the weblog of Alan Knox

Newbigin on Church and Mission

Posted by on Dec 4, 2008 in books, community, fellowship, service | 3 comments

A few weeks ago, I quoted Lesslie Newbigin from his book The Household of God (Friendship Press, 1954) in a post called “More ready to submit than to impose“. As I said in that post, I thought Newbigin description of the work of the Spirit in the meeting of the church is one of the best that I’ve read.

However, Newbigin’s book does not focus on the community aspect of the church alone. In fact, his ecclesiology is often called a “Missionary Ecclesiology”. Newbigin does not believe that the community aspect of the church can be separated from the missional aspect of the church. He says, however, that the church often treats this as dichotomies:

The most obvious evidence is the fact that, in the thinking of the vast majority of Christians, the words “Church” and “Mission” connote two different kinds of society. The one is conceived to be a society devoted to worship, and the spiritual care and nurture of its members. It is typically represented by a large and ancient building. The other is conceived to be a society devoted to the propagation of the Gospel, passing on its converts to the safe keeping of “the Church”… The two cannot become one until a very deep and widespread change has taken place in the thinking of the Churches about their own nature, until they have come to see, and to express in the ordinary life of the Church, the truth that the Church has all its treasure entrusted to it for the sake of the world, and that therefore mission belongs to the very substance of the Church’s life.

Although Newbigin wrote this over fifty years ago, I think it still describes the predominant thought among Christians: church and mission are separate. However, as Newbigin explains, this false dichotomy demonstrate that most Christians do not understand the nature or purpose of the church.

I’ve written about this before is a post called “The Gathered and the Sent“. We must recognize that we are gathered by God out of the world. This “gathering together” must include more than meeting for the sake of meeting. Instead, as the gathered people of God, we must seek unity and community and fellowship that is deep and life-altering because it is created and nurtured by the Spirit of God.

However, our community life has a purpose – to express the Gospel, the love, the mercy, and hope of Jesus Christ to the world. The community cannot exist for its own benefit alone. Instead, the community (the church) exists to demonstrate God (to exegete Him, if you will) to the world that is not part of the community.

Thus, community and mission go hand-in-hand. If we attempt to separate them, then we will not have community or mission, regardless of what we call them. We must recognized that we (all of us!) are both a gathered people and a sent people.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 12-4-2008

    This so encourages me in something that often rolls around in my head in a couple of different shapes.

    I like how you essentially say that mission infuses all of Church life and in your other post essentially community must be community. I’ve really enjoyed both of these post and this one reminded me why Newbigin’s book was on my Amazon wish list.

    Do you suppose that some trouble comes in when we try to label “our” church(es).

    A group of Christians see that some part of the whole concept of Christianity is being neglected so they go out to begin a church that addresses that negligence, usually giving their new church or church “movement” a name that claims that it is focusing on that aspect of Christianity.

    It appears that afterward that new denomination or “movement” struggles to remind themselves and others that they still “do” the other parts of what it is to be Christian. Often a hard time is had just keeping track of what got them all fired up in the first place.

    I’m not about to use the “b” word because I’m not so sure that Christians are supposed to be all that balanced. But we are to attend to all of the things our life in Christ calls us to, not one over the other, or one aspect seen as the most vital. What is most vital is that we follow Christ not some charismatic human personality.

    One would have thought that after Paul’s chat with us in 1Corinthians 1:12 that Christians would have found it abhorrent to call themselves by any other name than His and His alone. And that we then would have translated that concept to naming ourselves after “movements.”

    This for me is not the same as saying that specific people in the Church cannot have a call on their lives, to concentrate on a certain aspect or gift or service to God. We are all called to be a part of the body and the body no doubt is made of many parts but no part is better or more of the body than another. While I may not look all that “missional” to someone else, the few people who’s lives were quietly touched by mine while wiping tables and shopping for supplies may disagree greatly.

    I wonder how Stephen and his gang of table servers would have felt to find out after they were given that station that the other guys thought that they needed to do the apostle’s job too, but the apostles just had to show up for dinner. We go a wry when we attach importance to the job because the Word says “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” It would not have been desirable for Stephen and those tending the tables to leave the tables for the apostles job either.

    Yes, as a believer in Christ I ought to attend to all of the word but I also need to remember that the ear is a better ear than the foot and as much as the ear would like me to join it, I really ought to just be supportive of the ear by being a very good foot.

    That is the individual in any given portion of the body. I think it is very different when you say church, churches ought to be a lovely cross section of God’s people. So that, as a whole, they are doing all of God’s work within their portion of the world that they are set into by God.

    Oooh long comment, sorry. Hope I have made sense of what I have been thinking and what your encouraging posts have fanned, if not…

  2. 12-4-2008

    Fantastic post Alan. Lanny is so right too. What “got em fired up in the first place” was the amazing grace of God. Then we forever try to replicate and reproduce yesterday’s manna. The church always falls flat on it’s face when looks inward. When it looks upward it ascends. My brothers and sisters, look up!

  3. 12-4-2008


    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate all the thought you put into the topic. I agree that groups of Christians tend to focus on one aspect of the the church. Usually, that aspect follows the gifting or concerns or interests of the leaders, since the whole church is rarely allowed to take part in the activities and decisions of the church.


    I agree. When we keep our eye on God, it will be demonstrate by a concern for others – both those within the church and outside the church.