This is primarily a book for pastors and congregational leaders. It is offered with the hope that it might foster a deeper commitment to and understanding of what it means to become a missionary congregation. Recovering our missionary identity is urgent because our missionary identity is central to our biblical identity.
Our primary concern in this book is to hear Lesslie Newbigin’s voice. He is considered by many to be the father of the now widespread concern for the church’s missionary nature. To hear his voice, we do two primary things in this book: First, we set his missionary understanding of the church in its historical context of the early twentieth century. Second, we set him in dialogue with three important church conversations or movements that have developed his missionary vision—the missional church, the emergent church, and center church. We do so not by way of a deep dive, either historically or analytically, into these conversations. Rather, we offer our overall sense of the main themes in each conversation and their helpful contributions to a missionary church. But we also reappropriate Newbigin’s voice of critique and enrichment and inject it into each conversation.
We had limited space. This often kept us from the kind of nuance and detail we would like to have given. Yet we have read widely in these areas—between us, all of Newbigin’s published (and many unpublished) writings; all of Tim Keller’s published (and some unpublished) writings, as well as video and audio materials; and the majority of missional and emergent literature. What is covered in this book is the subject of both of our PhD dissertations. We have attempted to distill the main themes of these conversations and interact with them in light of Newbigin’s thought. Some may feel that we are unfair in our criticism or that we neglected certain books and authors or that we have not provided enough nuance. And it may be true. But we have not done so deliberately.
This book contains two primary sections: (1) the historical context of Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology from 1938 to 1998 and (2) the three contemporary church conversations—missional, emergent, and center. We bracket these with a personal appeal to become a missionary church and a closing summary of what that might look like in view of our journey through this book. Originally, we intended to include a section on Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology presented as a whole in its systematic unity. But this became a book on its own and provides much of the background for our discussion.
At times it has been emotionally difficult for us to write this book. There is more criticism in this book than either of us is used to offering in our writing. And these critiques are not just of theological positions but of people who hold those positions, including people we respect and appreciate as brothers and sisters in Christ. But we pray this would be for the sake of the kingdom and faithfulness to Scripture.
Writing this book has also been a great learning experience for both of us. We understand Newbigin more deeply as we set him in dialogue with others who share similar concerns. We have deepened our insight by listening to the voices of so many from each of these conversations. Most important of all, we believe that we grasp Scripture’s teaching more fully because of the voices of brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed, the love of God revealed in the gospel is so wide, so deep, so high, so broad that it is only together with all God’s people that we can understand it (Eph. 3:18).