Being a church that reaches our society

Around time that I started following Jesus, the late 1970’s, a Bishop in the Church of England retired to the UK having spent decades serving in India. His name was Lesslie Newbigin. His observation was that British society had significantly changed whilst he had been away, but the church hadn’t. Therefore, rather than retiring he spent the last years of his life seeking to help the church to change to meet the new challenges presented by the changed society.

He wrote several books, which I read soon after they were published, they significantly influenced my thinking and ministry.

I recently came across a summary of his teaching, an outline of the main characteristics required of a church if it was to be effective in the UK mission field. I have reflected on how we are doing against this list, recognising these were originally written and read around 40 years ago!

  1. a new apologetic (that takes on the so-called neutrality of secular reason)
  2. the teaching of the kingdom of God (that God wants not only to save souls but heal the whole creation)
  3. earning the right to be heard through willingness to serve others sacrificially
  4. equipping the laity to bring the implications of their faith into their public calling and so transform culture
  5. a countercultural church community
  6. a unified church that shows the world an overcoming of denominational divisions
  7. a global church in which the older Western churches listen to the non-Western churches
  8. courage

My reflections are –

As a local church and as the wider church in the UK we have heard Newbigin on many of these. The kingdom of God, and God’s desire to heal all of creation is a key foundation to our church and most others, as is the need to serve to earn the right to be heard; the need to equip members of churches to transform culture; to create a church community that is countercultural to society generally and the importance of unity across denominations.

These are not just part of Hope Church’s agenda but of the churches across Luton, as expressed by our working together in such enterprises as MissionALL.

I wonder to what extent to have understood that secular reason is not neutral as it claims but is a different way of viewing the world alongside the major religions and is therefore a “religion” itself. I still find many Christians believe the threat to Christianity is Islam rather than Secularism. Yet how many of our young people have left the church to become Muslims compared to the number who have left to embrace Secular values?

I also wonder to what extent we have listened to non-Western churches, I fear there are still barriers to this, e.g. the legacy of Empire and an unhealthy pride. Most of the books we read are written by Christians from the West. When I do read books written from other parts of the world I get a very different, and very helpful perspective.

I also don’t know how courageous we are being in facing the challenges before us, sometimes I feel we are full of courage and other times I think we have lost confidence and allow despair to win. I am convinced we need to heed Moses instruction to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous.”

Thank you Lesslie Newbigin for your prophetic insights 40 years ago. Let us press on and take the land, building on the foundation already laid.


Written by Tony Thompson

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