Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin's "Mission in the World Today"

"The question that lies at the heart of the debate we are considering is the question about the relation of particularity to universality. How can Gods' universal love be tied down to a particular set of events in history, events in Palestine and not in Japan or India or Africa? That is the scandal, the stumbling block that those who question the propriety of missions stumble upon. Why should God not speak his own word to every soul and to every culture?"

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin's lecture, "Mission in the World Today" was given to the New College Missionary Society, in the Martin Hall, New College, the University of Edinburgh, on November 12, 1987-almost a quarter of a century ago. I was priviledged to introduce Bishop Newbigin that evening, where the Missionary Society also named Newbigin the honorary president of the society.

I still have a copy of the typed address Bishop Newbigin sent to me-the words and thoughts seem as relevant as they did back in 1987, perhaps even more so now with the continued advance of secularism, syncretism and the cries for "unification" from  many corners. "Mission in the World Today" has many flashpoints to our current political and religious situation. For example, the side discussions about pluralism, multiculturalism, and whether we need missionaries today or not, are points still argued today.

There are several themes which stand out to me in "Mission in the World Today". First, is how Newbigin's argument to his own pluralistic culture closely mirror the method the apostle Paul used with the Corinthian Church, and other churches. You will recall Paul's argues in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 that God has presented Himself in a way (the suffering servant from Palestine) that few were expecting at the time- a living and breathing human being whom was crucified and died. The Greeks were seeking a philosophic and intellectual answer; whereas the Jews, were seeking a political solution. The presentation of Jesus, as a suffering God, was a "scandal" and a "stumbling block" for Greeks and Jews.

A high point of the address is the following section:

"As we well know-or at least as we here in Presbyterian Scotland ought to know-the heart of the biblical story is in God's choosing, God's election of one people among all the peoples, and finally of one man among all people, to be the hearer of the secret of his saving purpose for all. It is a secret because it contradicts human ideas about world dominion. A man nailed to a cross does not look like the one to unify the world. But it is an open secret because it has been entrusted to a community chosen for the purpose of being witnesses. And their witness is a witness to the resurrection of the crucified, to the fact that the final victory of God's love lies beyond death and beyond the dissolution of the cosmos."

Secondly, the church plays a significant role-a key role in the missionary enterprize. Newbigin's message is a giant kick in the pants to the Christian Church as well-get your story straight and keep on the message! The church consists of "witnesses" "to the resurrection of the crucified, to the fact that the final victory of God's love lies beyond death and beyond the dissolution of the cosmos." What I love best about this lecture, is how Newbigin challenges the church to regain her mojo-to have more courage in it's message to the secular world. As Newbigin notes, there is something deeply ironic that the Western  world has no problem exporting science and techonology in the name of "world development" but then becomes strangely shy when the topic of religion and spirituality arises.  Moreover, and perhaps most important of all, the church needs to stay on message and keep it's revelatory story "God's fatherly rule over all things and all peoples" at the forefront.

All excellent points, and points further developed in some of Newbigin's major works.

Looking back, I wish I could have spent more time with Bishop Newbigin, but I am grateful for having had the opporunity to meet him. He was obviously one of the great British theological giants along with Bishop Stephen Neill and the Ballie brothers. We would do well to read Newbign's books as they describe how the church can best move forward.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lesslie Newbigin and The New College Missionary Society

Five or more years ago,  I was in a Honolulu bookshop, looking through Lesslie Newbigin's "Word in Season" (1994). As I was thumbing through the pages, much to my amazement, I noticed the book contained a lecture titled "Mission in the World Today". My mind travelled back twenty years previously when I had invited Leslie Newbigin to come to New College and give this very lecture! And you guessed it, I bought the book!

Let me tell you how Lesslie Newbigin's "Mission in the World Today" actually came about and the hand I had in it. 

Back in the late 1980s I studied theology at New College, the University of Edinburgh. During that time, several of us were involved with the New College Missionary Society. I must mention their names-Louis Kinsey and Nigel Barge-both who are now ministers in the "kirk" of Scotland, who also provided great leadership. Together we brainstormed an innovative mission based program at New College to compliment our academic studies. The New College Missionary Society invited some "heavy hitters" in mission to New College; including Bishop Richard Holloway, Revd. Roger Simpson, Revd. Professor John O'Neill, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, and of course, the great Lesslie Newbigin. I actually selected the title for Bishop Newbigin, "Mission in the World Today" and invited the Bishop to come to New College, so we could make him our honorary president. The lecture took place before a packed Martin Hall at New College, on November 12, 1987.

Before discussing the lecture-let me tell you something about the man Lesslie Newbigin and what I remember from that November day. We greeted the great Bishop at the Waverly Station in downtown Edinburgh. I believe at that time, Bishop Newbigin was involved at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, England if memory serves correct.

I recall being struck by Bishop Newbigin's youthful demeanor and energy even though he was 78 at the time. For instance, , Bishop Newbigin insisted on walking up the steep mound to New College, and made a point of spending time with each of us along the way, and yet we were strangers who had never met him before. He enjoyed being around students and talking theology. Later, we went over to a flat (thank you Revd. Barge!) where we had a simple meal, and Leslie warmly greeted other divinity students.

The address was in the early evening, and when we arrived at Martin Hall in New College, I noted it was packed with a wide range people-not just theological students. Almost everybody seemed to know him, or about him. It was impressive, especially as a Yank! I gave a brief introduction, pointing out Newbigin's Scottish roots, and "wisdom" in marrying a lass from Scotland. And then we sat back to hear Newbigin set an agenda for mission in the world today.

I'll take up that lecture up in my next blog article.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lesslie Newbigin on the work of the Church

"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 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."

I came across this fascinating passage by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in his classic work, "The Gospel in a Pluarlistic Society" (1989). I've been reading a boatload of great books on church development and growth and many of these books are filled with wonderful recommendations about "techniques" and "programs". But beneath all that activity and energy, what is the theology, or perhaps more precisely, "where" is the theology?  As I was thinking about the Church, my thoughts went back to Newbigin, and I pulled down my torn and tattered copy off the bookshelf.

Here, we can learn something about mission from one of the great, and perhaps the greatest missionary theologian of the last century, Lesslie Newbigin. According to Newbigin, churches which make a difference are those which are "faithful to the Lord" and moreover, in these churches "the powers of the kingdom  are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer". Put another way, it is where the simplicity of the gospel is preached and where people are attempting to carry out discipleship in the world around them.

Newbigin however, was no Luddite! I'm sure he would have welcomed change and innovation. There is revolution taking place in the Church today, and much of it is needed and welcome. Christendom does not seem to be a paradigm which "works" any more for most people. Hence, all the new and exciting movements and new church forms. Newbigin, however,reminds us what is important and Who is at the center-Christ.

I met Bishop Newbigin when I was a student at New College, and my next blog article will discuss some of the points from his talk "Mission in the World Today".

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Church Tomorrow

Been reading several books on church growth and development. Would highly recommend what's listed below, of course beginning with George Hunter's classic, which is writtern from a Celtic perspective. Ed Stetzer writes on some of the challenges facing the church today; Deymaz speaks to the issues of working with multi-ethnic groups and how to reach out to others; and Murray's book is from an English perspective and more theological.

The Celtic Way of Evangelism; How the Church can win the West Again, (2001), George Hunter

"Planting New Churches In A Postmodern Age", (2003); Ed Stetzer

"Building Multi-Ethnic Churches (2007) Mark Deymaz

"Church Planting: Laying Foundations" (2001) by Stuart Murray

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Back to blogging

One of my New Year's resolutions was to spend more time in the New Digital World. As you can see, or can't see, I have not found much time to blog, although the desire has been there. That does not mean that things have been standing still. Life moves too fast these days for that. Blogging, like writing, take time and energy and sometimes our busy lives makes it very difficult to do everything we want to. That's OK and part of being an adult is realizing that we often can't do everything we want to. My Dad came to visit for several months over the holidays, and I kind of got out of wack. None the less, it feels great to be back and writing thoughts down and I thank my readers who continue to visit the Celtic Monk to learn something about Celtic Christianity and other topics.

Since my last blog-some four months ago-I have continued my journey on the Digital trail which continues to impress and amaze me. The online avenues, communities, and methods of communicating are both creative and changing the ways we have "traditionally" done things. I am now on Twitter, and "tweet". I am also trying to 'Kindlize" myself on the iPAD. I have always loved having a book in my hands but I must be honest in saying that this Kindle thing may even change an old bookworm like me!

What makes me say this? Well, just this morning, I was able to download several standard Celtic books for free-and what Celt didn't ever like something for free. I just downloaded a few, but some of these books included the "Life of St. Columba, Apostle of Scotland" by F.A. Forbes, and "The Celtic Twilight" by W.B. Yates.  There are also many other free books by Robert Burns, Alexander Carmichael and others. There are even free downloads on the Celtic languages if you wish to take a crack at Gaelic. On the theological/spiritual side there are also hundreds of free downloadable books, and with just a few clicks I was able to download several of Cardinal Newman's classics including "An Essay In Aid Of A Grammar of Ascent" and "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine".  These are books every serious minded Chrisitan should know.

This ease of access to the classics is a "gamechanger" so that now when you go on a trip you can take nearly all of Newman's (or anyone else for that matter) along with you, all contained within the slim confines of the iPAD. Reading the Greats has never been so easy or convenient!. And in addition, the learning is in a new and fun way. The iPAD can really open new doors and make learning easier. So let me now raise a shout to Kindle for making these texts so easily available for all to read.