Lesslie Newbigin on Leadership in a Missional Church

This afternoon I finally finished Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, which I started a couple of months ago when I was preaching on being missional. Because I've moved on to other things in both preaching and general study, I almost set the book back on the shelf, unfinished. But I decided to buckle down and complete it - and I'm glad I did.

There are lots of things in Newbigin that I either disagree with or need time to think about. Examples: Newbigin embraces a form of inclusivism that I'm uncomfortable with, seems to follow Walter Wink in his interpretation of principalites and powers, and views the doctrine of election in a corporate sense, rather than as God's choice of invidivual believers to be saved. I'm not satisfied with any of these positions (though I need to read Wink for myself and think through this view on principalties and powers which seems to be commonly embraced by much NT scholarship today). All of that just to say that I wouldn't give an unqualified recommendation of this book.

However, it was one of the most helpful and challenging books I've ever read. There were lots of places where I wrote "WOW" in the margins or tripled checked, starred, or underlined! Dimensions of the gospel and its implications for the church in the world are clearer to me now than before.

Here's just one example. In his chapter on "Ministerial Leadership for a Missionary Congregation," Newbigin talks about two ways Christians have traditionally related to the city and culture. There is Lot fleeing Sodom - the separatist mentality and Jonah on the edge of Ninevah, the reluctant missionary. Newbigin then suggests a third way, taking as his model Jesus riding into Jerusalem. Distinguishing Jesus' way from both the Essenes (separatists) and the Zealots (activists), Newbigin writes,

"What he [Jesus] did was neither of these things. He chose for his moment the festival of Passover, the moment of maximum national feeling, the moment when thoughts of a mighty deliverance for Israel were in all hearts. He chose for his mount not a warhorse or a chariot, but a mount that would call to mind the ancient prophecy of a king who would come in lowliness to claim his kingdom. By what he did he challenged the public life of the city and the nation. He claimed rightful kingship. He challenged all the powers that usurped God's rule over public life. He came as a king claiming the throne that was his by right. And he accepted, with open eyes, the cost of his claim. The throne would be a cross."

In the next paragraph, Newbigin spells out the implications for ministers of missionary congregations today.

"This, surely, is the image that must control our thinking about the relation of the Church to the city, of the Church to the world. And it will therefore control the way ministry is conceived. The task of ministry is to lead the congregation as a whole in a mission to the community as a whole, to claim its whole public life, as well as the personal lives of all its people, for God's rule. It means equipping all the members of the congregation to understand and fulfill their several roles in this mission through their faithfulness in their daily work. It means training and equipping them to be active followers of Jesus in his assault on the principalities and powers which he has disarmed on his cross. And it means sustaining them in bearing the cost of that warfare."

As you can probably tell, the implications of that paragraph (built on eighteen previous chapters of argument) are stunning for the church and for its leaders. I actually feel pretty overwhelmed by those implications. Preaching is relatively easy compared to the kind of leadership this describes. Of course, preaching is part of the task of of sustaining a congregation in following Jesus - but there is so much more to leading a congregation into this kind of missional engagement with culture. May the Lord grant me and our church leaders wisdom as we seek to follow him and flesh this out in real, tangible ways in the years to come.


Amanda said...

If you've read my blog or my brother-in-law's blog at all the past couple of weeks, you'll know I've been engaging in some "interesting" discussion about missions in the city and social justice.

I'm so grateful you've been teaching and reading, etc. about the missional church. I'm excited and nervous just thinking about all of this. Thanks for leading us (the congregation) "into this kind of missional engagement with culture."


mwh said...

Do you know of some congregations who seem to be doing this well?

Brian G. Hedges said...

I know of large churches that have reputations for doing this well. And, I have heard or read about some smaller churches that are trying as well. But honestly, I've not observed anything quite like this firsthand.

brad brisco said...

I love this book, as well as Newbigin's "Foolishness to the Greeks."