Newbigin’s “Countercultural” Model as a Supplement to the Lutheran Spiritual Regiment

As said above: fostering the concept of recontextualization feeds primarily on the ideas of the late Lesslie Newbigin and his works on missiology.[1] And the intention is to sketch out intangible options as a way of reconceiving the coordinates within which our personal being exists; to be human is to be created in the image of God, the idea that human beings should in some way be perichoretic beings is not a difficult one to envisage.

Craig van Gelder puts it this way: ”But the missional congregation is the context in the same way that the context includes the missional congregation. This is a key concept to grasp if we are to understand the importance of perichoresis … God loves context ... and a missional congregation is one of the ways God uses to reveal that love to the context. The missional congregation also carries with it the distinctiveness of bearing God’s love as its raison d’etre and becomes the catalyst within the compound”[2]

Newbigin then talks about how the West can be won for the gospel, which he refers to as the “scandal of particularity. Just as Jesus, the living Word, took on the particularity of a specific context, so also is his gospel of good news inherently translatable into every particular cultural context with a view toward being universally applicable.”[3] Newbigin continues this strain of thought saying that the West “is a pagan society, and its paganism, having been born out of the rejection of Christianity, is far more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganism.”[4] Newbigin finally inaugurated the idea of missio Dei to the World Council of Churches, about which Simpson says, “This concept brought about a ‘Copernican revolution’ in missiology.”[5] Newbigin did this mainly as the moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church and then later wrote about an active discipleship of the church as the plausibility structure of the faith.[6] Craig Van Gelder calls this a “recontextualization”[7] of the biblical gospel, while Guder calls it “Rehearing the Gospel.”[8]

While Newbigin was one of the first to foster a concept of recontextualization, Van Gelder puts it in these words: “In this polarity the leading of the Spirit maintains the tension line between the challenge of recontextualizing a congregation’s ministry in the midst of a changing context and the challenge of continuing to maintain the truths of the historic Christian faith as understood by the congregation.”[9]

One perspective that can help in the present situation is Newbigin’s countercultural model as a supplement to the Lutheran Spiritual Regiment.[10] Newbigin’s model of theology has three elements:

  1. modern and Western culture is deeply secularized,

  2. the Church must function as a contrast society, and

  3. the gospel deeply contradicts every culture.[11]

At the time Luther spoke of the two regiments, he was amidst the Constantinian era. The culture today is more of a post-churched culture (late-modernity[12] or post-modernity) and exists with a “postmodern condition.”[13]

When it comes to the second element, Newbigin thinks that the Church has two tasks:

  1. first, the local congregation is obliged to amend to its cultural context; and

  2. second, it is required to guard itself against meeting the requirements of this same cultural context.[14]

Essentially, engagement in the culture has to happen as a contrast to society; Newbigin expresses the tension in this difficult balancing act with the concept of “challenging relevance,” relevance one might say in-between isolation and assimilation:There is no unilateral, private, insulated, lonely, or eccentric Christian life. There is only the Christian as the member of the whole body; the Christian vocation for every single Christian is inherently ecumenical; the exclusive context of biblical ethics is biblical politics; even when a Christian acts apparently alone he does so as s surrogate for the Church; baptism signifies the public commitment of a person to humanity.[15]

When Lutherans talk about the two regiments, often there has been a sharp division between them. The spiritual regiment was more understood as opposed to the temporal, yet both have their arenas of power. In the efficient state-church model of modernity,[16] the minister in a church has public or high governmental official status. With Newbigin as a supplement to Luther in the notion of the interrelation between the state and the church, then followers of Christ can only be seen as a sign of contradiction if they really are present. Any protest will be heard if they are close and relevant, and their actions can only take place and be significant in the “muck and the mire” of everyday life.[17]

For me as a leader, it was an absolute eye-opener to understand Newbigin’s perspective as a supplement to Luther’s teachings. In my youth, I suffered under the notion that one did not mingle with “the world.” For instance, it was out of order to participate in the local soccer club. I always thought, “How on Earth are we going to bring the gospel near to people, when on the one side they do not come to us because the threshold is too high into a free church and on the other side we cannot go to them?”[18]

Newbigin gave me concepts and words to understand what was going on. To proceed from where I am as a student of missional church formation in my view can only be done through interaction[19] with the local culture from the side of the locally assembled congregations[20] of the church.

Unfortunately, there are still some remnants of modernity and a certain understanding of Luther alive in the church.[21] As a leader, I need to become a midwife of the encouraging questions in community and congregation to extract “what is actually being experienced”[22] and to facilitate the “interaction between the indwelling of the biblical narrative and their experiences in the cultural context” of the church.[23]

[1] Van Gelder, “How Missiology Can Help Inform the Conversation,” 21. “In 1961, under the leadership of then director Lesslie Newbigin, the IMC merged into the World Council of Churches as the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME).”

[2] Craig Van Gelder, The missional Church in Context p.49

[3] Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 72

[4] Lesslie Newbigin. Foolishness to the Greeks, The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans, 1986.), 20.

[5] Simpson, “A Reformation is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” 75. He goes on to say, “Missio Dei is the concept that would eventually—establish the basis for missional theology as well as for the inseparability of church and mission.”

[6] Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 58. “An active discipleship . . . is the plausibility structure within which the faith is nourished.”

[7] Van Gelder, “How Missiology Can Help Inform the Conversation,” 35.

[8] Guder, Missional Church, 86.

[9] Van Gelder, The Missional Church in Context, 37.

[10] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology. (Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 124-127; see also John Howard Yoder, Body Politics (Scottdale, Pen., Herald Press, 2001), 6+55 Also he is an exponent for the “countercultural contextualization model”.

[11] Ibid., 120-125

[12] Guder, Missional Church, 55.

[13] Ibid., 37. In my perception of this dialogue, I have come to the conclusion of talking about it in the plural form, “post-modernities,” as opposed to my professors who would rather use the first description. See also Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.), 195.

[14] See also Guder, Missional Church, 40:”our understanding of truth is always an interpretation relative to our context and cultural understanding.”

[15] Newbigin. Foolishness to the Greeks, 7 see also William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1973), 61.

[16] Guder, Missional Church, 162

[17] A preferred expression of the professors, Roxburgh and Branson, “OD719: Socio-cultural Context and Leadership.”

[18] The threshold into a free church is much higher than into a Lutheran church.[19] Roxburgh and Romanuk, The Missional Leader, 44.

[20] Branson, “Ecclesiology and Missional Leadership for the Church,” 104

[21] Newbigin. Foolishness to the Greeks, 125:”Jesus was crucified outside the wall of the city, so the place of the Christian must always be outside the citadel of the establishment and on the side of its victims.”

[22] Roxburgh and Romanuk, The Missional Leader, 77.[23] Ibid., 43.

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