Friday, June 16, 2006

newbigin and the future of mission in the west

allelon.jpg From June 25-29 I am participating in a International Think Tank on Mission to Western Culture. This involves a multi-year think tank re-applying the work of Lesslie Newbigin to denominational, seminary and other church systems regarding missional engagement with western culture(s). In preparation I was asked to answer 2 questions.

Question 2: What would you identify as the primary themes/questions that need to be addressed regarding mission to western culture at this point in time?

Perhaps one way to answer this question is reflect on my personal story in regard to Newbigin. I was first influenced by Newbigin without knowing. I chose to commence my Seminary training (at Carey Baptist College, New Zealand) because they had decided to focus on Mission to Western Culture and by insisting that all pastoral ministry students had to be involved in a church planting situation. This was intended to allow mission, congregation and praxis to become formational. It was highly innovative and (still) deserves huge applause. Scarcely a day goes by that I do not thank God that my primary ministerial formation was missionary and on the edges of culture, rather than pastorally central. The work and thought of Newbigin, in particular his call for mission in the West, had been a substantive influence on my Seminary choosing this approach to ministerial formation.

Arriving at this Seminary, I took courses and now began to be influenced directly by Newbigin’s words. One the one hand was the Gospel in Pluralist Society. On the other hand was my attempts to plant a missional community. The gulf – between Newbigin’s mega-theories about public truth and the reality of incarnating a faith community in an urban suburb – were huge. I wonder if this tension is emblematic of the primary themes that need to be addressed regarding mission to Western culture. While Newbigin’s writings totally re-aligned the vision of our Seminary, it proved lifeless when it came to the reality of the Incarnation of a faith community.

I stopped reading Newbigin. Instead I found more help in some of the insights of contextual theology. It gave me a framework in which to practice incarnation and develop contextual worship. In turn, this enabled me to engage with postmodernity, both philosophically and as I drank coffee with friends and we talked together about their loss of faith. This mix of congregational planting and engagement with local narratives then shaped up my PhD research in which I explored the effectiveness of the emerging church as a missional contextualization of faith. In the midst of my research I stumbled across the work of French philosopher and Jesuit, Michel de Certeau. This was an unexpected grace and his work gave me a framework in which I could initiate a conversation between the narratives, of local communities and popular culture, and with theology and academic post-modernity.

So, in light of this personal narrative, what primary themes/questions do I think need to be addressed regarding mission to western culture at this point in time?

a) We need skills to read local narratives in light of Scripture and missional texts like Newbigin’s. We need methodologies that simultaneously value a simple story, yet allow the peeling back of ever deepening layers, without privilege. How do we create partnerships between academia and local narratives, between missional practice and missiology?

b) Leadership formation needs to be congregational and missional in its praxis. We need to find ways for Denominational systems and Seminaries to serve local congregational narratives.

c) We need to find ways to articulate a glocal theology. By this I mean that while a congregational hermeneutic rightly returns mission to the local church as a communal narrative, we need to find ways for these local narratives to be informed by conversation with ecclesial communities both diachronic and synchronic? The tension I felt between Newbigin in theory and Newbigin in practice needs to avoid being reduced to either/or dichotomies. Instead the awareness of the particularity of the communal narrative needs to allow a “knowledge with humility” in which the community dialogues with a gospel that is wholistically universal. Else we run the danger of a local theology which in fact merely continues the prevailing atomization of belief.

d) Centres and margins: There is a potentially dangerous ecclesial-centrism in the work of Newbigin. As a pastor, I love the notion of the congregation as the primary hermeneutic. But as a pastor I am probably the only one that thinks about the congregation other than Sunday. The lives of my congregation include 50 hour working weeks, debt loading and subtle consumer pressures. A congregational hermeneutic tempts me to place myself at the centre of the conversation. Is it a form of church-olatory? How does the congregational hermeneutic speak to the Kingdom? How do I mesh my pastorally centrist experiences with the exilic experience of the church in the West? How does the congregation not become pastor and church centred? How does the pastor enable a congregation to be theological about their worlds?

e) Finally, Newbigin’s work failed to acknowledge the world of popular culture. So much contemporary cultural work is now done at the movies and through television. There is a constant sense of high cultural arrogance within much theological work. A re-missionalisation project is going to need to take far more seriously than Newbigin the cultural texts that are reality TV programmes like Survivor, Da Vinci Code and the Matrix.

(My response to Question 1: What are the primary contributions of Lesslie Newbigin to this conversation is here).

Posted by steve at 05:47 PM


  1. I’d suggest that the deep impact on culture that arises from the alternate spiritualities needs to be added into the agenda of issues needing missional responses where postmodernity, popular culture and frontier Christianity converge.

    This is where John Drane’s Cultural Change and Biblical Faith, What is the New Age Still Saying to the Church? and Do Christians Know How To Be Spiritual, provide some of the raw material. Likewise Chris Partridge’s work on “occulture” feeds into this.

    Although some of this topical material has been touched on via the sub-group in the Lausanne 2004 Forum, and in Lars Johansson’s essay “Mystical Knowledge and Missiology” in To Stake A Claim (ed by J Andrew Kirk & Kevin Vanhoozer), I feel that this is not sufficiently appreciated by enough voices within the new emerging missional projects. Perhaps you could act as a small gadfly on the rump of the delegates at this gathering to see in what ways they can recognise these issues?

    To what extent might delegates be open to dialogues with various global missional networks (people in UK, USA, Denmark, Sweden etc) that have been exploring these horizons with alternate spiritualities?

    Comment by philjohnson — June 17, 2006 @ 9:13 pm

  2. I am glad to hear of your selection as a delegate to what could be an important missional conference for Allelon. I am a strong advocate of and intimately involved in mission in the West, and would classify myself as one sympathetic to the efforts of some in the emerging church to engage the discipline of cross-cultural missiology for application in Western contexts.

    I recently posted some reflections on the Allelon conference on my own blog (, but would add three suggestions as to the agenda for the conference.

    1. Two Thirds World theologians and missilogists. Despite the continued efforts of Western evangelicals to move beyond the legacy of colonialism in missions, we have yet to adequatley engage and implement the insights of Two Thirds World theologians and missiologists into missions planning for the West. The participation of international voices in this conference may address this neglect, as might future networking of Allelon with organizations like Lausanne.

    2. Holistic mission strategy. A perusal of the writings of many in the emerging church reveals that to some extent it is a reaction against shortcomings in various expressions of church that arose in the modernist context. In some quarters this has led to the pendulum sweeping to inappropriate extremes, such as the emphasis on evangelism and apologetics by deed vs. word. Perhaps this conference could discuss the need for balance in mission in the West that must encompass the gospel proclaimed holistically in both deed and word.

    3. Significance of religious pluralism. At times the efforts of the seeker and emerging church movements formulate church strategies as if secularism and a lack of interest in spirituality were the primary context for ministry. In the West the shift to postmodernity has led to a renewed interest in holistic spirituality that is often explored through various alternative spiritualities, new religions, Pagan, and neo-gnostic spiritualities. Perhaps this conference will consider missional strategy for the West in light of the increasing influence of alternative spiritual pathways, and perhaps in dialogue with the Lausanne subgroup on this topic (

    Comment by JohnWMorehead — June 18, 2006 @ 10:13 am

  3. Phil, I am not as sure of the impact of alternative spiriutalities as I was say 2 years ago. Reading Drane’s How to be Spiritual, I was astounded at the research he quoted that showed only 4% of a sample population trading in alternative spirituality (as a distinctive practice). I think the far greater challenge is appreciating the impact of alternative spiritualities and pluralism in the lives of ordinary people. Hence by first point – the need to start with local narratives.

    Comment by steve — June 24, 2006 @ 8:19 am

  4. John, I responded to your 2/3rds world concern about 10 days ago – you commented on ryan bolgers blog ( and I commented on your comment. I simply repeat here what I said there:

    “since the Newbigin conversation was a conversation about mission and the West, it is my understanding that the conversation remains true to that ethos ie it is a Western mission conversation. Is that elitist and marginalising, or is that simply the nature of contextual theology – freeing the 2/3rds world to explore their context and letting the West explore their context? Will the conference explore pluralism? I certainly hope so, since we are discussing “Gospel in a Pluralist Society.” I am making a case in my conference submission for “glocal” theology as a Trinitarian local Western theology.”

    End of quote.

    Comment by steve — June 24, 2006 @ 8:23 am

  5. Steve, thank you for your comments. I did not notice them on Ryan’s blog, so I was pleased to see them here. I hope the Allelon conference went well, and I look forward to the report and discussion.

    I would respectfully suggest that you might have missed the thrust of both my comments and Philip Johnson’s. In my own case, I believe the nature of contextual missiology and theology in any context should be (must be?) open to dialogue with the insights gained in other cultural contexts. In the West we suffer from the cultural and theological blinders of Christendom and in our post-Christendom environment we can be aided in dialogue with Two Thirds World theologians and missiologists. As you know, it was Newbigin’s experience in non-Western contexts that provided the impetus for his thinking in the West. Perhaps there might be more to this suggestion than your reply suggests.

    As to Philip Johnson’s comments, we might note that the impact of so-called alternative spiritualities is far greater than the numbers of adherents or practitioners of these spiritualities might indicate. For example, many postmoderns will likely be more in touch with the esoteric thinking of the Marianne Williamsons, Dalai Lamas, and Rudolf Steiners than many of the leading cultural thinkers of secular modernity, and yet the church continues to respond to either modernity or philosophical postmodernism ala Foucault rather than the local narratives constructed through the influence of esoteric and eastern spirituality leaders such as those mentioned above. Perhaps then the EC ought to give greater consideration to these influences followed by appropriate theological and missional engagement with them than the EC does at the present time. This would seem a fitting response to Newbigin’s call for evangelism in the West.

    Comment by John W. Morehead — July 2, 2006 @ 9:08 am

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