The Church and Its Vocation


Lesslie Newbigin, one of the twentieth century’s most important church leaders, offered insights on the church in a pluralistic world that are arguably more relevant now than when first written. This volume presents his ecclesiology to a new generation. Michael Goheen clearly articulates Newbigin’s missionary understanding of the church and places it in the context of Newbigin’s core theological convictions. Suitable for students as well as church leaders, this book offers readers a better understanding of the mission of the church in the world today. Foreword by N. T. Wright.

Table of Contents

Foreword N. T. Wright
1. The Biblical Story as Universal History
2. The Good News of the Kingdom and the Missionary Church
3. The Missionary Church and Its Vocation in the World
4. The Missionary Church and Its Life Together
5. A Missionary Encounter with Culture
6. A Missionary Encounter with Western Culture
7. Lesslie Newbigin’s Legacy for Today


It is a delight to return to the subject of Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology. It was the theme of my doctoral dissertation almost two decades ago. I spent a number of years reading all of Newbigin’s writings chronologically more than once while attempting to understand his historical context. I also tried to read the books he read. It was a rich exercise. And I have my wife, Marnie, to thank for it. She kept me from pursuing a more thematic dissertation and encouraged me to soak in Newbigin so I could be discipled by him through his life and writing. The resulting published dissertation was well over 250,000 words. No doubt the length should have been trimmed, the focus sharpened, and the argument made much tighter. Someone once suggested to me in jest that it should have been titled Everything You Wanted to Know about Newbigin but Were Afraid to Ask. One of my promoters, George Vandervelde, insisted on excluding a long chapter on a missionary encounter with world religions that would have made it even longer. But I have heard from many since then that the abundance of material on Newbigin in his historical context has been helpful in a variety of ways. And so, in spite of its sprawling nature, it seems to have served purposes I did not originally intend.

In the two decades since my dissertation was published, I have had opportunity to immerse myself even more in Newbigin’s insights and have gained a clearer understanding of his thought. This has come for a number of reasons. First, I have taught and lectured on this material in a variety of institutions and venues within North America and throughout the world. The questions and discussions, perhaps especially coming from those outside the West, have sharpened my thinking on the subject and made me all the more aware of its relevance. I write this preface on an overnight flight home from Brazil, where I have just finished presenting much of the material in this book over the past three weeks to students, pastors, and scholars from various confessional backgrounds in four different cities. Those rich interactions have convinced me that with the spread of Western globalization as a missionary religion into all the urban parts of the world, Newbigin’s insights continue to be relevant and important—and will be for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, I have had opportunity to wrestle with Newbigin’s teaching on a missionary church as I have worked in more than one local congregation in a part-time pastoral capacity with fellow pastors to implement his insights. I have also had the occasion to read a number of dissertations and other secondary literature on Newbigin as well as more of his unpublished archived material that was unavailable to me twenty years ago. And finally, the process of reworking theological education in Phoenix has been heavily dependent on my immersion in Newbigin’s work. The close relationships I have developed there with pastors who have wrestled to work out the material of this book, along with the attempt to design and implement a missional curriculum, have deepened my understanding of various areas of Newbigin’s work. Through all of this, my thinking on his missionary ecclesiology has become clearer and more focused.

This book is the first of two that are planned. In this first volume I sketch Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology in a relatively brief and systematic way within the context of the central dynamic of his thought. In the second book Tim Sheridan and I will trace Newbigin’s ecclesiological heirs—missional church, emerging and emergent church, deep church, and center church—in light of Newbigin’s missioary ecclesiology. This began as one book, but it became clear that we needed more space on Newbigin to accomplish our goal of evaluating other eccesial movements in light of his work.

And so this book sketches Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology in a systematic way within the central dynamic of his theological vision. It is meant to be a more popular summary for a wide readership. To keep its lines of argument clear I will not interact extensively with other authors, nor will I deal much with historical background or engage some of the controversial issues raised by his thought. For those who are interested, I footnote where you can go to further pursue these kinds of things.

A couple of other explanatory notes may be helpful. First, in the last couple of decades the term “missional” has become a common word to distinguish the identity and nature of the church beyond an understanding of mission as cross-cultural or as an activity of the church. I have embraced the word “missional” in my writing and continue to use it even though it sometimes falls prey to being used in ways that are trendy or superficial. In this book I stick with Newbigin’s original language of a missionary church. And second, much of Newbigin’s writing was done before our culture became sensitive to the sexist overtones in the exclusive use of masculine pronouns. Rather than engage in the creative and sometimes tricky project of “correcting” his work, I have kept intact his original language.

I thank Thomas West for providing me with electronic copies of numerous documents from the Newbigin archives in Selly Oak. As I was finishing the last chapter, a new website with much of Newbigin’s work appeared online: This is a happy development. I only wish it had appeared months earlier; it would have made my job much easier. But it raises an issue about pagination: some of the unpublished documents I quote appear on that website. The page numbers of those online documents sometimes differ from those of the archived originals from which I worked.

I am thankful for Jim Kinney’s patience; this book, originally a joint project with Tim Sheridan on Newbigin and his theological heirs, is years overdue. When I signed the contract I had no idea that so much of my time would be given in the next five years to developing some creative initiatives in theological education. So this book has had to wait. I am also thankful for my colleagues in leadership in Phoenix—Tyler Johnson, Chris Gonzalez, and Jim Mullins—who have encouraged me, as Missional Training Center has become more established, to return to making writing a priority. I also thank two of my sons-in-law, Mark Glanville and Dave Groen, who read portions of this book and gave helpful feedback.

I dedicate this book to my wife, Marnie, and our four adult children, Erin, Ben, Brittany, and Brielle. They have been on this “Newbigin journey” with me for over two decades. They have all read and engaged Newbigin’s writing to some degree. My last memory of Newbigin is of him sitting at a table in a restaurant telling jokes to my wife and my kids, who were between eleven and seventeen at the time. My oldest two, Erin and Ben, were paranymphs at my doctoral dissertation defense at the University of Utrecht almost two decades ago when they were in their late teens. I am thankful that all of them, along with their spouses, continue to live out—as academics, pastors, musicians, and parents—much of what I have written in this book. Marnie encouraged me to study Newbigin’s life carefully, which has borne more fruit than either of us could have imagined.


“In The Church and Its Vocation Goheen has written a rich and engaging introduction to Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology. He’s done so in a way that demonstrates his context and perspective as a missional theologian in his own right. Goheen has soaked in Newbigin’s ideas for decades. This book gives us the opportunity to benefit from that long study and to discover the wisdom of Newbigin, a magisterial spiritual visionary of enduring relevance.”

- Scot Sherman, executive director, Newbigin House of Studies, San Francisco

“Once again, Newbigin is a prophetic voice during a turning point in the history of the church. Newbigin’s vision for the church brings fresh direction, vision, and purpose for the church in our increasingly secular world. Newbigin’s work is profoundly relevant and an essential read for all who want to regain their passion for the church’s mission in the world. Goheen’s book masterfully and thoughtfully brings Newbigin’s ecclesiology to life for ‘such a time as this.’ Many books pick up parts of it, missio Dei, public theology, emerging church, etc., but this book places each of these discussions into the context of the whole of Newbigin’s vision for the church. Goheen brings together the flow of Newbigin’s ecclesiology from several sources, starting in the biblical narrative and rooted in Christology, to highlight the missional purpose of the church for restoration and shalom. Goheen’s thorough treatment of key themes enriches current discussions on the direction and purpose of the church in the world. This is a must-read for anyone who wants a fresh, relevant, challenging vision for the church today. The most exciting and thought-provoking book I have read all year!”

- A. Sue Russell, professor of mission and contextual studies, Asbury Theological Seminary

“In this important book, Goheen channels his love and deep knowledge of Newbigin into a clear and compelling systematic reflection on the church as missionary. This is a must-read for every missiologist and ecclesiologist and for anyone who has been captivated by Newbigin’s generous spirit and powerful intellect. Today’s church and the church of the future must be missionary–the gospel demands it, and the world needs it. Leading us through Newbigin’s many works, Goheen shows how it is possible.”

- Steve Bevans, SVD, Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD Professor of Mission and Culture, Catholic Theological Union

“Goheen effectively captures Newbigin as a passionate thinker, communicator, and leader. The fact that Newbigin continues to be read and discussed two decades after his death testifies to the continuing force of his vision, ideas, and convictions. Goheen mines Newbigin’s voluminous writings and presents the major themes that comprise his dynamic ecclesiology, which is rooted in his vision of God’s mission to the world. The biblical narrative–the election of Israel, the incarnation, Christ’s death and resurrection, the commissioning of the disciples to follow Jesus Christ in his mission to the world, living toward the eschaton–invites the participation of all disciples. In each generation the church must discover its vocation, under the Lordship of Christ, as witnesses sent into the world. The many years Goheen has invested in thorough study of the Newbigin literary oeuvre yields rich insights in this book.”

- Wilbert R. Shenk, senior professor of mission history and contemporary culture, Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies

“Michael Goheen is a superb interpreter of Newbigin. In this inspiring and highly readable book, Goheen invites us to rediscover Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology for this generation. This book makes a convincing case that Newbigin’s responses to crucial questions–What is the gospel? What must we be as God’s people? How should the church encounter Western culture?–speak to the church today more than ever. I appeal to pastors, students, teachers, and local church leaders: read this book! It will shape your understanding of the church’s missional vocation in the world.”

- Dean Flemming, professor of New Testament and mission, MidAmerica Nazarene University

“Goheen’s introduction Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology is the resource ministers and churches today need. It is all here: the Bible for the people of God, the gospel in a pluralist society, healthy church structure, biblical church leadership, differentiating mission from missions, the shape of real ministry, and the future hope of the church. A towering theological light in the twentieth century, Newbigin casts a rich theological vision of the church that is biblically rooted, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, deep, reflective, and immensely practical. Goheen has spent a lifetime learning from Newbigin, and this fruit of his labor is for the good of the church.”

- Heath A. Thomas, dean, Herschel H. Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry, professor of Old Testament, associate vice president for Church Relations, Oklahoma Baptist University

“There is no theological voice more necessary to today’s world than Lesslie Newbigin’s. And I can think of no one more able to represent Newbigin to the twenty-first century than Mike Goheen.”

- Tyler Johnson, leadership team, Redemption Church, Arizona

“It is certainly possible to cite more imposing theological figures in the twentieth century than Lesslie Newbigin. However, think it is fair to say that Newbigin deserves a place alongside such diverse names as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Cone, all of whom set the agenda for contemporary theology in significant ways. Michael Goheen agrees, and he offers a picture of the breadth and depth of Newbigin’s theological vision that supports this claim. . . . Goheen has a remarkable command of Newbigin’s published and unpublished work, which allows him to draw out both the explicit and the implicit ecclesiological focus in Newbigin’s work. . . . I started reading Newbigin when I was in seminary nearly a decade ago. Since then, I have continued to read and benefit from his writings. Even given this familiarity, Goheen manages to sketch a coherent vision from the themes and tensions in Newbigin’s work that sends me back to his book with a fresh set of eyes. Newbigin may have been one of the most influential theological figures of the twentieth century, but it could take the rest of the twenty-first century to fully come to grips with the heritage he has left to the church. Thankfully, we have Michael Goheen to help carry on the task.”

- Andrew Stout, Englewood Review of Books

The Church and Its Vocation serves as an excellent introduction to major themes in Newbigin’s thought, and it should inspire many to read Newbigin’s writings and learn from the great missional theologian himself. … Lesslie Newbigin was a gift to the church. I’m thankful Michael Goheen has gifted us with this excellent introduction to Newbigin’s thought. Pastors and other ministry leaders should read The Church and Its Vocation, then take the plunge and read Newbigin himself.

- Nathan Finn, Gospel Coalition

I recently picked up Michael Goheen’s excellent overview of Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology, and I underlined nearly half of the book. … If you’re looking for a good overview of Newbigin’s thought, start with Goheen’s The Church and Its Vocation.

- Trevin Wax, Gospel Coalition