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The Message of Mission: Leslie Newbigin on the Mission of the Church

April 28th, 2008 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In theological circles, the idea of 'mission' is clearly the concept du jour. While the idea of the missio Dei--the mission of God--extends at least as far back as Saint Augustine's magesterial De Trinitate, the notion that the Church should likewise be 'missional' has only caught fire in the last decade.

In other words, the idea that Christians should be 'missional' is not a new idea at all. The evangelistic impulse led to the spread of the Gospel in the Roman Empire and has been renewed in every generation since then. The contemporary impulse to return 'missional' to the center of the life of the Church, however, has been largely a reaction to the professionalization of missionary activities and the alleged isolationist, protectionist ecclesiology of 19th century Western Christianity.

In the background of this discussion is British missionary, pastor, and theologian Leslie Newbigin. His work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is an extended critique of the Church's response to modernity and his proposal for Christian living in a pluralist society.

Upon reading Newbigin, I was surprised to read that his concept of 'mission' differs considerably from many of its proponents today. The term is often used to describe the external focus of the Church--that is, focused on the lost and on the world--in everything she does. Those churches that are not 'missional,' by implication, have focused only on experiencing life together as Christians. In its worst forms, missional churches strike me as little more than hip and theologically sophisticated seeker-sensitive churches--tailoring everything they do to the presence of unbelievers.

Newbigin's account of being 'missional,' though, is different than its current uses. He writes:

In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world's questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to the Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question which to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul contain so many exhortations to faithfulness but no exhortations to be active in mission.

Newbigin's idea of being 'missional' is much more sophisticated than "reaching the lost." Indeed, he moves that goal to the periphery of the mission of the church. He writes:

In this sketch of the logic of mission, it is obvious that the center of the picture is not occupied by the question of the saving, or the failure to save, individual souls from perdition...We must also consider the important passage in Romans 9-11 where Paul gives his most fully developed theology of mi9ssion, and here the center of the picture is the eschatalogical event in which the fullness of the Gentiles will have been gathered in and all of Israel will be saved...Plainly Paul is not thinking in terms fo the individual but in terms of the interpretation of universal history. The center of the picture is the eschatological event in which the fathomless depths of God's wisdom and grace will be revealed.

Our desire to preach the gospel, then, is not fundamentally motivated by the salvation of individual souls, though that is clearly important. Rather, at the center of the mission of the Church is our desire to be with Christ. Again, Newbigin writes:

When Jesus sent out his disciples on his mission, he showed them his hands and his side. They will share in his mission as they share in his passion, as they follow him in challenging and unmasking the powers of evil. There is no other way to be with him. At the heart of mission is simply the desire to be with him and to give him the service of our lives. At the heart of mission is thanksgiving and praise.

Churches that promote being missional, then, run the risk of moving the peripheral concerns of the gospel to the center. A Church need not try to be missional. If it is a Church at all--that is, if it is the people of God gathered together to dwell with Christ in the power of His Spirit--then it will inevitably be missional.
The critiques of American evangelicalism by emergent Christians and post-evangelicals have some merit. But on a deep level, they miss the mark. The problem with late 20th-century evangelicalism is not that it ceased to be missional. Rather, it is that it ceased to be marked by a deep desire and love for the person of Jesus Christ. That is, it ceased to say with Paul that it desired to "know Him, the fellowship of His sufferings and the power of His resurrection, being conformed to His death in order that [he] may somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead." If they had made this their intent and focus, they could be nothing but missional in their approach to the Gospel.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.