip them for their task. Yet, in an otherwise helpful discussion in Missional Church, there is no mention of ecclesial structures that would prepare the laity for their callings (Guder 1998:221-247).

When Newbigin focused his ministry on training leadership in Madras, a constant refrain was how to find ways to enable the laity in their callings. In Missional Church we find an excellent discussion of leadership but, again, no mention of the training of the laity for their callings in public life (Guder 1998:183-220). What burned brightly in the heart of Newbigin and found expression throughout his missionary ecclesiology is noticeably absent from Missional Church. There emphasis on the communal dimension of the church’s mission has eclipsed the mission of the laity –the place Newbigin believed the primary missionary encounter takes place.

A third difference between GOCN and Newbigin regards the latter’s emphasis on the importance of a positive cultural calling of Christians as members of society along with a critical stance. There are two sides to the calling of the church in its cultural context: solidarity and separation; affirmative involvement and critical challenge; cultural development and antithesis. The authors of Missional Church have highlighted the second of these pairs; they tend to label any attempt at exercising culturally formative power as ‘functional Christendom’ (Guder 1998:116). We find an allusion to “nonconformed engagement” but the fear of cultural power cuts off any development of this topic in terms of responsible involvement (Guder 1998:117). Strong statements on the church as an alternative community highlight the prophetic task of the church but little guidance is offered for the positive participation of the church in cultural development.

On the one hand, mission to the culture is not an attempt “to wield power in the dominant culture, but instead to demonstrate by the church’s own life together the renewing and healing power of God’s new community” (Guder 1998:116). On the other hand, the authors recognize that it is impossible to withdraw from the culture and that the vast majority of the church’s life will be lived as part of the dominant culture. Questions arise: What does it mean for the church to be a “distinctive culture” (Guder 1998:114; cf. Clapp 1996)? Clearly the church does not develop its own comprehensive language or begin to develop an alternative economic system. The authors acknowledge that the church participates in the language, economic system, customs, and social arrangements of the dominant culture. How then are individual members of the church to live under the rule of Jesus Christ in their lives that they share with the dominant culture? The authors argue that the “church as an alternative community can make a powerful witness when it chooses to live differently from the dominant society even at just a few key points. An important task of the church is to discern those key points at which to be different from the evil of the world” (Guder 1998:127).

While this emphasis on “points of dissent” (Guder 1998:127) or “key points of difference” (Guder 1998:129) is helpful, there is no guidance for the people of God on how they can be an ‘alternative community’ in the rest of their lives. The formulation that reduces mission to the gathered, communal representation of God’s people does not offer any guidance on how they can live under Christ’s Lordship in the majority part of their lives that they share with the dominant culture. In fact, Newbigin’s unbearable tension is relieved by reducing a missional challenge to a few key points of dissent.