Becoming a Missionary Church


Lesslie Newbigin’s influence on the ecclesiological landscape in North America is unmistakable. His ideas have been developed and contextualized, but some insights have been lost.

In Becoming a Missionary Church, Michael Goheen and Timothy Sheridan explore the depth and breadth of Newbigin’s thought, offering an analysis of three popular contemporary church movements: missional, emergent, and center church. The authors provide a historical assessment and balanced critique of these contemporary church movements, especially in light of Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology. They explain that some of his insights have been neglected and need to be retrieved for the present day. This book calls for the recovery of the missionary nature of the church and commends church practices applicable to any congregation. The authors’ substantive assessment is written in an accessible style, making it suitable for seminarians and pastors.


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 Yet we have read widely in these areas—between us, all of Newbigin’s published (and many unpublished) writings; all of Tim Keller’s published (and some unpublished) writings, as well as video and audio materials; and the majority of missional and emergent literature.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).


Mike dedicates this book in love and gratitude to four couples who, through their generosity and kindness, have played an important role in his ministry: Len and Evelyn Noort, Nick and Nelly Noort, Hank and Renie Van Ryk, and John and Margaret Vegt. The church is made up of faithful people who faithfully use the various resources God gives them for the sake of his kingdom. Our participation in God’s mission is often in unrecognized and hidden acts of love that sometimes have a wide ripple effect on the lives of many. So it is with these four couples.

Tim dedicates this book in love and gratitude to his loving and supportive wife, Andrea. It has been a long, winding journey filled with many joys, setbacks, and challenges to see this book finally published. Without her continued encouragement, support, and sacrifices, it would have never happened.

Table of Contents

1. Becoming a Missionary Church: An Invitation

Part 1: The Historical Development of a Missionary Church

2. The (Re)Birth of a Missionary Church (1938-1952)

3. God’s Mission and the Missionary Church (1952)

4. Competing Visions for a Missionary Church

5. A Missionary Church in Western Culture

Part 2: The Missional Church Conversation

6. Theological Foundations

7. The Missionary Congregation

8. Western Culture as a “Mission Field”

Part 3: The Emergent Church Conversation

9. Modern and Postmodern Cultural Context

10. The Missionary Congregation in a Postmodern Setting

Part 4: Center Church

11. A Missionary Encounter with Western Culture

12. Missionary Congregation

13. Gospel and Biblical Story

14. Becoming a Missionary Church: Lesslie Newbigin’s Legacy for the 21st Century



Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ (Prov. 27:6). This saying came to mind repeatedly as I read this appraisal of three contemporary efforts to reenergize the church in its missionary identity and mandate. There is warm appreciation for how all these ‘friends’ (for they are, especially the highly esteemed Tim Keller) long to reach and impact our culture for Christ and the gospel, combined with sharp but respectful critique of shortcomings and dangers that become apparent in the wider light of the whole Bible narrative and its implications. The authors’ exposition and application of the missionary life and theology of Lesslie Newbigin is a master class of clarity and illumination, repeatedly offering eye-opening insights as to how we have come to be where we are in the Western world (and wherever the toxins of Western idolatries have penetrated). Any church that is praying for a fruitful missionary encounter with their surrounding culture will find here a rich resource of biblically rooted priorities, characteristics, and practices that align with the whole-Bible gospel, center on the cross and resurrection of Christ, and glorify the God of all creation.

- Christopher J. H. Wright, Langham Partnership; author of The Mission of God

Few grasp Lesslie Newbigin’s magisterial contributions to everything that is essential to Christianity–the universal story of Scripture, the comprehensiveness of the gospel, the mission of the church–as well as Goheen and Sheridan do. Becoming a Missionary Church offers riches for both the Newbigin beginner and veteran. It persuasively articulates an invigorating Newbigin-inspired vision for renewing the culturally captive North American church that is more compelling than contemporary alternatives. Its critique of those alternatives is careful and fair-minded, managing to leave readers both more appreciative of the wisdom they contain while also more clear-eyed about their shortcomings. Both my understanding of what is necessary for renewing the church and my passion for deeper engagement in that task have grown because of this book, and I am grateful.

- Amy L. Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling and Agents of Flourishing

Ironically, much of what has passed for ‘missional church’ has been untethered from the careful theological reflection and wisdom of its forefather, Lesslie Newbigin. Goheen and Sheridan re‑tether the church to mission by grounding the whole life of the church in its true missionary identity. They call us to embrace suffering, cultural exile, vocation, and Sunday gatherings as an intended part of God’s mission. Their critiques are incisive, even-handed, and charitable. The nuanced missiological reflection in this book is a priceless gift to readers. I was inspired to continue leading churches into God’s mission while trusting the results to him.

- Jonathan Dodson, founding pastor, City Life Church; author of The Unbelievable Gospel

This book is overflowing with rich insights regarding the missionary nature of the church. Goheen and Sheridan engage in conversation with past developments in missionary ecclesiology as well as recent trends like the missional church movement, the emergent church conversation, and Tim Keller’s center church. In each case, the authors allow Lesslie Newbigin’s seminal vision of the church in mission to provide a welcome and needed corrective. Readers will value the book’s balanced perspective, which spotlights both the strengths and the gaps in the influential movements it evaluates. This isn’t just a ‘theory’ book; it teems with practical implications for how the church can participate in God’s mission more fully and faithfully today.

- Dean Flemming, professor of New Testament and missions, MidAmerica Nazarene University; author of Contextualization in the New Testament

A fresh look at Newbigin’s wisdom for the Western church. We have much to gain from Goheen and Sheridan as they draw us into the profound and often overlooked insights that Newbigin offers for the church today. This book is for all who take seriously God’s mission and the call to be a missionary church.

- Jim Mullins, lead pastor, Redemption Church Tempe

As new contexts emerge, new questions arise. We all recognize that times are a-changing. But changing times demand wise guides. I can think of few better guides to help us navigate this period than Mike Goheen and Tim Sheridan appropriating Lesslie Newbigin. If you are a leader feeling rumblings in your soul about church, culture, and the world overall, you should read this book! And as you read, ask the Holy Spirit to apply these truths to your life and church.

- Tyler Johnson, lead pastor, Redemption Church (AZ)