“When the message of the Kingdom is divorced from the Person of Jesus, it becomes a programme or an ideology, but not a gospel.” (18)
In the first section of his 1981 book Sign of the Kingdom, “The Theme in Historical Perspective”, Lesslie Newbigin outlines different stages (emphasises) in the discussion of Mission throughout the last century then offers his reflections on the relation of each to “Kingdom”.
In this post we will look at the first three stages, then compare them with the church today.
Newbigin’s historical outline
In the history of Mission, Newbigin begins his discussion with the World Missionary Conference in 1910, where the focus was on bringing the Gospel message to every person—stage one—.
But by the next Missionary Conference (1928) the “main emphasis [was] upon the life of nations as a whole, rather than upon the destiny of individual souls” (p 3)—stage two—. While there was some discussion of “Kingdom”, “in this interpretation, the kingdom is seen as something much broader than can be defined by allegiance to the Person of Jesus Christ” (7); instead, “The centre of the picture was full of activities designed to promote mutual understanding and to furnish the less advanced nations with the amenities which western technology made available” (7-8).
Leading up to World War II, this vision too began to erode; Newbigin writes:
The weaknesses of this approach were obvious. If I may speak personally, I can vividly remember the growing sense of nausea with which I became overwhelmed in the flood-tide of this kind of liberalism, and the sense of relief which came when I began to hear different notes sounded—the message of the Gospel as a message of radical judgment and mercy, of liberation from the power of sin, of a joy already given, of the Church as a total committed fellowship which could say ‘I believe…’ in the midst of all the overwhelming powers of the rising paganism of Europe. … Neither individual piety nor a social gospel was enough to enable people to face the organized communal power of the new paganism. The Confessing Church of Germany provided a new paradigm of the kind of response that was called for.” (8)
Newbigin later identifies two dangers which can be seen in this second stage, which the Church continues to fall into: (1) Separating Kingdom from Jesus; and (2) Separating Kingdom from the Church. This set the tone for the next 25 years: “The Church—so long taken for granted or ignored in missionary discussion—was seen as the bastion of truth in a swirling sea of falsehood…” (9). It was now “the beginning of the long period of Church-centred missiology” (10)—stage three—.
Newbigin continues his outline through the 50s-70s, but we’ll skip ahead now.
where are we today?
It seems to me that much of today’s western Church is mixed between the second and third stages Newbigin outlines. On the one hand, we are exiting the attractional church era, where the focus was on bringing people into the Church’s building, with discipleship optional. Most of the draw-in was with programmes designed to appeal to middle class consumerism. To this group, Newbigin has written elsewhere, “‘Church growth’ is not an end in itself. The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom.” (Mission in Christ’s Way, p 12)
On the other hand, we have my generation’s focus on social justice; and we must be cautious to avoid falling into the trap of Newbigin’s second stage. Often our motivation is to follow Jesus’ example, but we aren’t sure where proclamation should begin, or even what it looks like. We are at the place “where the deed is easy and the word is costly” (Mission, 14).
Because of this, we too easily fall into the dangers of separating Kingdom from Jesus in practical application, even though He is our hidden motivation. Or, of separating Kingdom from the Church, since we are fed up with the Church’s consumer focus and we want to get on with the real work to which we know we are called. To this group, Newbigin reminds us:
“When the message of the kingdom is separated from the name of Jesus, then the action of the church in respect of the evils in society becomes a mere ideological crusade, inviting men and women to put their trust in that which cannot satisfy. It is to betray people with false expectations.” (Mission, 9)
. . .
“In the mission of Jesus we see that there is both the presence of the kingdom and also the proclamation of the kingdom. … It is present, but it has to be preached.” (10)
Both groups need to be reminded of the reflection with which Newbigin concludes his chapter: that Kingdom should be in the form of a prayer: “Your Kingdom come”. Both groups—those who relying on Church growth programmes, and those working for justice without preaching the name Jesus—fall into the ultimate trap of relying on self instead of recognizing that it is God Himself who is the primary actor in establishing the Kingdom. But if Kingdom is a prayer before it is anything else, then everything centres on God, “whose faithful and gracious action we wait for, expect and rely on”. (19)
In the next post we will look at Newbigin’s chapter, “The Theme in Biblical Perspective”.