The Missionary Who Wouldn't Retire
It was an unlikely adventure to launch a global ministry—a tediously long bus journey from Madras, India, to Birmingham, England. It was an unlikely background for a champion of the gospel to emerge from—the theologically liberal Student Christian Movement. It was an unlikely age at which to unintentionally initiate the emergent and missional church movements—age 66 after 35 years of cross-cultural missionary service. But Bishop Lesslie Newbigin made his most important contribution and did his most profound thinking in his 70s and 80s. Can this man, whose birth centenary was celebrated in December, help today's church navigate a critical period of change?
American Christianity is a long way from disappearing, but it is embattled. Newsweek magazine, bus placards, and best-selling books are all proclaiming the death of Christian America. Over the past 35 years, American confidence in religious leaders has dropped significantly—and dropped farther and faster than confidence in leaders of other institutions. Of those under age 30, only 3 percent hold a favorable view of evangelicals, compared with 33 percent who hold a favorable view of gays and lesbians. The 2009 American Religious Identification Survey showed a 10 percent dip in the number of self-identified Christians while also reporting that the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.
These figures come as no surprise to someone from the other side of the Atlantic. The European church has long struggled with plummeting attendance. The most optimistic reading of our latest church attendance statistics describes the U.K. as "pulling out of the nosedive." Penn State's Philip Jenkins sees Europe taking the lead as the "acids of modernity" (journalist Walter Lippmann's term) dissolve the Christian foundations of a continent.
Others, like sociologist Grace Davie, see Europe as the exception, the only place on the planet where the church is in decline and facing increasing marginalization. Despite the best efforts of the militant New Atheists, we have ended up not with secularism but with religious pluralism.
In the face of alarming statistics, secularist attacks, and media scaremongering, the church has an important ally in Lesslie Newbigin. His writings continue to call the church to its missionary vocation in the midst of cultural change and ideological pluralism.
Newbigin was born 100 years ago on December 8, 1909. After completing theological studies at Cambridge University and working briefly for the Student Christian Movement, he left for India in 1936 to labor as a missionary, evangelist, and apologist. There he was instrumental in bringing together the Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches from India, Pakistan, and Burma into one ecumenical denomination: the Church of South India. On his return to England, he was shocked to find that the West was as urgent a mission field as the East. Refusing to settle into retirement, he wrote prolifically, issuing a clarion call to the Western church to rediscover its missionary mandate.
This was not merely a response to the declining state of the church, but the result of Newbigin's wrestling with the interplay of such enormous ideas as election, modernity, contextualization, the end of Christendom, and missional ecclesiology. Seeing the bigger picture of the gospel has inspired many of Newbigin's readers to grasp more fully the interaction between gospel, church, and culture. Three major themes stand out as particularly pertinent to our time.