A Hermeneutical Congregation: A New Reading of Lesslie Newbigin’s Missional Ecclesiology through the “Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” Principle
Th e Asbury Journal
Shawn P. Behan A Hermeneutical Congregation: A New Reading of Lesslie Newbigin's Missional Ecclesiology through the “Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” Principle
Within the Missional Church Movement, the work of Lesslie Newbigin in developing a missional ecclesiology has been foundational. Yet often his ideas are not fully followed, rather just his language or overarching principles. Thus, a new reading of Newbigin's central idea for missional ecclesiology, the congregation as hermeneutic of the Gospel, is necessary. Looking at his initial work on this concept, expanded with the work of others, along with examples from churches, forms the content of this article. Ultimately, it provides a new way of reading Newbigin's missional ecclesiology for application in local churches. Shawn P. Behan is a PhD (Intercultural Studies) student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, where he focuses on the history and theology of missions. He has spent several years in church and parachurch ministry.
missional ecclesiology; Lesslie Newbigin; Missional Church Movement; congregation as hermeneutic; community
Behan : A Hermeneutical Congregation 111
At the turn of the century, commentators began reflecting on the recent
past and trying to project the future of things to come. Ideas such as globalization
were discussed, and the pending technological revolution was becoming noticeable
on the horizon of global history. In the midst of this, a group of scholars and pastors
embarked on a project looking at the current state of the Church in North America
and came to a distinct conclusion, “Christianity in North America has moved (or
been moved) away from its position of dominance as it has experienced the loss
not only of numbers but of power and influence within society” (Guder 1998:1).
Whether or not Christianity ever truly held dominance in North America, or was
simply the outward expression of humanistic principles that espouse freedom of
religion, is a debate left to the historians. The focus here is upon the movement that
came out of that project, the Missional Church Movement (MC).
One of the major contributions of this movement has been in the
development of missional ecclesiology, a theology of the church that builds upon
mission. The growth of missional ecclesiology (Niemandt 2012) and a return
to a focus upon the local congregation (Keifert 2000) has largely marked this
conversation. Many of these ideas have connections to the theological principle of
missio Dei and mission coming from the heart of God. This theological principle,
taken into the local church and applied to the questions about what the church is
and how it should be, is what brought about missional ecclesiology, and one of the
earliest and most prominent people to do so was Bishop J.E. Lesslie Newbigin.
As rarely in modern times, the Church had in Lesslie Newbigin
a bishop-theologian whose career was primarily shaped by his
evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities and who yet made
contributions to Christian thought that match in interest and
importance those of the more academic among his fellow
bishops and teachers. Their origin and destination in practice
is what gave and continues to give such an extraordinary
resonance to the oral and literary products of Newbigin’s
creative mind and loving heart. On any reckoning that takes
seriously the ecclesial location and reference of theology,
Newbigin must be accounted an ineluctable presence in his
Geoffrey Wainwright begins his biography on Newbigin this way to establish his
importance to the theological and missiological conversations of the twentieth
century. A lifetime as a missionary, ecumenical leader, author, speaker, pastor, and
educator has many contributions, but of note here is his work upon returning
to England in 1974 after decades as a missionary in India. The Enlightenment’s
reclassification of the Western world, the splitting of church and mission into
“two separate entities, responsible for two distinct tasks” brought about a deeply
secularized or “neo-pagan” world in the West, which would spark Newbigin’s
“reflections on missiology…in relation to the Western world” for the remainder of
. It is these reflections that the MC has picked up and
built upon for the sake of their missional ecclesiology, because they are part of what
made Newbigin “a giant in the fields of ecumenical and missionary theology in the
twentieth century”(Weston 2996:viii). Yet, the MC has not always used Newbigin’s
writings in their original form, often time borrowing his terminology but not
necessarily his ideas.
Of particular interest is Newbigin’s work in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
(GPS), out of which the concept of the local congregation as a hermeneutic of the
Gospel develops. GPS, which is only referenced three times in Missional Church (the
book that is traditionally viewed as the start of the movement), developed some of
the major underlying themes of the MC and the writings of its proponents. Of the
references in Missional Church, one is made to preface a discussion about missional
leaders (Guder 1998:219), and a second is about the necessity of churches being
culturally bilingual for the purposes of translating the Gospel to their community
(Guder 1998:237). Yet both hold the assumption of the first Newbigin quote in the
book; “[F]or the church to live out an intimate engagement with the narrative of
God’s action in Jesus Christ that shapes its life and thought, it must use personal
and communal ways of knowing that reach beyond the merely rational” (Guder
1998:41). This statement, referencing the portion of GPS that is under study here,
serves as an underlying theme to the Missional Church book and the MC movement.
This congregation must know God intimately and must seek ways of relevant
engagement with its surrounding community. That is why Newbigin’s concept is so
important to this discussion.
Because Newbigin was a leading voice of the developing ecclesiological
dialogue of the twentieth century, (Nikolajsen 2013:255) his voice must be read
and applied with the utmost care to the church of the twenty-first century. The
importance of Newbigin and his ideas, and the lack of depth of their use by the
MC leads to my proposed new reading of his ideas; one that is closer to his original
thought and that builds directly upon them for the purpose of applying them to
This application is so important because Jesus has left the world with
the community of his followers, and the responsibility is upon those followers
to represent him well for the glory of God and the reconciliation of creation.
Michael Goheen (2002:355) states, “[S]ince Jesus did not write a book but left a
community to communicate the gospel of the kingdom, the church now played a
central role in Newbigin’s understanding of the gospel.” This is why Newbigin is
so important for the community of Christ followers in developing churches that
represent the missional heart of God. And with such churches, the unity of the
Body of Christ and the expression of Jesus’ love – by and through his followers
– may be seen in communities around the world. As Jesus taught, the unity of
his followers will be identified in their love for each other (Jn. 17:34-35). It is this
ecumenical unity that Newbigin strives for in his ecclesiology, and one that is
obtainable through the missional ecclesiology he espouses. “For Newbigin, unity - a
unity which was tangible and visible - belonged to the true nature of the church,
and the demonstration of this unity was essential for the effective witness of the
church”(Laing 2012:xvi). Thus, this missional ecclesiology serves a dual purpose –
the increased day-to-day missional living of churches and their members, and the
increased unity of churches across the theological spectrum.
For this purpose, we now embark on an expedition through Newbigin’s
missional ecclesiological thought. The focus of this will be upon Newbigin’s
concept of the local congregation as a hermeneutic of the Gospel found in GPS.
With the chapter, where he lays out this concept, which is a large portion of what
he builds toward throughout the book, he develops six main characteristics of such
a congregation. We will take a look at the concept itself, then specifically focus upon
the six characteristics with examples from congregations who are trying to live out
just such an ecclesiological life.
The Six Characteristics
Newbigin’s chapter in GPS (ch. 18) “The Congregation as Hermeneutic
of the Gospel,” begins this conversation with a depiction of the current crisis and
need of the church in the West. Having abdicated its place on the moral and
truthdirecting high ground for society, during the modernization and secularization of the
West,2 the church must rethink its role in this new contemporary context (Newbigin
1989:222-223). In doing this it must strive to become the sign and foretaste of the
Kingdom (Newbigin 1989:224). Therefore, to recover this position and purpose
of the church, Newbigin puts forth his new idea about what the church should
be. “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” (Newbigin 1989:227).
This new idea is the concept that bears the name of the chapter, the congregation
as hermeneutic of the gospel. Here he challenges the local congregation “to be in
its own life an enacted interpretation of and witness to the good news that in Christ
God is making all things new.” (Rae 2012:190) It is because of this concept that
such a congregation is necessary in communities around the world today.
Newbigin establishes the problem that the gospel in the West now exists
as “one element in a society which has pluralism as its reigning ideology”(Newbigin
1989:222), thus it “becomes a personal value, and discipleship is reduced to the
private and the domestic” (Flett 2015:197). It is in answering this problem that the
concept is developed, first out of the idea that “[T]he gospel interprets creation
and history for the people God” (Newbigin 1989:198). Newbigin then inverts this
concept to show that in its hermeneutic of the gospel, “the congregation is the
‘central reality’ by which the gospel might become ‘credible,’ might claim to be
public truth” (Newbigin 1989:198). In this, it must be a visible congregation,
reestablishing its word, sacrament, and office (or structure) in a way that garners
questions and provides a counter life to that which is offered by the culture
(Newbigin 1989:198-203). “The congregation as hermeneutic of the gospel is
called to be visible, a concrete and historically continuous society” (Newbigin
1989:202), while also constituting itself within its movement beyond itself. It is
in this movement, that the missions of the church is exercised, in the spirit of the
deep imbibing of the ideologies and faiths it encounters (in his conversation about
engagement with other faiths) (Newbigin 1995:184), which will in turn bring about
its own redefinition and identification - being “changed and learn(ing) new things”
(Newbigin 1989:124). Yet, dependent on God to reveal Himself to those with
which this congregation engages (Newbigin 1989:224-225). And it is in the visible
move of the church, in missions, into the world surrounding it that confronts the
powers of darkness and reveals the reign of Christ (Flett 2015:206). This movement
is one in the visibility of the Cross and the special (in-)visibility of the resurrection
(revealed to those God chooses) (Flett 2015:203-206).3 This movement is possible
because Christ, who is the central point and goal of history, has broken down all
walls - which are only rebuilt by those who reject him (Flett 2015:207) The church,
then, must strive to regain its place by being involved in the community, reminding
it of its place within the reign of God - the eventual judgment of all by God
(Newbigin 1986: 124-150).
Newbigin then develops six characteristics of such a community, based in
the love and mission of God as seen in the visible cross and invisible resurrection.
“It is in the local congregation that the credibility of the gospel becomes apparent,
for that is the place where a real community of men and women, of young and
old, of stranger and friend, are gathered into the reconciled fellowship of the body
of Christ, hear the declaration that their sins are forgiven, and feast together at
the table of the Lord” (Rae 2012:195). This congregation is marked by these six
characteristics that we will be unpacking for the remainder of this article. Each
characteristic will be described by Newbigin’s thought, expanded with the ideas of
others, and examples given from churches living out these characteristics.
A Community of Praise
The first characteristic Newbigin develops - what he believes is also its
most important (Newbigin 1989:227) - is that this sort of community will be one
of praise. This is a praise that provides both freedom and thanksgiving - freedom in
discovering the true self in the reverence of the only One who is worthy of it, and
thanksgiving in the understanding of our sin and the gracious gift of God’s mercy
(Newbigin 1989:227-228). These two elements, freedom and thanksgiving, are what
define a community of praise based in the scriptures and acting as an interpretation
of those scriptures to its surrounding community.
The freedom Newbigin describes is freedom from sin and expectation,
freedom to be themselves in the worship of their Creator. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
would include in this a freedom that engages the other in love and respect. “It
means awakening in believers true freedom for God and others. The Church, which
is the new humanity redeemed in Christ, is the community in which this
othercenteredness is realized and practiced with the hope of being finally consummated
at the eschaton”(Franklin 2007:115). Thus, a praising community based in freedom
will not only willingly offer reverence to God, but they will freely offer themselves
The other main element, thanksgiving, is commonly held in conjunction
with praise. “Basic to praise is thanksgiving, understanding that we only stand in
God’s presence by an act of his grace. Such gratitude is not containable,” it becomes
“an overflow of the joy experienced by those liberated from bondage,” and thus
“expands beyond our horizons to encompass our neighbor” (Flett 2015:210-211).
Thanksgiving, offering of praise and self in response to the gracious gift of mercy,
is not just a response, its a missional response - it witnesses and spills over to those
around us. Because of this, worship also serves as an element of mission in this
congregation. In Acts 2, we see a congregation with worship at its center. Here, “the
church is seen to be dedicated to worship as that which informs the community and
inspires it to act with love and caring concern with and for the community” (Cowan
2013:60). It is this type of worship that this congregation will exemplify.
Ruth Meyers discusses a church attempting to live out such praise (they
use the language of worship) as part of the mission that the church undertakes.
She provides some quotes from congregants of this church - All Saints’ Episcopal
Church in Chicago - and then gives her own conclusion. “Perhaps, then, by
manifesting God’s fierce love for the world in all its complexities, worship at All
Saints’ is itself mission, just as the congregation’s food pantry and relationship with
a congregation in Sudan are also mission” (Meyers 2010:39). For them, their praise
is an act of mission, sharing with guests and the rest of the community the love,
freedom, and thanksgiving that make up part of their identity as Christians. This
church, like others who also engage praise as an element of mission (in particular
the Orthodox tradition, which sees the full liturgy as part of mission and an act of
praise) (Ware 1997:264-306), are simply living out what it means to be a community
of praise as Newbigin envisioned.
A Community of Truth
A Christian congregation is a community in which, through
the constant remembering and rehearsing of the true story of
human nature and destiny, an attitude of healthy scepticism
can be sustained, a scepticism which enables one to take part
in the life of society without being bemused and deluded by its
own beliefs about itself. And, if the congregation is to function
effectively as a community of faith, its manner of speaking
the truth must not be aligned to the techniques of modern
propaganda, but must have the modesty, the sobriety, and the
realism which are proper to a disciple of Jesus.4
This description of what it means to live as a community of truth is a challenge to
this congregation. As Newbigin argues, this congregation will be marked by their
counter plausibility structure, one that offers a different perspective and story of
human history (Newbigin 1989:228-229). This story, hinging upon the Jesus event,
allows this congregation to participate within society while also acting as a
countercultural agent. Thus, it calls the congregation to engagement with their community
on the grounds of truth – truth about themselves and the community as seen from
the ultimate truth – Jesus Christ.
As Robert Coleman (2006:16) depicts in The Master Plan of Evangelism,
the Gospel is not just the teaching about Jesus Christ, but all “that the revelation
of that life in Christ includes the way he lived and taught others to live.” This living
includes speaking the truth about Christ and the salvation available through faith
in him as well as acting like him in love and mercy towards the rest of creation –
enacting the salvation received through Christ. Coleman shares a model of Jesus’
plan for evangelism and engagement with the waiting world, one that includes
the selection of his disciples, training (through teaching and modeling) them for
this ministry, consecrating them, delegating power to them, supervising them, and
ultimately calling them to replicate disciples to do the same (Mt. 28:18-20). Living
out the truth of Jesus, linchpin of history and savior of humanity, is what makes
this congregation one of truth. A truth lived out in the community in which the
church is located and which calls that community towards the God who redeems it.
It is just this sort of congregation that Corey Johnsrud is studying in
a recent Covenant Quarterly article. “In order for congregations to increase their
capacity for understanding and joining God’s mission in the world, they must first
have a sober and true accounting of their current reality, which requires honest
conversations and communal discernment” (Johnsrud 2016:31-32). It requires truth
telling of the self (the congregation), the community (the world), as well as the
Gospel. The first two, self and community, are what the Veritas seminar attempts
to guide and provide space for. This then extends to the telling of the truth of the
Gospel, which allows for truth telling in mission as well. Living as a community of
truth means being shaped by the (new) “plausibility structure” (Newbigin 1989:228)
of the Gospel, which causes us to engage “with the world and (expose its) false
claims to power”(Flett 2015: 211). It is no simple task to truthfully evaluate and
discuss ones self, the world, and the Gospel. But under the guidance of the Holy
Spirit and the shaping of the Gospel, this congregation stands as an example of
Truth to its members and the surrounding community.
A Community Deeply Involved in the Concerns of its Neighborhood
This congregation is to be a place where the Gospel overflows in word
and action to the surrounding community. Newbigin defines the local church as
“God’s embassy in a specific place” (Newbigin 1989:229). It is in this place, the
surrounding neighborhood and context of a church, that the congregation is truly
itself. Every member must be either part of this neighborhood or committed to it,
bringing about the truth of the Gospel in the context that surrounds the building
itself, both in proclamation of and in living out the Gospel. If either of these is
neglected – not being about the neighborhood or not being about the Gospel –
then this congregation looses its place as a Church of God, it is no longer the
ekklesia of Christ.
But what does it mean for the congregation to be about its neighborhood?
It means that they are embedded in a larger community, concerned with the things
that concern its neighbors, preaching the Gospel both in word and in deed.
“Bonhoeffer notes that when Jesus says to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the
earth,’ he means they will be his witnesses in the totality of their existence, both in
word and deed, proclaiming and acting” (Franklin 2007:101). The ekklesia of Christ
cannot be a place all about itself, nor can it be a place all about missions in the
world; it must be both.
Instead of being totally consumed with itself (the church which has
forgotten its neighborhood), or totally concerned with its community (the church
that has forgotten the Gospel), “the church is to be ‘God’s embassy in a specific
place,’ meaning that it is and remains a foreign presence, but one for this place”
(Flett 2015: 211). It is fully concerned with what is going on in the community
surrounding it, but it does so as a verbal and physical representation of the Truth.
This congregation is in a neighborhood and must be a part of that neighborhood
as a sign of the Kingdom of God. “While each neighborhood church is called to
be a sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s kingdom, she is to do so in light of
who she is and where she is ministering” (Woodward 2012:171). Thus, it must exercise
a level of intentionality in engaging with its community, becoming aware of its
needs, and meeting those needs as best it can as a representative of God’s kingdom.
This intentional engagement comes out of its nature as a missionary church of a
missionary God. “It actually moves beyond the walls of the church and engages
in missionary ‘points of concentration’ (Newbigin) such as evangelism and work
for justice and peace” (Bosch 1991:373). And sometimes this being engaged in the
community and working for peace can be costly.
David Forney (2008:69-71) provides an example of this in his depiction
of the Confessing Church of 1930’s Germany. He shows that its leading members
“journeyed outside the gate” to “listen to the one who… bears the abuse Jesus
endured.” And in this they developed The Barmen Declaration as a way to
strengthen and encourage German Christians to resist the heresies of Hitler’s Nazi
government and stand for the Gospel (Forney 2008:71). This group of leaders, led
by the Spirit, ventured into the community and took a stand against tyranny that
looked to harm people, and they paid for it as well. Banishment, imprisonment, and
even death laid ahead for some of the members of the Confessing Church. Yet they
were compelled by the Gospel and a desire to live it out; to be engaged and work for
the sake of peace and truth in the community.
A Community that Prepares and Sustains People for the Exercise of the Priesthood
in the World
Newbigin calls out the royal priesthood of all believers imparted by
Christ in the New Testament, showing that it is a priesthood that must be exercised.
“But the exercise of this priesthood is not within the walls of the Church but in the
daily business of the world”(Newbigin 1989:229). It is through its engagement with
the world that the congregation displays and practices the priesthood they received
from Christ. This congregation must “follow the High Priest as the one who alone
fulfills” the task of standing before God on behalf of the people, and standing
before the people on behalf of God (Flett 2015:211). Newbigin argues that living
out this priesthood takes two key elements: the training (in discipleship) of each
member for this type of life (with the attached continual training and support that
is necessary), and the embracing of diversity.
This type of discipleship is different then discipleship of recent church
history; it is a missional discipleship - formed around engagement “in mission
and being intentional about faithful discipleship” (Maddix 2013:17). This type of
discipleship is about a way of living, acting, thinking, and being that reflects the
Gospel and our relationship (personally and corporately) with Jesus Christ. “People
share meals, serve others, discuss issues of culture in relation to their Christian
convictions, and pray without beginning with specific invitations to accept the
gospel” (Maddix 2013:20). This is a community that is focused on discipleship
for the purpose of being a light to the nations. They form their practices of
discipling around principles of: contextualization, redemption of all creation, acts
of compassion/justice/mercy, hospitality, cross-perspectival dialogue, and working
for the freedom of those in bondage and oppression (Maddix 2013:22-25). This
new type of discipleship, focused on the growth of the individual in community
for the sake of God’s mission in the world, requires discipling as a way of life.
Which is where Newbigin’s second principle, that of diversity, becomes important.
“Newbigin advocates the recognition of the wider gifts of the body and the
different forms of expression such gifts take. There exists no uniform style of
evangelism or of Christian discipleship. Only in the diversity of gifts can the body
fully exercise its royal priesthood” (Flett 2015:212). Thus, this type of community
will embrace diversity, explore new ways of discipleship, and support the various
gifts and callings of its members in reaching the neighborhoods and peoples that
It is this type of discipleship that served as part of the emphasis of Alan
Roxburgh in his consulting with the Churches of Christ Conference of Victoria
and Tasmania when they invited him to help revitalize their network of churches
(Cronshaw 2015:322). In this process, Roxburgh taught these pastors and ministries
to not “read Scripture in an attempt (just) to master it but let Scripture read them”
and through this develop a new way of approaching their communities – one
which was respective of the various gifts and leadings of each congregation and its
members (Cronshaw 2015:322-323). In this, congregations are better prepared to
engage their communities as a hermeneutic of the Gospel.
A Community of Mutual Responsibility
This type of congregation will be an actual community. Newbigin
(1989:231) states, “that we grow into true humanity only in relationships of
faithfulness and responsibility toward one another.” Though communities are
often considered as simply a gathering of individuals, this congregation will be
a community of people who are responsible to each other, for each other, and
with each other – a fellowship. Fellowship will not just be a Christian code word
for gathered together, but rather a way of life that leads each person into deep
relationship, accountability, authenticity, and responsibility with other members of
the congregation; thus creating a true community. Bearing in itself, “the type of social
concerns it will see in the wider society,” this community strives to be, “‘a different
social order’ and so manifest ‘relationships of faithfulness and responsibility toward
one another’” (Flett 2015:212). Because of this, this congregation will be formed
by the Gospel while also living as a sign and foretaste of the Gospel. They become
a witness of something different than society at-large, and thus serve in centripetal
mission as well as the centrifugal movement we normally see in the missions of the
church. But this mutual responsibility has some other key markers of community
as well, namely authenticity.
This authenticity is both lived out in the congregation and in the
surrounding community. In this congregation, it is an authenticity of confrontation,
forgiveness, acceptance, unity, and hospitality (Minatera 2004:42-51). In describing
authenticity and confrontation at Christ Fellowship, Milfred Minatrea (2004:46)
shows the experience of one of their pastors that, “the only way a church
becomes ‘real’ enough to ‘speak the truth in love’ is through establishing authentic
relationships that value personal accountability.” It is these types of relationships
that form the bedrock of this congregation that function as a community of mutual
responsibility. Sharing all the aspects of their lives with each other, holding each
other accountable, challenging each other to deeper faith and missions, all of these
are signs of a true community of Christ. And it is through these relationships that
this congregation can reach out to the world in authentic love for the witnessing of
the Gospel. “The church is sent into the world, citizens of one Kingdom, living in
another” (Minatera 2004:49). It is in this role that the congregation must live out its
Kingdom citizenship in its earthly locale.
A Community of Hope
Hope is one of the defining characteristics of such a congregation,
because Christian hope, that is hope in a crucified Lord for salvation of all creation,
is not only so different from our current society that it is rendered unthinkable, it
is beyond comprehension - requiring the new plausibility structure of the Bible.
“[T]he gospel offers an understanding of the human situation which makes it
possible to be filled with a hope which is both eager and patient even in the most
hopeless situation” (Newbigin 1989:232). This congregation will be one defined by
hope, a hope that comes from the biblical plausibility structure that assures of the
reconciliation of all creation by Christ (Newbigin 1989:101).
The hope to which this congregation strives “is directed to the reality of
the resurrection, a reality not yet generally visible, but a present reality nonetheless”
(Flett 2015:212). Thus, “[T]he church is grounded and exists within this reality,”
which is only possible, “when, ‘local congregations renounce an introverted concern
for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not
members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole
life of society.’” It is a hope that is founded in Christ, lived out in the congregation,
and extended to the community for the purposes of their salvation and God’s glory.
This type of hope, a plausibility structure built on hope, takes deeper reflecting and
the engrafting of hope as an attitude of the mind and heart, a way of life, for this
This hope comes from Jesus Christ and is centered in the eschatological
future to which he taught. “For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified
Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ” (Moltmann
1967:16). Yet it is not an all-future hope. In hoping for the future, it is changing
the present with a hope that derives from the current reality of the risen Christ.
This hope, based in Jesus Christ, is for the Kingdom and representative of the
King. Its what drives this congregation to missions, sharing their hope with the rest
of creation. “By living in the world and anticipating in the kingdom of God, the
Church has to become critically and prophetically involved in all spheres of society”
(Kim 2005:107). It changes the world today with the hope of a life fully lived, which
can only happen by participating in the risen Christ. Thus, it is a present and future
hope, one that pushes the congregation toward missional engagement. It is in this
hope that the congregation seeks to live out its place as the “sign, instrument, and
foretaste of the Gospel” (Newbigin 1989:233) before a watching world.
The (West) German Catholic Church, in the wake of World War II,
Nazi Germany, and Vatican II, strove to develop a way forward to heal from past
mistakes, address their history, and connect with the future not only of the Church
but of their community as well (Thompson 2016:387-388). They completed this
task through the diocesan synodic document “Our Hope” in 1975. This hope, what
the (West) German Catholic Church would reestablish itself upon, both critiqued
and reflected upon the teachings of the Church, ultimately determining that the
hope that exists in Jesus Christ to confront sin and reconcile the world to himself is
the only way which the Church can exist in the world – “‘conform(ing) to hope’ –
to live as a ‘counterweight’ to the hopelessness of the modern world” (Thompson
2016:356). Thus, it is through hope that the Church is not only established, but the
way in which it engages with the community-at-large. It is by hope that the Church
gets its name, the Body of Christ.
Having now reviewed the six characteristics, the question is how does a
congregation go about becoming such a hermeneutic? First and foremost is that
they must embed themselves in scripture. Daily reading the Bible, all of the Bible,
will begin to shape the lives of this congregation and its members to the Word of
God – binding it on their hearts (Deut. 6:6). To do this, developing Bible reading
plans (of many different types for the many different people in the congregation)
is necessary. As well, developing ways for the congregation to hear the whole Bible
spoken and taught from the pulpit is necessary (Catholic, Orthodox, and high
liturgical Protestants have plans that may help). Second, this congregation must
openly dialogue amongst itself about the concerns, deficiencies, gifts, and passions
of its various members. Knowing who does what well and who is passionate
about an issue will help in developing plans for community engagement. Third,
having already found out about people’s gifts, passions, and needs, developing
individualized ways for people to grow closer to God individually and communally
is the next step. Fourth, this congregation must get into its surrounding community
and ask questions, find out about the important issues, and ways in which they
can partner with the community for its flourishing. Fifth, this congregation must
develop ways to properly evangelize the community it has now engaged. As Peter
tells us, we must “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you
to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15b). Thus, they must teach
each other how to give these answers and embark on conversations about their
faith and the hope that is evident in their lives. This leads to six, the need to be
reminded of the hope in Jesus Christ to redeem all of creation. This hope is the
defining marker of this congregation, thus every member must openly expose this
hope everywhere they go. To do this, they must be reminded of it regularly from
within the congregation itself. These are but a few of the steps necessary to begin
crafting this congregation as a hermeneutic of the Gospel, and many more may
be developed as this congregation embarks on this task. It will not be easy, but
nowhere does Christ promise ease for those that follow him.
Why would a congregation want to do this? It is the role of the church,
in seeking to follow the Holy Spirit, to reach out to its surrounding community
with the arms of Christ and interpreting the words of the Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit in proclamation and action, for the glory of God and the living out of the
Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. Newbigin offers this role as a challenge to
every local congregation. “By describing the congregation as the only hermeneutic
of the gospel, Newbigin reminds us that the gospel can only take bodily form. The
gospel is no free-floating message, no individual belief system. It creates, shapes
and sustains a people, a body. This congregation is a visible entity in history” (Flett
2015:213). Thus, this type of congregation must seek to live out the characteristics
Newbigin lays out in his description of such a community. But it cannot live them
out individually; they must be lived out together. They mutually support and
enhance each other, so to live out one is to live out them all. It is not an easy task
- or everyone would do it - but it is a necessary and proper one. The consequences
of such a congregation are vast for both the future of the Church (in particular in
the West) and for the future of society. And I will leave the final word to Newbigin
on the subject.
If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are
to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noontime of “modernity,”
it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda
campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the
“Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local
congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and
experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public
life and claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and
to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only
happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their
own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members,
as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of
1 Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000), v.
2 Though Newbigin is specifically talking to the Church in the West, and
MC movement has narrowly focused on Western Christianity, I believe that the
ideas of the Newbigin and the MC can be readapted for churches all around the
world. The details of this process are beyond the scope of this article, and since
Newbigin and the MC discuss exclusively the West, that will be the context of this
4 Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 229.
5 Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 232-233.
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3 Newbigin's discussion of election (which is beyond the scope of this article) can be found in Newbigin , The Gospel in a Pluralist Society , 80 - 88 , Newbigin, The Open Secret, 68 - 78 , & Weston, Lesslie Newbigin, Missionary Theologian, 48 - 53 .
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2016 “Renewing the Church as a Community of Hope: The German Catholic Church Confronts the Shoah . ” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 51 , no. 3 ( Summer ): 337 - 365 .