Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998): A Missional Life

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998): A Missional Life November 28, 2015


Every year my church spends the month of November studying the lives of the saints of the church. Last week we looked at the life and contribution of Lesslie Newbigin.


Lesslie Newbigin was born in 1909 in Newcastle, England. Thus he came of age in a time of great cultural upheaval. He was just a boy while World War I devastated Europe. As a young college student he saw the world economy collapse (1929). His international ecumenical work gave him a front row seat as Europe barreled toward WWII. But his reaction to the philosophical and cultural changes of his times would constitute his greatest contribution to theology and the church.

Newbigin had been raised in a Christian home, but in school growing up, he learned a rationalist or scientific worldview (the belief that reason is the chief source & test of all knowledge). As a school boy in the early 1900s, the electrical grids were being built, automobiles were beginning to be mass produced, and modern medicine was being born. Darwin’s evolutionary theory had a grip on the university, and there was a sense that the prospects of science & technology were boundless. Confidence that human reason could solve the world’s problems was understandably high.

When Newbigin left for college at Cambridge Newbigin had largely abandoned his religious convictions, but he retained a kind of curiosity about God and Christianity, and soon became involved in the Student Christian Movement. You can almost imagine the budding young college student sheepishly inquiring of a friend as to what one should do if he actually wanted to know God. “I don’t want to know for me. I’m asking for a friend.” Luckily the friend didn’t try to get too smart with Newbigin. His answer was, “Buy an alarm clock,” meaning get up early and read the scriptures and pray. This is exactly what Newbigin did, and God met him in there. He soon became devoted to Christ.

After college he went to work for the Student Christian Movement, where he met his wife, Helen. Both felt called to be missionaries in India, so they spent three years learning to read and write in Tamil. In 1936 they got married, and sailed to India.

Immediately upon arrival the Newbigins were shocked by how poorly the missionaries treated the people of India. Missionaries seemed blind to the poverty they encountered, and unaware of the injustices of the society, many at the hands of the British Empire. The Newbigins set out to do things differently.

Lesslie realized the way the missions organizations were structured was part of the problem. They had been built during Colonial era & hadn’t changed much. Missionaries weren’t converting people to Christianity so much as they were converting them to the British Empire & the culture of the West.

Newbigin too a different tack. He built relationship with community leaders, & with members of the Ramakrishna mission. In fact, he was invited to be a part of a weekly theological discussion at the Monastery, with the monks. One week they’d read and discuss a passage from the Upanishad (their sacred text). The next week they’d study the gospel of John.

Through those friendships and exchanges Newbigin developed a whole new theology of missions that sought to break down the social barriers to an honest dialogue about faith. He started to have a still somewhat radical idea. Instead of trying to get the people of India to adapt to Western Culture & British Christianity, the missionary should have to adapt themselves to the Indian culture.

He began to wear Indian dress more often. He stopped travelling by car, and began travelling by bicycle, or bus, or on foot. He didn’t try to convert people at first, he just got to know them. He joined in the cultural life of India, and found solidarity with them. He believed that, until there was a genuine friendship among equals, you couldn’t do real Christian evangelism.

I can’t stress this enough: this was a very profound approach. Newbigin began to openly critique the missions organizations he was involved with. He said they needed to empower local churches & church leaders. They needed to stop insisting that Indian pastors had to be trained in western seminaries. He said: train them in their own country & their own language. He said: Christ had to come to the people of India on their own terms (not British terms). Christ had to be embodied in India’s culture with its languages & symbols & stories. He believed that authentic Mission could only grow from within the natural environment… this was still a fairly new idea.

To explain his approach, Newbigin would often use a diagram of two staircase, both descending onto a platform from either side. On the platform in between them stands a cross. One stairway represents Christianity as it developed in the UK, with all its cultural freight. The other represents Christianity as it was developing in India. Newbigin said we all have to get used to the idea that: “God comes to meet us at the bottom of our stairways, not at the top.”If we want to encounter Jesus, we must descend our cultural staircase, and meet each other on common ground before the cross.

He reminded them of what JS said Mt 9:12-13; “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

“If you think you’re fine,” Jesus said, “I can’t help you.” Nobody has a privileged position before God. If we can’t own our own sickness we’ll never see what Jesus was doing.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus said. Sacrifice, of course, referring to the Jewish sacrificial system. Jesus didn’t want his followers to teach people how to be good Jews. He didn’t want Newbigin and his colleagues to teach people how to be good subjects of the British crown. The missionary imperative was to help people to encounter mercy. If you want to bear witness to Christ, you have to come down your staircase & meet at the bottom.

Newbigin wrote,

“Our real ascent towards God’s will for us takes us further away from the place where he actually meets us… Our meeting, therefore, with those of other faiths takes place at the bottom of the stairway, not at the top. Christianity as it develops in history takes on the form of one of those stairways. Christians also have to come down to the bottom of their stairway to meet the adherents of another faith. There has to be a kenosis, a ‘self-emptying’.”

Convincing someone to believe as you believe isn’t evangelism, Newbigin said. It’s coercion.

True witness involves humility. You have to walk down your staircase and enter into the presence of Christ standing as equals. We don’t enlighten others. We all walk down our staircases, and expose ourselves to God, and each other. We are both called into question before Christ. To evangelize others, we have to be receptive to conviction and correction and a greater awareness of our own issues.

Christ meets us at the bottom of the stairs. We stand on common ground, all of us called into question by the cross. That’s evangelism. Newbigin said it this way:

“Obedient witness to Christ means that whenever we come with another person (Christian or not) into the presence of the cross, we are prepared to receive judgment and correction, to find that our Christianity hides within its appearance of obedience the reality of disobedience. Each meeting with a non-Christian partner in dialogue therefore puts my own Christianity at risk.”

This means that when I come down my staircase and meet Jesus with the ‘other,’ I may never see my staircase the same way again. A bunch of stuff I thought was important won’t look so important anymore.

If we’re doing evangelism rightly, we will be evangelized too. We all must be open to new ideas about what it means to follow Jesus; ideas that challenge my old ways of following Jesus.

If we read on in Matthew 9, it says:

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often,but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

To which everybody said, huh?… so he gave them another image:

16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.”

To which every body said… okay, thanks for clearing that up Jesus… um… did you understand the question?

17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

To understand these three images, it’s important to remember Jesus and John the Baptist were allies in ministry. They were supposed to be doing the same kinds of things. So, John’s disciples wanted to know why Jesus’s followers weren’t keeping the same religious requirements. And because Jesus can never just give a straight answer, he gave them three confusing metaphors.

First was a wedding. When Jesus uses the symbol of marriage, he’s using it as a symbol of new creation. God was doing something brand new in and thru Jesus. Just like a wedding creates a brand new family, heaven & earth are coming together in Jesus to create something brand new.

Next, he gives the image of a well-worn cloak that has a tear in it. The cloak has been washed a bunch of times, so the fabric has shrunk all it was going to shrink. If you patch that garment with brand new piece of cloth and then wash it, the new cloth will shrink and ruin the cloak.

The last image is of the old and new wineskins. I don’t know if they still do these, but when I was a kid there was a science fair at my school every year. You could usually predict the experiments: three or four volcano eruptions with baking soda and vinegar, models of the solar system, and so on. At my school, every year someone would endeavor to make wine out of grape juice. They had to use a balloon because the fermentation process gave off enough CO2 that it required a flexible container. New wine was just wine that still needed to ferment. This new thing Jesus was doing would require a bit of elasticity. To follow Jesus, one would have to learn to flex a little bit & let Jesus reshape you.

So, these three pictures are a way of saying that God is doing a new thing in and thru Jesus, and it’s really quite impossible to combine the new and the old without doing damage. You can’t combine funerals and weddings. You can’t sew old & new fabric together. You can’t put new wine in old skins – it’ll ruin them both.

Newbigin was saying that this could also mean we can’t force new Indian converts into the old British Christianity. It’ll destroy the culture of India. What if Jesus wants to do something that will look different from what the missionaries were used to? Newbigin began to argue that Jesus would have to be embodied in new ways that would, frankly, make the British uncomfortable.

This meant that if you felt called to be in India, and you were British, you were going to have to walk down your cultural staircase… and meet the people of India together at the foot of the cross. You had to be open to fresh expressions of what God was doing, and you had to be open to the idea that God would mess with your staircase, too.

This was 1942. Newbigin was way ahead of his time. He wrote a scandalous article saying the entire missions apparatus in India was designed to ensure all the power in the church of India stayed in the hands of the British. Newbigin though it was wrong. He argued that the British had to give away control, and equip the Christians of India to lead their own church. He began working toward that goal, convincing, arguing, and cajoling.

In 1947, Newbigin was allowed to remove himself from the authority of the British Mission, & place himself under the authority of the Indian church. The first task the Indian leadership gave him, was to help them unite the different denominations. They wanted to join the Methodists, Anglicans, & the South India United Church into one church called: The Church of South India.

Newbigin was a key negotiator in the process, and was given credit for keeping the talks from breaking down. When it was finally formed, Newbigin was made a Bishop. He was only 37 years old, by far the youngest of the 16 bishops. Newbigin was assigned to lead the southernmost diocese in Madurai & Ramnad, where there were over 550 small congregations.

Typically the bishop would set up an office, and summon the pastors to come to him to get their marching orders. Newbigin reversed the process, and travelled to them—all 550 of them, many of whom lived in quite remote locations. Still traveling by foot or bicycle, it took Newbigin several years to visit them all.

Everywhere he went, he met people at the bottom of the stairs, and poured his life into these small communities, their pastors, and leaders. Newbigin’s approach had a profound impact on the future of missions not just in India, but throughout the world. He spent 40 years in India helping to lead the church there into fresh expressions of what it meant to follow Jesus, until he retired in 1974.

Now, if the story ended there it would still be good… but it doesn’t. In fact, Newbigin’s greatest contribution to Christianity was still to come.

After 40 years on the mission field, he returned home to discover Christianity had all but vanished from British culture. He took a teaching post at a college, and every time he mentioned the word gospel, he got blank stares. They didn’t know what he was talking about. God had no place in the public life of England.

The problem, Newbigin realized, was that for the past half century the church had been attempting to adapt Christianity to a modern scientific worldview, and the results had been disastrous. Religion had essentially been quarantined in the realm of the personal & private. Science & reason had become the only true authorities in British culture, and, Newbigin found that the church had not only vacated the public square, it seemed content to slowly die.

He was horrified, and realized Europe had become so devoid of Christian influence that it was now a virtual mission field. That was an important revelation. After 40 years on the mission field he came home to find that England had become a mission field. He spent the first few years back in the UK teaching, writing, & speaking.

In 1979 Newbigin was serving on a local church council, trying to decide the fate of this 120-year-old church in the slums of Birmingham. It was down to 20 people & losing money. The council wanted to shut it down, and for some reason their resigned attitude just ticked Newbigin off. The people in the room said that this polite English gentleman turned into a pit bull. He badgered & bugged them, & called them sissies, but they wouldn’t listen. Finally, he told them they couldn’t close the church because the church had just hired a new pastor… and his name was Lesslie Newbigin. He took over as pastor, and agreed to work without pay.

He ran the church like a mission, and began to experiment with ways to contend for the truth of the gospel in this secularized culture of England. He realized that the first thing he had to do was to put the scientific worldview in its proper perspective. He thought it was claiming more ground that it had actually won. He studied philosophy & epistemology & science & history, and he began to expose the blind spots in the scientific worldview.

Perhaps his best argument was that science can answer all kinds of “who, what, when, where, how” questions, but it cannot answer the question “why?” Science can explain how life works, but not what life means, and meaning is the one-thing humans can’t live without.

From the perspective of an outsider he could see that the modern scientific worldview could give your life ease, comfort, & wealth, but it could not give your life meaning. And the reason is that the scientific worldview is not set up to ask the question of meaning. He explained what he meant with this image:

Imagine that you are walking down the street & you pass a construction site. You can tell it’s a building, of some kind but you don’t know what. It could be an office building, a medical clinic, a church. Newbigin said, there are two and only two ways for you to find out. First, you could stand around until the building’s finished, and then use your powers of observation & reason (science) to figure out what it is. However, if you don’t have three months to stand on a sidewalk, you could just ask the builder what kind of building he’s putting up, and here you will have to trust the builder. He will have to tell you (revelation), and you will have to believe him (faith).

Newbigin thought the question of meaning and purpose was analogous to the building in progress. Our world is a work in progress, and our life is but a few moments on the sidewalk looking at it. Our powers of reason & observation are limited when it comes to understanding life’s ultimate meaning. Newbigin said:

“There is one thing which observation and reason can never tell us, and that is the intention, the purpose of an agent who has not yet completed his purpose. Until that purpose is complete it is hidden in the mind of the agent and we do not know it… unless he or she tells us.”

We can only know the purpose of creation—and hence the meaning of our lives within that larger purpose—when it’s all finished & complete. Until then we are just hanging out on the street for a couple of minutes, guessing, and none of us will live long enough to know for sure. So, observation & reason cannot get us to a place of meaning. The only way we’ll know the meaning is if the builder tells us.

Newbigin said that in public life the rationalists were running a con! They had rigged the game & set the rules so that they were always in control (just like the British missionaries used to do back in South India). Essentially the scientific worldview had said: if religion wants to participate in public life, they must come over to their staircase & conform to it.

Newbigin’s answer was brash: you guys can’t answer life biggest question? Why should we explain ourselves to you? After two world wars, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the cold war, acid rain, atomic waste, world hunger, and LSD, & pollution… maybe you have some explaining to do!

He began to argue that the keepers of the scientific rationalist point of view, descend their staircase, & come stand on level ground with the rest of us & stop rigging the game of public life… it was quite effective. Newbigin believed that if you will descend your staircase & stand on level ground with the rest of us, you’ll discover this:

Part of what God did in and through Jesus is that God cleared out a space for us to live, in which we could finally know what it means to be human. We can finally know what the meaning of our existence is because it has been revealed to us in Christ. This was a brand new thing. Before Jesus the world was confused & stumbling in darkness. We didn’t know what it meant to be human. So we struggled to make meaning of our lives.

But through Jesus God cleared out this space for us. so that: If we want to know what it means to be human we look at Jesus. If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. Because of the life teaching, death, & resurrection of Jesus, God has made a space for us in which for the first time in human history we can really know what our lives mean, and the purpose of creation.

If we will move into this space that God has created for us, then we will experience meaning for ourselves. But, the only way to grab hold of this new thing Jesus is doing, is to let go of the old. We have to descend our staircase & risk everything we’ve ever held to be true… lay it at the feet of Jesus & say I have nothing else to cling to except you. I have no other authority to which I can appeal. That was another important contribution to the church… The ultimate authority in terms of what life means is found not in modern science, but in cross & resurrection, where God revealed the nature of all reality once for all.

Personally, I love the idea that part of how the cross has changed history for good, is that thru Jesus God cleared out this space for us to live in which we can really know what it means to be human because it’s been revealed to us in Jesus. If we follow Jesus, then our lives can actually find meaning, and purpose, and peace.

Believe it or not, Newbigin had one more thing to teach the church before he was finished, and this turned out to be his biggest contribution to theology & mission & the life of the church all around the world.

He started teaching that Missionary Activity was never meant to be simply an activity that is added on to the life of the church. Mission, he believed, is central to the being of the church itself. He said:

The mission field is everywhere in the world we find a church. The people of God are always on mission, and it’s not to a personal gospel of private faith. It’s a public gospel of the redemption of all things.

And the reason, he said, that the people of God are always involved in mission is that Mission is the very nature of God. God is a Missional God… he said: The overarching story of God is that God wants to be known. God is constantly doing self-revelation, helping us find meaning. God is constantly moving toward us in Mission. God is a sending God: The Father sends the Son. The Son sends the Holy Spirit. The Father & Son send the church in the power of the Spirit.

Mission isn’t something we do as a church. Mission is who we are. The church is a Missional church because God is a Missional God. So he began to say that the church doesn’t have a mission. God has a mission & he calls the church into being so it can serve the mission of God. Not just a mission of personal conversion, but of the redemption of all things.

This is sometimes called Newbigin’s Missional Ecclesiology. This simply means that Newbigin helped return church to its missionary character. This changed the way church is done throughout the world… and it has had a deep impact on Redemption Church.

Years ago when we turned our hearts away from ‘church growth,’ and we started to engage in the mission of God, we did so in part because we were being influenced by these ideas the Lesslie Newbigin taught. Our church is the kind of church Newbigin envisioned.

He thought the only rationale powerful enough to convince our skeptical world of the truth of the gospel was nothing less than a church that really believed it. He once said,

“How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified savior, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world that can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: congregations that believe it.” (Word in Season).

This is our legacy as a church… We are a Missional Church, and we owe much to the great Lesslie Newbigin. I want to end our time here together with a couple of long and beautiful quotes:

“On the critical day of the ministry of Jesus he rode on a donkey into the city to die, and Christians affirm that that death was the victory of God over all the powers of evil… What is unique is that this victory which has for human eyes the appearance only of a defeat, was manifested as a victory through that event—the resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb, and his appearance to his disciples—given to a small chosen community prepared to be the trustees of it, not as public truth in the same sense that the crucifixion was (which would have meant the last judgment and the end of the world) but as a truth committed to those who would bear witness to it in such a manner that God would win his victory over human souls not by the sheer coercive power of almighty God, but by the appeal of the love of one who so loved us that he gave himself for us. And, that thereby, a space has been created within history—a space for grace—during which the will of God may be known, but the judgment of God is held back in order that there may be time for repentance.”

“The resurrection is the revelation to chosen witnesses of the fact that Jesus who died on the cross is indeed king – conqueror of death and sin, Lord and Savior of all. The resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory. The King reigns from the tree. The reign of God has indeed come upon us, and its sign is not a golden throne but a wooden cross.”

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