The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology

Written by Michael W. Goheen Reviewed By Garrett Peterson

To formulate a proper ecclesiology, one must have a clear understanding of what the Bible says about the church and its relationship to God. From there one can get a clear picture of how the church can fulfill its mission. As perhaps the world’s leading scholar on Lesslie Newbigin, Michael Goheen has endeavored to speak to the heart of this matter by enumerating Newbigin’s ecclesiology. Goheen’s first of two books dedicated to this task is titled, The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology, and it seeks to outline Newbigin’s ecclesiology in a “relatively brief and systematic way within the context of the central dynamic of his thought” (p. xiv). Goheen accomplishes his goal by highlighting what he calls “the fourfold dynamic that drives Newbigin’s thought: the gospel, story (of the Bible), missional people, and missionary encounters with culture” (p. 9). These four elements of Newbigin’s thought are not isolated and detached, but intimately related to one another.

The book begins with an outline of how the Bible influences missionary ecclesiology. Beginning with the Gospels, Goheen outlines how Newbigin saw the life of Jesus within the context of the Bible as a whole. First, he emphasized Christ in the context of the entire Bible and also the entire Bible in the context of Christ. This twofold approach to the life of Jesus in the Gospels allows the reader to hold Christ as the focal point of the Bible while simultaneously recognizing his place in the redemptive, historical narrative as described in Scripture.

The Bible is God’s story of the redemption of his creation, and the pinnacle of this narrative is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Renewing an understanding of God’s purpose in the church not only reconnects those who have been led astray from the gospel message by cultural and other religious influences, but it also reminds believers of the mission in which they are to participate. Goheen clearly states that “for Newbigin, the gospel is an invitation to believe, follow, love, and obey Jesus, and that means entry into his kingdom-community and costly participation in his comprehensive mission” (p. 36).

While Christ tarries, the church has been given a role in God’s work of advancing his kingdom. During this time, the church is tasked with urgently communicating the gospel to the nations in an effort to see others repent and believe. Goheen details throughout the book how Newbigin emphasized that the participation in this kingdom permeates the entire life of the believer and defines what it means to be on mission.

Goheen also emphasizes the derivative nature of the church’s mission, reminding readers that the church’s “missionary existence is rooted in God’s mission” (p. 103). This means that as the church joins in life together, it is to communicate the gospel message in both deed and word. Specifically, it is the gospel communicated in word that is of prime importance to the mission of the church. The key to remember, however, is the prime goal of this effort is not reaching the unreached with the gospel but the glorification of God.

As the church functions, it is concerned internally with the spiritual growth of its members and externally in its mobilization into its mission to the world. Newbigin stressed that both are essential aspects of a healthy church, encouraging his readers to view the institutional and organic aspects of the church as important in the fulfillment of its mission. Further, Newbigin was ever concerned for Christians to strive to properly contextualize the gospel so cultural barriers can be bridged in order to bring about faith and repentance—even within their home cultures. This missional ecclesiology is found, according to Newbigin, by returning to the message of Christ as found in the Bible. The implications of cultural engagement are just as relevant today as it was for Newbigin.

One of the real strengths of this book lies in Goheen’s effort to allow Newbigin to speak for himself. Including extensive quotes taken directly from Newbigin’s writings, Goheen accurately communicates his mentor’s thoughts while framing them in such a way as to provide the reader a systematic look of Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology. Because his thinking is biblically based and framed according to a “fourfold dynamic,” Newbigin’s legacy of calling for a missional ecclesiology can be revisited fruitfully today. Goheen’s synthesis of his teaching on this central issue makes it imminently accessible for those familiar with. Newbigin’s work and for those who might be newly discovering him today.

Perhaps the most apparent shortcoming of this book is the fact that Goheen does not connect Newbigin’s ecclesiology with specific contemporary missiological issues. While this is not a main purpose of the book, it would be helpful for Goheen to have provided some examples of how some of Newbigin’s thoughts could apply to contemporary issues facing the church. Overall, though, this book is a valuable resource to the missiological conversation as it helps define a biblical ecclesiology for the church and its mission.

Garrett Peterson

Garrett Peterson
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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