Newbigin-ing at the Beginning (Super Serial Post #3)

Short Reads


It has been a while, hasn’t it?

Between my week on retreat and spring break, I’ve been away from the blog-realm for two whole weeks. But the world spins on and so do my posts on the Missional Church.

This week’s post is all about Lesslie Newbigin. Who is Lesslie Newbigin? Great question, keep reading.

This regal looking fellow is Lesslie Newbigin.

This regal looking fellow is a young Lesslie Newbigin.

A little disclaimer: I know that Lesslie Newbigin is not the only mission-minded theologian in Christendom. I also know that this short post could not do justice to the incredibly dense volume of work that Newbigin produced in his lifetime. I even know that this post may be seen by some to be like one brick compared to the Great Wall of China.

My hope is that this will give you enough information to spark a fire in you to go do some research on your own. If it doesn’t, hopefully it will give you enough information to understanding more fully that I am not just making this stuff up.

The Missional Church is not an invention of the church growth advisors and it is not a fad.

Unlike juicing, the Missional Church is not another fad.

Unlike juicing, the Missional Church is not another fad.

So let’s learn more about Lesslie Newbigin.

Newbigin was born in England in 1909. His father, a businessman, sent him to a Quaker boarding school at 12 because of their committed pacifism. He went to Queens’ College  in 1928. He became involved with the Student Christian Movement and had a conversion experience while leading a camping trip for underprivileged men.  He soon articulated his call to ordained ministry and set out to become a missionary.

In 1936, he and his wife set out for India as missionaries. Newbigin worked for many years in India and eventually helped to establish a large network of Christian communities across the country. He would train “mission agents” and send them out into smaller villages to teach and baptize. Newbigin eventually became the Bishop in the Church of South India.

He “retired” in 1974 and went on to teach at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, UK. He turned down an offer to become the Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham and instead became the pastor of a small, inner-city Reformed congregation.

Throughout his whole career, Newbigin was a prolific writer, with 17 books published prior to retirement. During his “retirement” period, he would publish 15 more books.

Newbigin was an incredible writer and was extremely passionate about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He spent the bulk of his career abroad, but when he returned to Europe he was shocked to find that secularization had spread rapidly. On their journey home from India, the Newbigin family had to worship by themselves while in Cappadocia because they couldn’t find a church or group of Christians to worship with. This forever changed the way Newbigin viewed Western culture because he saw just how quickly a once firmly Christian city could abandon the faith.

Newbigin’s work formed part of the foundation for the modern Missional Church. Below are several quotes from Newbigin’s book, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, that can help Western Christians understand the position we are in and where we must go from here.

“In many contexts a ‘mission church’ was the second-class institution in the downtown quarter of the city….In some forms of ecclesiastical vernacular, a ‘missionary diocese’ was a diocese that had not yet graduated to the full status of a diocese without qualification. Theological faculties might have provided a place for ‘missions’ as a branch of practical theology, but it had no place in the central teaching of Christian doctrine. To put it briefly, the church approved of ‘missions’ but was not itself the mission.” (pg. 2)

“If God is indeed the true missionary…our business is not to promote the mission of the church, but to get out into the world, find out ‘what God is doing in the world’, and join forces with him.” (pg. 18)

Missionis faith in action. It is the acting out by proclamation and by endurance, through all the events of history, of the faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is the acting out of the central prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use: ‘Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven.'” (pg. 39)

[Mission] is not the property of the church. It is not domesticated within the church. Mission is not simply the self-propagation of the church by putting forth the power that inheres in its life….On the contrary, the active agent of mission is a power that rules, guides, and goes before the church: the free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God. Mission is not just something the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey.” (pg. 56)

“At this point the church has to keep silence. It is not in control of the mission. Another is in control, and his fresh works will repeatedly surprise the church, compelling it to stop talking and to listen.” (pg. 61)

I would have quoted the entire book if copyright law and the average reader’s attention span would allow it. Hopefully this post has given you a taste of the huge body of work that makes up the foundation of the Missional Church.

The main take away is that “mission is not the property of the church”; it is not just a new way of getting people into the pews. The mission is God’s. The church can take part in God’s mission by taking our hands off the wheel and following Christ.

"Jesus, take the wheel."

“Jesus, take the wheel.”

It may seem that I am beating a dead horse by constantly reiterating what missional means and that God’s mission is not fundamentally about the church. I am emphasizing it so heavily because it is my experience that people don’t really accept it. Many church folks seem to say, “Yeah, yeah. Being missional is not about church membership and church growth” while they wink and keep hoping that it is just that.

I’ll leave you with some closing words from the end of The Open Secret:

“The mystery of the gospel is not entrusted to the church to be buried in the ground. It is entrusted to the church to be risked in the change and interchange of the spiritual commerce of humanity. It belongs not to the church but to the one who is both head of the church and head of the cosmos. It is within his power and grace to bring to its full completion that long-hidden purpose, the secret of which has been entrusted to the church in order that it may become the open manifestation of the truth to all the nations.” (pg. 189)

We have now drilled down a little more to the true meaning of the missional church. The next blog posts will drill down even further to explore missional Anglicanism and what the missional Episcopal Church might look like. From there, we will look at missional youth and young adult ministry in particular.

Stay tuned.

A.A. Milne

Being Sent: What the Missional Church Actually Is (Super Serial Post #2)

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In the last post I told you what the missional church is not.

This brings us to the next question: if being missional is not a movement, fad, or church growth scheme, what is it?

There are several different answers to that question and, like most things in the church, it depends on who you ask.

It is worth noting that the missional conversation gained attention as the church entered into a membership crisis. Numbers sharply declined, relevance waned, and people starting to look to the “experts” for answers. Missiologist David Bosch argues that this crisis is a good thing:

“Strictly speaking one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it….This ought to be the case because of the abiding tension between the church’s essential nature and its empirical condition….And if the atmosphere of crisislessness still lingers on in many parts of the West, this is simply the result of a dangerous delusion. Let us also know that to encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the Church.”

Brian McLaren spoke at Virginia Theological Seminary yesterday about the future of the church and the problems that face the world. At one point he drew a wonderful diagram on the chalkboard to explain how the world works. The basic idea is that three “gears” run the world: prosperity, security, and equity. These gears are driven by a narrative. For centuries, religion provided the narrative that drove the world, but in the last two centuries the narrative has shifted. In McLaren’s words, “Science has had a better story to tell.”

At some point, McLaren said, the Church shifted inward and the focus of our narrative became our own survival as an institution. Instead of developing a narrative that showed how the God of the Church is the God of science, we developed an “Us vs. Them” narrative of the Church versus the new, modern world.

We’ve grown comfortable telling our story only to ourselves with little concern for whether anyone else is hearing it, so new narratives have emerged to fill the void.

I’m sorry to start with some seemingly bad news, but it’s important that we start with a good understanding of where we actually are. Many of our churches exist without a clear mission. This is especially true in the mainline denominations and the Episcopal Church.

Some churches are focused on being inclusive for all people, some focus on serving the most needy in the community. Some parishes have great family programs, others have thriving young adult groups. Some churches have beautiful buildings, others use rented space.

For many of the churches that I have encountered, the stated goal or objective is different but the underlying mission is the same: to get more people in the door.

We are inclusive so that people will come to our church. We wear our church T-shirt when we volunteer so that people will come to our church. We put a witty slogan on our sign so that people will come to our church.

This is obviously a huge generalization. There are plenty of well-meaning and pure-intentioned people running programs throughout the church. However, it does generally seem that “success” for a church is often taken to mean increased membership or larger pledges.

This is where the missional conversation comes in. Being missional is about shifting from a defensive posture to an outward focused posture. It is a change in focus from getting people in the doors of the church to taking the church out to the people.

It is the shift from church-centered mission to God-centered mission. It is about being sent out rather than attracting folks to a building.

Stock photography wins again.

Stock photography wins again.

Darrell Guder, professor of Missional Theology at Princeton, says, “We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”

The attractional model of church is so ingrained that any talk of a different way is seen as an attack on the very nature of the church. This shift in thinking is not an attack, but a way of thinking and telling our story that is even deeper in our tradition and history than the attractional model.

It would be very easy to keep things going the way they are. It would require very little effort to stay in the attractional model and not challenge the status quo. That is not to say that being a pastor is easy in the attractional model, but there is much more certainty and a lot less risk in that way of doing things.

Alan Hirsch calls this the “missional impulse” which is an “outwardly bound movement from one community or individual to another. It is the outward thrust rooted in God’s mission that compels the church to reach a lost world.”


It is about sending rather than attracting.

Being missional involves letting go of a lot of preconceived notions and moving forward in faith. It requires a tolerance for messy processes and many new relationships. It requires patience.

In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh gives a list of rules to guide the missional work of local churches based on the words of Jesus in Luke 10. These rules are practical and a couple of them can help us clarify the ideas/principles behind the missional effort:

1. Go Local: “…[T]he focus must be on the ordinary lives of the people of a local congregation through which the Spirit is shaping a new future…” and “…on the local contexts as the venues for discerning and engaging that future.”

2. Leave Your Baggage at Home: “More than anything else this is a gospel plea for the humanization of our relationships with others, rather than seeing the people of our neighborhoods as potential objects for our church marketing strategies (often called evangelism or outreach).”

3. Don’t Move from House to House: “….settle into the neighborhood, bloom where you’re planted, and stop imagining there’s a better place or the grass is greener on the other side of the fence….stay where you are and be present to the people among whom you live in your neighborhood.”

4. Eat What Is Set Before You: “[This]…is about our readiness to enter into the world of the other on his or her terms rather than our own….This rule calls us to a different way of being with people. It involves a readiness to be present with someone else in ways that meet them in their context and environment.”

5. Become Poets of the Ordinary: “As we enter the local, stay in that place, and learn to eat what is set before us, we find ourselves entering the stories and hearing the music of the other in ways we could never do if we relied on programs or the calculation of where someone is on a scale of readiness for the gospel.”

Roxburgh adds five more rules to the list, which I commend to you. These first five should give us a good idea of what a missional church looks like – which is to say, that it will look messy and confusing and complicated.


There is plenty of resistance from those who like things just the way they are.

Personally, I avoid things that are messy and confusing and complicated like the plaque, which may explain why I avoided this missional conversation for so long. It is so much easier to dismiss something as just another buzzword or passing fad than to actually engage with complicated ideas.

This work is hard and time consuming.

There is nothing efficient about being missional.

The next post in this series aims to put some theological meat on the bones outlined above. Using missiologists David Bosch and Leslie Newbigin, I’ll give some background and support for the ideas put forward by folks like Roxburgh, Hirsch, and McLaren.

There will be a short break in posts due to a personal retreat and spring break, but fear not! I will return.

Stay tuned.

What the Missional Movement is Not (Super Serial Post #1)

Short Reads

It may seem strange to start a series of posts on the missional movement by describing what it is NOT, but there is precedent in theological studies for taking the via negativa approach and it seems like the best way to cut through the fog surrounding this topic.

First things first, the missional movement is not a movement.

I know, I know – I have referred to it as such in the lines above and the introductory post to this series. If you’ll forgive me, that was a bit of a straw man.

As I mentioned in my original post on the missional church, there is a tendency to lump missional attitudes into the same category as many of the church growth trends that have come along in the past. It is very easy to write it off as another way consultants are trying to fill the pews of shrinking or empty churches.

“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are only two people…”

The truth is that being missional is not a trend but is, instead, the true nature of the church.

In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh tells a modern day parable about three old friends (pg. 31). These friends grew up together, spending endless hours together at play, at school, and everywhere in between. The three friends went to college together and spent many evening discussing their hopes and dreams late into the night. Through the many years they spent together, the three friends developed a relationship that was deeper than words. Each of their identities was formed and shaped by this rich relationship.

Over time, however, their relationship grew distant. The three kept in touch through social media and the occasional call. Every few years, the three would get together for a weekend to catch up and renew their connection.

One day, out of the blue and after several years without contact, the two friends received an email from the third inviting them to his house in California for several nights. The two made their plans to travel to the West Coast and when they arrived, their host sat them down for a feast.

Isn’t stock photography great?

The friends laughed and caught up with each other throughout the first night, but at some point in the evening the mood changed. The two friends sensed a heavy awkwardness had settled around the table as the host began to do most of the talking. He talked about his life, his questions, and his needs. Every question he asked was only so that he could further focus on his own interests. He seemed only interested in making himself seem more successful.

At the end of the night the two friends made their way back to their hotel and the host went to bed feeling great about the conversation and the evening as a whole.

So, what is the point of this parable?

According to Roxburgh, the three friends in the parable are Scripture, Church, and Culture. The first two friends are Scripture and Culture, while the third friend who hosted the other two for the reunion is the Church.

Being missional is not a movement because it is not about the church. Most blog posts and magazine pieces make the missional conversation solely about the church and what the church can do to grow itself. Too often we are like the third friend: inviting Scripture and Culture into the conversation only to further our own interests.

Church movements exist for the church – to increase their size or influence or relevance or whatever it may be. Being missional is not just another movement because it is about returning the three friends to their original relationship.

Roxburgh argues that the focus of the missional conversation is three-fold: Scripture, Church, and Culture. For too long we have pretending that the church has a monopoly on the Good News, as though we are the only way that God works in the world. The missional conversation starts with the assumption that God is already at work in the world, within and without the church.

Later in his book, Roxburgh says that the church has taken itself into a cul-de-sac with this inward focus. He says, “Church questions are at the forefront of our thinking, so we default to questions about what the church should be doing and what the church should look like.” We are wrong to think that a new movement or program will fix what ails the church in this time. Roxburgh goes on to say, “This is not something that can be ‘fixed’ with programs or discussions on church health or by appending the word missional to old habits.” (pg. 54).

Being missional is not about growing your church membership.

Being missional is not about growing your church membership.

So we have established that the missional church is not a trend or new fad, but is a return to the original calling and nature of the church. This should let you in on the fact that this series will not give you the three easy steps to become a “missional” church. This whole conversation is about changing our thinking and our view of the church. If becoming missionally focused brings more people to your parish or community, great. If you enter this conversation with the motivation of increasing church membership (or relevance or whatever), you are missing the point. The point is to stay true to our calling as Christians in the world.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I will explore what this calling actually is.