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: http://newbiginresources.org/. 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.