Mission in Christ’s Way
Bishop James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (8 December 1909 – 30 January 1998) was a British theologian, missiologist, missionary and author. Though originally ordained within the Church of Scotland, Newbigin spent much of his career serving as a missionary in India and became affiliated with the Church of South India and the United Reformed Church, becoming one of the Church of South India’s first bishops. A prolific author who wrote on a wide range of theological topics, Newbigin is best known for his contributions to missiology and ecclesiology. He is also known for his involvement in both the dialogue regarding ecumenism and the Gospel and Our Culture movement. Many scholars also believe his work laid the foundations for the contemporary missional church movement, and it is said his stature and range is comparable to the “Fathers of the Church.” (From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesslie_Newbigin, Accessed May 7, 3025)
According to Martin Robinson (“A passion for mission”), in the Bible Societies tribute to Newbigin in TransMission, “his offerings include his writings, but beyond the written page his unceasing energies as teacher, pastor, and ecumenical statesman mark him out as one that matched a keen mind wit personal kindness and zealous conviction”
In addition to Robinson, the Bible Society tribute includes contributions by Wilbert B. Shenk (“Lesslie Newbigin’s contribution to the theology of mission”); Harold Turner (“Lesslie Newbigin: A New Zealand perspective”); H. Dan Beeby (“Walking with Lesslie: A personal perspective”); George R. Hunsberge (”Renewing faith during the postmodern transition”); and Colin Greene (:Lesslie Newbigin: A Bible society perspective”).
Mission in Christ’s Way
Mission in Christ’s Way was published in 1987 by the World Council of Churches as a study on missions. A study guide that accompanies the article, prepared by Inagrace T. Dietterich. It is designed for small group discussion, with comments and questions on each of the four sections of Newbigin’s article.
The purpose of pursuing Newbigin’s thoughts and ideas are:
- They provide a setting and scope from which to consider what is included in “mission”
- They provide a context from which to examine other missionary methodologies
- They challenge us to better understand and evaluate what Scripture suggests and teaches about mission and missions
- They allow us to interact and formulate our own responses and challenges
Newbigin begins his discourse by referring to Jesus’s words in John 20:21: “As the Father sent me, so I send you”, reminding us that mission is founded and modelled on Jesus. Therefore His announcement in John should be read as a fact, not as a particular program. Jesus did not send everyone out with the same equipment—note the following contexts:
Luke 10:4 (also Mark 6:8):
Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. [Context: Sending our the 72 followers]
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. [Context: Worry and Treasures in Heaven]
Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. [Context: Disciples will be tested; Promise of following him]
He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. [Context: Question about when he sent them out: Did they lack anything?]
Jesus was commanding/allowing them to take a purse or not take one, but he was not establishing a program. He indicated that in both kinds of circumstances (with or without a purse, etc.), He would be with them.
When Jesus instructed the disciples to follow him (to make them fishers of men—Mark 1:14-18) he was announcing a fact—the reign of God was near. The fact that God was king was not news to a devout Israelite but it was not longer merely a doctrine in their theology, it was something that had to make an immediate decision about it.
The invitation or command implied that they would have to turn from what they were doing—to repent. We too are implored to repent and make a decision—to turn around and go the correct way. Newbigin gives a personal and practical illustration of what he means by repentance. Once, when visiting a village in the Madras diocese, he approaching it from the wrong direction. A welcome and festivities had been prepared for him at the other end of the village, the culturally accepted way of entrance to the village. Once he was aware of this, he needed to turn around and gp in the right way. (Many men, in particular and if they are like me, have driven in the wrong direction—before the advent of the GPS—and been unwilling to heed their spouses’ advice to turn around and go the other way.)
In missions, Newbigin suggests this requires a complete mental revolution, a renewing of the mind. Jesus has taken the initiative and called “whom he will”, a call taken up by the apostles (initially) with enthusiasm. However, they are soon puzzled about what was happening and questioned Jesus—who responded to their questions with riddles (parables). In fact, He remarked that the kingdom of God is perceived by those outside his circle as parables or riddles—in other words, it was not understood. And it can be understood only with the gift of faith. The following story from Mark illustrates this.
Mark 4:4-12: 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
[Context: preaching from a boat to a large crowd by Lake Galilee—one story of many]
10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”
[Context: Answering the apostles and some others as to why he used stories]
In addition to the stories (the parables), there were miracles (works that have not been seen before), but even those were sometimes misunderstood and interpreted as the work of the devil.
It seems that the disciples were looking for a program, a “movement”, and Jesus told them that they were only interested in signs and food, instead of the “secret” that had been offered to them (John 6:67 = “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve). Following his rebuke, many of the disciples did in fact leave him.
Newbigin assures us that the prayer of Jesus in John 17 is where our mission work must begin: “Thy will be done”. But shortly afterword Jesus goes to the cross. Nevertheless, this is not a defeat that is reversed later by the resurrection. Instead, it is the victory proclaimed by the resurrection.
Newbigin outlines three versions of the missionary commission that we can consider:
- Acts 1:6-11, where Jesus is taken to heaven and the angels appear to the disciples
- John 20:19-23, where Jesus appears to the disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit
- Matthew 28:18-20, where the injunction to take the Gospel is given
The theme of the Gospel is that the kingdom of God is at hand, his sovereign rule. But the discourse must be centered on and about Jesus, not about the kingdom. Otherwise the kingdom of God is separated from Jesus and turned into an ideology.
According to Newbigin, today Western civilization has turned away from the name of Jesus as being at the center of activities and has embraced capitalism in the form of progress and development. When that happens we end up with a program or ideology and yet the acceptance of capitalism is “incompatible with the gospel”. “Capitalism and Marxism are the twin products of the apostasy of the European intellectuals of the eighteenth century.” Marxism classifies everyone as either the oppressed or the oppressors and calls for liberation of the masses. However, the good news is that Jesus has already liberated us and called for our actions of justice and mercy.
If there is no action, or call to action, which is often costly, the preaching embraces “cheap grace”, personal salvation and comfort without any costly commitment. “It is seductive and we must be on our guard against it.”
We see in the mission of Jesus both the presence of the kingdom and the proclamation of it. Jesus begins by giving his disciples authority to heal, which points out that the kingdom of God is among the people and their needs. And the preaching of Jesus and the disciples supports what is happening and authenticates the kingdom. But preaching is empty without open and costly conflict with the powers of evil that robs people of their own power as Christians. We need the words of preaching but also the deeds that must accompany the talk. Preaching on the kingdom is directly tied to the name of Jesus.
Increasing the size of one’s congregation is not the purpose of the church and the gospel is not won by clever preachers or theologians. It is by the blood of its martyrs that the church increases in function and such growth is in the hands of the Holy Spirit. He calls people to faith and provides them with the words for witness in any situation that may arise. This is made clear in Acts 1:6-8: 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In other words, it is not in terms of a program. A program can be evaluated and you can feel good or bad about it. The factuality of the kingdom and gospel requires us to state our belief or disbelief in it. It is not a matter of marketing technique but about believing the promise of the Spirit.
Also, “Mission is not a success story” at least as the world reckons success. The victory of the gospel “was won not be the cleverness of its preachers and theologians, and certainly not by it programmes for social justice, but by the blood of the martyrs.”
Some questions for reflection:
- Why the emphasis on Christ’s way of doing mission? [Because there are so many other ways where Christ does not seem involved]
- Why the analogy of a U-turn when thinking about mission? [It involves repentance and a new thinking about the reign of God—turn around a believe the gospel. “Yet the presence of the reign of God is not as plain as one might wish. It is revealed and yet hidden.” “Jesus is the kingdom.”]
- What are some of the false gods in our culture or in our lives? [consumerism, entertainment, sports, PC, pets, food, education, pornography, politics, denominations, clubs and cliques, evolution]
- How does our church demonstrate mission? How do you demonstrate mission? Are these actions “costly” “A preaching of personal salvation that does not lead the hearers to challenge the monstrous injustices of our society is not mission in Christ’s way. It is peddling cheap grace.”
- How does the background of the author help you in understanding a book? [guide to action; provides authority and wisdom]
- In what ways is the US a mission field? [cynicism about the gospel; multi-religious nature; acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, adultery; disregarding 10 commandments; lacking of community]
- If all that people knew of God was the life and practice of Dayspring, what would they know? [sacredness, silence, centrality of Jesus, instance of community]
“We are rich people in a poor world”
“We are not sent into battle by a commander who stays behind”
“Words with out deeds are empty but deeds without words are dumb”
“Capitalism and Marxism are the twin products of the apostasy of the European intellectuals of the eighteenth century.” [What are the products of apostasy today?]
“Our best programmes are not the kingdom of God; they are full of our pride and ambition—as the world easily sees.”