The Telos Collective is founded on 6 core values: the gospel of the kingdom, sacred cultural engagement, missional ecclesiology, missional leadership, life in the Spirit, and spiritual transformation. While it’s possible to see and treat those individually, there’s also a way in which the latter 4 exist, in an interrelated way, at the center of the first two. You might visualize it like this:
So, when we speak of our organizational mission as “the formation of leaders at the intersection of gospel and culture,” we’re really talking about four value-based domains of leadership formation that intersect with one another and cohere within a robust understanding of the relationship that always exists between the gospel and culture.
For two reasons, this framework offers an important backdrop to this third issue of the Intersection Journal, in which we turn our attention to the topic of missional ecclesiology. Both of those reasons are grounded in a person, Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin was not only among the foremost thought leaders on the subject of the encounter between the gospel and Western culture, but many would suggest that the entire missional church movement is largely a manifestation of the impact of his life and work.
This being the case, our ambition in this issue is to return to a major theme in his writing on the subject of missional ecclesiology asking questions about its relevance for the contemporary moment in which we find ourselves as church leaders.
Written in 1989, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is one of Newbigin’s most significant books. One of his primary goals is to give readers a theological imagination that helps to dislodge the traditional dichotomous thinking between “mission as evangelism” and “mission as social activism.” In the chapter, “Mission: Word, Deed, and New Being, he says,
“It seems to me to be of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God, the triune God – of God the Father who is ceaselessly at work in all creation and in the hearts and minds of all human beings whether they acknowledge him or not, graciously guiding history toward its true end; of God the Son who has become part of this created history in the incarnation; and of God the Holy Spirit who is given as a foretaste of the end to empower an teach the Church and to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment… This is the primal reality of mission; the rest is derivative… if we place in the center of our thinking the reality of God’s mission, we shall be saved from two wrong concepts of mission which are at present deeply dividing the Christian community.”
Here’s how he goes on to describe these concepts.
“On the one hand, there are those who place exclusive emphasis on the winning of individuals to conversion, baptism, and church membership. The numerical growth of the Church becomes the central goal of mission. Action for justice and peace in the world is a secondary matter. It is not the heart of mission. The gospel, it is said, is about changing people, not about changing structures… The primary task is evangelism, the direct preaching of the gospel in words – spoken or written.”
He then goes on to say,
“On the other hand, there are those who condemn this as irrelevant or wrong. The gospel, they will say, is about God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all nations and all things. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the prayer: “Your kingdom come; your will be done, as in heaven so on Earth.” The central responsibility of the church is indicated by that prayer. It is to seek the doing of God’s will of righteousness and peace in this world. A Christian Community which makes its own self-enlargement its primary task may be acting against God’s will… What is needed – it will be said – is not evangelistic preaching but action by Christian along with all people of good will to tackle the terrible problems of the nation, to free the oppressed, heal the sick, and bring hope to the Hopeless.”
Newbigin then concludes,
“If I’m not mistaken, the conflict between these two ways of understanding mission is profoundly weakening the Church’s witness. The conflict continues because both parties have hold of important truth. And I am suggesting that both parties are inadequately aware of the central reality, namely that mission is not primarily our work – whether of preaching or of social action – but primarily the mighty work of God… I am suggesting that both parties to this dispute need to recover a fuller sense of the prior reality, the givenness, the ontological priority of the new reality which the work of Christ has brought into being.”
Mission then, according to Newbigin, is most properly understood as the church’s participation in God’s mission, the missio Dei, which encompasses all of life, not as a particular activity of the church, whether conceived of as evangelism or as social activism. Instead, these all fall into the larger category of ways in which we witness and invite others into the life made possible in Christ.
Newbigin names 6 points of clarity that emerge as this theological vision informs a missional ecclesiology.
- First, we begin to see the absurdity of pitting word and deed, preaching and action, against each other. “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection… The words explain the deeds and the deeds validate the words.”
- Second, it is clear that action for justice and peace in the world is not something which is secondary, marginal to the task of evangelism. It belongs to the heart of the matter.
- Third, it is made clear that action for justice and peace can never mean a total commitment to a particular project identified ambiguously as God’s will. None of these embodies the true end, the real goal of history. That has been embodied once for all in the events which form the substance of the gospel and which – remembered, rehearsed, and reenacted in teaching and liturgy – form the inner core of the Church’s being.
- Fourth, the vision of the ultimate goal of the human story must not be used to withdraw attention from the immediate possibilities which the Lord of history offers. As those who understand the whole human story in the light of the biblical story, we have the responsibility to discern by faith the duties of this particular moment.
- Fifth, it follows that the major role of the Church in relation to the great issues of justice and peace will not be in its formal pronouncements but in its continually nourishing and sustaining men and women who will act responsibly as believers in the course of their secular duties as citizens.
- Finally, there will always be the need to point explicitly to the central reality by which the Church exists, to the central verities of the gospel, to Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, regnant at God’s right hand and to the promise of his coming to judge the living and the dead. This preaching of the gospel can never be irrelevant.
The way we’ve come to summarize this perspective at Telos is in the axiom: “The nature and vocation of the Church are rooted in God’s own life and mission in the world.” The articles we’ve curated for this issue come from authors who have sought to deeply internalize this ecclesiological paradigm and to lead the formation of church communities in light of it. We’ve invited them to share their stories and insights from their years of experience. Beyond this, we’ve also invited them to speak into how this vision maps on to the world we find ourselves in thirty years after Newbigin originally composed these thoughts.
The Rev. Ben Sternke
Co-founder of Gravity Leadership and Co-rector at the Table Anglican in Indianapolis, IN
June 10th, 2021
I sometimes wonder if the term “missional” has run its course. When I first heard it from people like Darrel Guder and George Hunsberger, it seemed to hold some promise in defining a way of being the Church that was deeply rooted in the life and mission of God. But somewhere in the midst of breathless pronouncements about the next big trend of churches “going missional,” the term got co-opted by people looking for a quick fix for institutional church inertia.
For example, years ago I was working as a consultant with a large church that was wanting to “go missional.” I was trying to help them discern how God might be at work in their midst to bring about a shift of paradigm and posture, new ways of seeing and being rooted in the life and mission of God, and new practices that might be necessary to support that shift. (You can tell I was really excited about it!)
But it quickly became clear that they didn’t actually want me to do that kind of work with them. Instead, they just wanted me to tell them how to implement “missional communities” as a new program at the church to help everyone “get outside the walls” and “reach their neighbors for Christ.” The term “missional,” rather than sparking new imagination for participation in the life and mission of God, often seems to merely conjure low-grade anxiety about whether we’re doing enough mission-y activity at our churches.
This mentality stands in stark contrast to Lesslie Newbigin’s picture of a “missional” church: “It seems to me to be of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God, the triune God.” This trust in God’s missional action is also evident in the early church’s approach to faith. In his remarkable book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider comments on how early Christians were instructed in proper worship and church life by treatises like the Didascalia:
“The Didascalia’s authors were not particularly concerned about mission. They assumed the churches were growing but didn’t write much about growth. Significantly, they didn’t urge the clergy or laity to evangelize. According to their understanding, spreading the message was God’s work, and it was their calling to be ‘helpers for God.’ Instead they wanted their communities to develop practices that expressed the gospel with integrity, both in their members’ relationship to outsiders and especially their behavior toward each other” (p. 226).
Instead of an anxious focus on “mission” (whether it be evangelistic preaching or social action – both good things in their own right), they focused on cultivating practices that “expressed the gospel with integrity,” and these practices were directed “especially” in their behavior toward each other, as well as toward outsiders. In other words, the early church was “missional” precisely by not focusing on mission (at least in the ways we typically do today). Through these gospel-expressing practices, they focused on participating in the life of triune God they’d been drawn into, and trusted that God was at work in and through their communities to keep spreading the message in ways they couldn’t manage or control.
I wonder if we have assumed more than we should when it comes to these kinds of practices in our churches. I think it’s easy to give lip service to these kinds of practices, or just hope they’re happening because we put them on the website and do a sermon series on them once a year.
But it seems to me that “practices that express the gospel with integrity” would be deeply disruptive to our normal ways of conceiving and being the church, and thus take a really long time to do their work in our social-political life together. It’s almost like we have to commit ourselves to a lifetime of these kinds of practices, and then patiently wait for them to “ferment” in our churches over a few generations, at least.
It makes me wonder if the most missional thing we could be doing in our churches right now is stop focusing on “mission” (whether we define that primarily as evangelism or social action), and instead make sure we are actually cultivating the kind of communal practices that, in our behavior toward each other, facilitate our actual participation in the life and mission of the triune God. As Brandon O’Brien suggested in Issue 2 of this journal, instead of attempting to preserve our waning influence in culture, the church would be better served by prioritizing the establishment of credibility.
This is perhaps an obvious point that others have made more eloquently, but it seems to be missing in a lot of the conversations I have with church leaders right now. If we don’t tend to the actual socio-political-liturgical life of our churches, there will be no real telos to any of our “missional” efforts. The church will end up being merely an organization that does some good works in the world, or the team that keeps the “evangelism machine” running.
Without actual, tangible, concrete, ecclesial practices of love for one another, there won’t be anything substantive at the heart of the church’s life. People hearing the gospel and seeking to participate in salvation, instead of joyfully being incorporated into the life of the church, may well quote this Arcade Fire lyric:
I thought I found a way to enter
it was just a reflector
I thought I found the connector
it was just a reflector
just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection
of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…
The task of discerning these kinds of practices is fraught with landmines. In the sacraments, for example, we have inherited ecclesial practices that we dare not cast aside. But how the sacraments are practiced can reveal the beauty of the gospel or obscure it under layers of clericalism or secularism.
I don’t have a simple rubric for discerning faithful gospel practices for every church (this work is inherently contextual), but I do have two convictions that help us discern the practices of the church I co-lead. (Thanks to my friend and Telos Lab Director Seth Richardson for helping me clarify these thoughts.)
My first conviction is that, in discerning these things, it is vital to pay attention to the actual socio-political effect of our practices, rather than assert our intentions for practices. For example, we may intend for both women and men to be raised up as leaders in our midst, but the only people who get trained to be leaders are men, there is something amiss in our practices of identifying and training leaders.
We must learn to pay close attention to the socio-political dynamic being created through our practices, and ask whether that dynamic is consonant with and participates in the new creation God is unfolding in Christ by the Spirit.
Which leads to my second conviction: practices that “express the gospel with integrity” are those that participate in the reciprocal self-giving love revealed in the crucified messiah that includes and privileges the weak and/or marginalized in our midst. Our practices must emerge from and facilitate a reciprocal, mutual sharing together. In other words, these practices will be, by definition, practices of communion.
The goal of these practices would be to integrate what we do “out there” with what we do “in here.” They will be practices that facilitate our own participation in God’s life and mission while also opening us up to becoming agents of God’s mission. As Lesslie Newbigin affirmed: “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection… The words explain the deeds and the deeds validate the words.”