Thursday, July 8, 2010

Regaining the high ground (Newbigin)

I read this a while ago, but it continues to guide my thinking about the local church and its mission.

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel — evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.

Jesus, as I said earlier, did not write a book but formed a community. This community has at its heart the remembering and rehearsing of his words and deeds, and the sacraments given by him through which it is enabled both to engraft new members into its life and to renew this life again and again through sharing in his risen life through body broken and the lifeblood poured out. It exists in him and for him. He is the center of its life. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. In so far as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the 'lenses' through which they are able to understand and cope with the world.

That's it! Newbigin nails it, as he often does. Community is a popular buzzword in contemporary church circles, but usually it means nothing more than "hanging out" with people like ourselves, with a little Jesus tacked on. This type of community doesn't impress the world. Newbigin argues that it's only through Christ-centered communities gathered and formed around Word and sacrament that 21st-century Christians in the West can once again "occupy the 'high ground' which they vacated in the noontime of modernity."

It's important to note that Newbigin doesn't mean by this forming Christian political parties or returning to the "good old days" of Christendom. However, he avoids the quietist error of some of those who emphasize the "spirituality of the church" by boldly asserting that the church is called to claim every area of society for Christ -- "to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel." This is done not through parachurch organizations, though they have their place, but through the humble ministry and witness of local congregations. A congregation that believes the gospel with all its heart has more explanatory power than any number of brilliant arguments, or worldly success.

Newbigin goes on to give six characteristics of this type of community. He fleshes these out for several pages, but here they are to hopefully whet your appetite to read the whole thing.

1. It will be a community of praise.

2. It will be a community of truth.

3. It will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.

4. It will be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world.

5. It will be a community of mutual responsibility.

6. It will be a community of hope.

Quotes from "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" (1989) as excerpted in Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader (pp. 152-7)

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