In teaching my class on apologetics for evangelism at Wheaton this term I am daily afforded the joy of thinking about how to defend the faith in a Western, and increasingly postmodern, context. One figure in the twentieth century stands out as the most influential person in the West for my thinking about culture, gospel, and communication with modern man. I refer to the late missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin.
Newbigin served as general secretary of the International Missionary Council and as the associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches. He is the author of many helpful books, most still in print. He was a Reformed biblical thinker who served in India for many years and then returned to Great Britain, where he wrote, taught, and influenced many Christian leaders around the globe for several more decades. He died just a few years ago. A spate of doctoral projects are being done on his work even as I read him here in my own study this morning. I believe Newbigin’s corpus of written work is massively important for the church in America. If you have not read him please do so.
The book that I am teaching this week is Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, 1984). Originally these six chapters were Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1983. They are magnificent and ground-breaking essays that provide an answer to the question: "What is involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and the way of perceiving, thinking and living that we call ‘modern Western culture?’"
Newbigin sees two approaches to this question that have consistently failed the church in its missional and apolgetical effort. First, there was the classical liberal response. It saw missions as virtually absorbed in the spread of the scientific advances of Western culture itself. But at the opposite end of this spectrum have been the conservative evangelicals who were quite often unaware of their own cultural conditioning. For this reason they were very often guilty of confusing the gospel with the American way of life. One real weakness in the conservative camp has been the consistent identification of the gospel with "traditional cultural forms." While this was being done over the past century young people in the West were turning away from these same forms under the pervasive influence of "modernization." Newbigin adds that the sad effect of this conservative approach, "was to identify the gospel with conservative elements in society."
It is this very "identification" of the gospel with the values and techniques of Western culture that goes almost unchallenged in modern conservative churches. We assume way too much about our view of the gospel and how it relates to our culture. We adopt the culture uncritically and then assume the way we hear the good news is pretty much the way ancient believers also heard it. While missiologists have been preparing overseas missionaries to explore the problems of contextualization (so they can relate to their host culture that they will seek to evangelize) the church in America has done very little to understand and judge the widespread, powerful and persuasive culture of the modern West. But this is the very culture that is spreading to the two-thirds world. It is also the culture most resistant to the gospel. It seems to me that the priority should be that those of us who seek to shape the thought and practice of the church in the West must better understand how our culture really works and how the gospel can powerfully relate to it and transform it. I am committed to this kind of hard thought and ongoing discussion. I believe that Reformation & Revival Ministries needs to be one contributor, among many, to this most important process. I pray that I will be a faithful teacher of both gospel and culture. My missional calling demands nothing less.