Becoming a Missionary Church: Lesslie Newbigin and Contemporary Church Movements

Written by Michael W. Goheen and Timothy Sheridan Reviewed By Matthew Bennett

In 2018, Michael Goheen published The Church and Its Vocation as a distillation of Lesslie Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology. The Church and Its Vocation was to serve as a fore-runner to another volume that was released this year: Becoming a Missionary Church. Whereas the first volume sought to systematically lay out Newbigin’s insights regarding the missionary nature of the church, this companion volume, written in conjunction with Timothy Sheridan, attempts to assess contemporary movements that have drawn on Newbigin in various ways.

Both for those familiar with Lesslie Newbigin and those who might be less so, Goheen and Sheridan have provided an exceptional service of distilling his teaching and detangling it from those who have developed approaches that claim to inherit and extend his vision. While written under Baker’s Academic imprint, Goheen and Sheridan present a readily accessible treatment of the historical setting surrounding Newbigin and also the contemporary setting in which Newbigin’s ideas have been taken up into the strategies and methods of several movements. Whether the reader is a pastor or ministry leader or a student taking a missions class in a Bible School or a seminary, this book is both accessible and important.

While the table of contents indicates four sections to the book, there are really two parts. First, Goheen and Sheridan provide a helpful sketch of the historical development that fed into and shaped Newbigin’s teaching. In the second part, they walk readers through an assessment of three different movements—primarily North American movements—that have appropriated aspects of Newbigin’s thinking.

Despite the fact that the subtitle places the emphasis of the book on contemporary trends, the reader should not overlook the value of the first part that traces the history of missions discussions through several important gatherings of the World Council of Churches. Goheen and Sheridan do well to demonstrate the relationship between Newbigin’s desire for unity among churches while also acknowledging the tensions that arose as the WCC drifted away from some of the biblical and theological foundations essential to the church. Even beyond the history that directly involved Newbigin, the authors should be commended for the concise and helpful treatment of missions thinking throughout the twentieth century.

Having placed Newbigin’s thought in dialogue with his contemporaries, the second section of the book turns its attention to critically engaging recent applications of his missional ecclesiology. The first two sections address the Missional church and the Emerging church.

First, Goheen and Sheridan use the language of Missional Church to describe the vision of groups like the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) who overtly claim to inherit and extend Newbigin’s legacy. While they find much to be commended within the GOCN, the authors identify aspects of Newbigin’s teaching that have been squeezed out as this network applies Newbigin to contemporary culture. Chief among the critiques is that the church has gotten lost or overshadowed in the process of investigating the intersection of the gospel and our culture. Goheen and Sheridan rightly point out, however, that for Newbigin, “to say ‘gospel and culture’ is to say ‘church’” (p. 137).

Second, the authors identify the Emergent Church as another stream seeking to appropriate Newbigin’s thoughts. While the Emergent movement seemed keen to apply Newbigin’s thoughts to a postmodern culture, Goheen and Sheridan critique this movement for giving up Newbigin’s steady appeal to orthodox, biblical theology. They comment on this movement: “What began as a search for a ‘generous orthodoxy’ has become, for the most part, simply generous” (p. 143). Thus, while Emergents appeal to Newbigin’s sympathy for ecumenism and unity, they abandon his biblical and theological moorings and run headlong into the same theological errors for which he critiqued his peers within the WCC.

Both of these critiques of Newbigin’s inheritors are fair and demonstrably justified. The final area of critique focuses not on a movement per se, but on an individual who is the fount head of significant influence over several movements: Tim Keller. While the authors regularly note their appreciation for Keller’s pioneering work—placing him closer to Newbigin than the previous two streams (p. 187)—they also levy critique against aspects of his appropriation of Newbigin’s teaching in his ministry.

Some of their critique focuses on how Keller gleans much from Newbigin while not adequately giving him credit for the shaping influence he has had on Keller’s thought (p. 204). They also critique Keller for placing more primacy on biblical truth than biblical story (p. 198). And in other places they protest Keller’s critique of Newbigin for his rejection of inerrancy while yet firmly affirming its authority (p. 208; 245).

But their biggest concern with Keller is that he presents what Goheen and Sheridan perceive to be a reduced, individualized vision of the atonement that threatens to eclipse the corporate and cosmic implications that Newbigin held in creative tension (pp. 215–16, 242). Arguing that Newbigin both affirmed substitutionary atonement and had a more robust vision of this multifaceted doctrine, they write, “Everything Keller wants in the substitutionary atonement for each person is [included in Newbigin’s understanding of the atonement], and so much more” (p. 242).

Readers familiar with Keller’s work might find themselves quibbling with some of the particulars of the critique levied against him. However, they do point out some helpful ways that Newbigin’s vision of a missionary encounter might include what Keller advocates for while also exceeding his Center Church model, which presents tensions between binaries instead of richly layered approaches to the biblical story that speaks of cosmic, communal, and personal redemption.

Even if one might take issue with aspects of the critique, Goheen and Sheridan have admirably extended Newbigin’s incredibly helpful contribution to the missionary understanding of the church into the contemporary setting. The remaining step will be for churches to consider their principles, incorporate their thinking into local settings, and bring Newbigin’s vision to life in the everyday activities of the church. These specifics are lacking in Becoming a Missionary Church, but the building blocks are certainly there. I believe that this book would benefit every church, elder board, and even denominational entities as they seek to understand and express the missionary nature of Christ’s church.

Matthew Bennett

Matthew Bennett
Cedarville University
Cedarville, Ohio, USA

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