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Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission is a tightly-packed book; it’s a summary of a four-year missiology course. I really like Newbigin. I joined many others who have followed his re-examination of our job as Christians, particularly in the Western world, which is:
“to learn what he [God] is doing in the world which is already his, not to introduce him to a world from which he is absent.” (1995:67)
Newbigin was a missionary for three decades. His practical experience shaped his theology, and not the other way around. Forged in the years of missionary service, Newbigin returned with a very different view of his own homeland, England, and the Church in the West. Newbigin paved the way ahead for the Church in an increasingly globalized and pluralistic world.
Before I read this book, I asked the following questions: (It’s a very good practice for reading; engage the author with your questions before you read.)
- What key insights will Newbigin offer to my understanding the theology of mission?
- What is the role of the local congregation?
- How can I apply these understandings?
1. Newbigin’s key insights on the theology of mission:
If you have questions about the doctrine of election, the law, and the covenant of God, all of which have been distorted to the detriment of missions, you should read this book. Newbigin, like the apostle Paul, saw these issues as central to his call. The doctrine of election should be taught as a “fearful responsibility,” rather than defining an exclusive group. (1995:73)
Newbigin explains how the law, the Torah, exonerates God of all blame for sin. The biblical narrative shows how the law itself is insufficient. The law was “ordained by angels” (1995:75), a delegated authority which is limited. That law, like any “elementary principle”, was used by its angelic agency which ultimately gained control, a control from which humanity needed to be liberated through a spiritual battle:
“For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” (2 Cor. 10:3-6)
(This notion of spiritual control through “elementary principles” or “stoichaea” is outlined in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and unpacked in chapter 16 of Newbigin’s book, “Gospel in a Pluralistic Society”.)
Newbigin fills out the unchanging nature of God’s Mission, which is:
“Proclaiming of God’s kingdom over all human history and over the whole cosmos” and “…the active agent of mission is a power that rules, guides, and goes before the church. The free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God.” (1995:56)
Probably my most important insight in Open Secret is that “significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of ‘resources,’” Newbigin writes,
“The significant advances in my experience have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge. God opens the heart of a man or woman in the gospel. The messenger (the ‘angel’ of Acts 10:3) may be a stranger, a preacher, a piece of Scripture, a dream, an answered prayer, or a deep experience of joy or sorrow, of danger or deliverance. It was not part of any missionary ‘strategy’ devised by the church. It was the free and sovereign deed of God, who goes before the church…this mission is not ours but God’s.” (1995:64)
2. The role of the local congregation:
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (Jn. 20:21)
The Great Commission is not given to individuals, but to the Church which he has sent into the world. The role of the local church has been one of my greatest questions as a missionary. Why do so many churches behave competitively with their neighbors? What kind of leadership formation is needed to lead a community? What is the ultimate purpose, the fruit that we should look for in a church community?
Newbigin points out that Jesus explanation of the gospel was to be “introduced into history…in the form of a community, not in the form of a book.” (1995:52) It is the role of the local congregation to gather to celebrate “the centrality of the Lord’s Supper in the continuation of Jesus’ mission.” (2 Cor. 4:10 and Jn. 13-16) When we gather, we celebrate this “happening” in history and its continuation.
Rather than write a book (or give instructions for the writing of a book), Jesus instituted a community, which ‘remembers‘. The New Testament was written as an act of remembering, first the letters and then the gospels. The gospels were written a generation after Pentecost, when the only eye witnesses of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection were themselves dying off. When we gather to celebrate Jesus’ lordship over all creation, we remember. And as a community, Newbigin writes, we:
“enter into the stream of historical happenings and become part of its course. In other words, if it is true that God’s reign concerns history in its unity and totality…we must be related to it, and must share in its power, not merely by reading of it in a book or hearing it in a verbal report, but by participating in the life of that society which springs from it and is continuous with it.” (1995:51)
This participation in that community of faith, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, gives us the authority to be his witnesses in life of the surrounding society. We can rest with confidence in our authority as messengers of grace and judgment. We can, by virtue of the deposit of the Spirit of God, be the presence of Jesus in a community as well as the announcement of the in-breaking kingdom of God. (Jn. 13:20 and Mt. 11:25-30)
“The presence of the kingdom, hidden and revealed in the cross of Jesus, is carried through history hidden and revealed in the life of that community which bears in its life the dying and rising of Jesus.” (1995:52)
I have seen many churches today strive for some modern business success model of growth, but this is not the biblical model of the local congregation. Instead, it is simply through dependence on the Holy Spirit, and especially when there is evidence of humility, failure, brokenness, and foolish mistakes, that our witness is authentic and the Lord will judge us ‘faithful’.
“The real triumphs of the gospel have not been won when the Church is strong in a worldly sense; they have been won when the Church is faithful in the midst of weakness, contempt, and rejection.” (1995:62)
The New Testament provides little definition of the local congregation. The word “church” or “ecclesia” only appears in one of the gospels, Matthew’s Gospel, and only in relation to a discipline issue that apparently emerged. There is, however, plenty of instruction as to the leadership, character, and purpose of the congregation (mostly found in Paul’s letters). This gives an amazing flexibility for a community of believers to bear witness to the in-breaking presence of the kingdom.
Newbigin offers a timely prescription for gatherings of believers today. He prescribes a missiological understanding of theology, rather than a theological understanding of mission. Part of my call, though primarily focused on student initiatives in missions, is also to work with gatherings of believers, especially in university communities, to work collaboratively following God’s mission. My work as a missionary has changed me and this book mostly confirms and clarifies those changes. Newbigin puts it this way:
“Mission (led by the Holy Spirit) changes not only the world but also the Church…There is a conversion of the Church as well as the conversion of Cornelius.” (1995:59)
So my role is becoming more and more involved in engaging and mobilizing local congregations and their leaders to work together in Christ’s Mission.
Newbigin points out the ‘fact of Christ’ as a happening at one time and place showing that “God’s reign concerns history in its unity and totality.” (1995:51) We therefore all relate to this monumental event, and we must learn to share in its power in our witness to the wider world. The cross of Christ is:
“a happening, it is a part of history. It is located at a particular point of place and time in the whole vast fabric of human affairs.” (1995:50)
This book convicts me. I must confess that too often I have made missionary plans using my own ideas and my own strength, forgetting the most important thing about that mission. Though I know how to listen to the voice of the Lord, I often launch ahead without clear instructions. I must always remember the mission is not mine and it’s not the Church’s, it’s God’s.
This book has helped me learn afresh that as we learn not to depend on human ingenuity, we can demonstrate the “hope that is given by the presence of the Spirit who is the living foretaste of the kingdom.” (1995:64-65) We may not only announce the kingdom of God, we can embody it.