03 May 2007

Newbigin on Evangelism in the City

"...In all our preaching and teaching about the hope which the gospel makes possible, we have to keep steadily in view the fact that what the gospel offers is not just hope for the individual but hope for the world. Concretely I think this means that the congregation must be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of the neighborhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God's love in Jesus. Christ's message, the original gospel, was about the coming of the kingdom of God, that is to say God's kingly rule over the whole of creation and the whole of humankind. That is the only authentic gospel. And that means that every part of human life is within the range of the gospel message: in respect of everything, the gospel brings the necessity for choice between the rule of God and the negation of that rule. If the good news is to be authentically communicated, it must be clear that the church is concerned about the rule of God and not about itself. It must be clear, that is, that the local congregation cares for the well-being of the whole community and not just for itself.

"To put it even more sharply: the hope, of which the church is called to be the bearer in the midst of a famine of hope, is a radically other-worldly hope. Knowing that Jesus is king and that he will come to reign, it fashions its life and invites the whole community to fashion its life in the light of this reality, because every other way of living is based on illusion. It thus creates signs, parables, foretastes, appetizers of the kingdom in the midst of the hopelessness of the world. It makes it possible to act both hopefully and realistically in a world without hope, a world which trades in illusions. If this radically other-worldly dimension of the church's witness is missing, then all its efforts in the life of the community are merely a series of minor eddies in a current which sweeps relentlessly in the opposite direction.

"But if one insists as I am doing upon the radically other-worldly nature of the Christian hope, it is necessary at once to protect this against a misunderstanding which has brought this aspect of the Christian message into disrepute. A recognition of this other-worldly element has often been linked with a privatization of religion characteristic of our post-Enlightenment culture. When this happens, the church is seen not as a bearer of hope for the whole community, but as a group of people concerned about their own ultimate safety. It is thus seen as something essentially antisocial. And, especially in a religiously plural society, this attracts justifiable censure. 'Evangelism' is then easily identified as 'proselytism' – the natural attempt of every human community to add to its own strength at the expense of others. From the point of view of people concerned with the total welfare of a human community, 'evangelism' is seen as something at best irrelevant and at worst destructive of human unity.

"No sharing of the good news takes place except in the context of a shared human life, and that means in part, the context of shared conversation. In such conversation we talk about real things and we try both to communicate what we know and to learn what we do not know. The sharing of the good news about the kingdom is part of that conversation and cannot happen without it... It is a kind of of conversation which is not an alternative to but the occasion for sharing our hope, and it leads some people to ask the sort of questions that lead further.

"Some, but not many. I certainly cannot tell any story of 'success' in terms of numbers. I guess that this is the experience of many working in such areas. The church remains small and vulnerable. I do not find in this ground for discouragement. The kingdom is not ours. The times and seasons are not in our management. It is enough to know that Jesus reigns and shall reign, and to be privileged to share this assurance with our neighbors and to be able to do and say the small deeds and words that make it possible for others to believe."

(Taken from Paul Weston, ed. Lesslie Newbigin, A Missionary Theologian: A Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and London: SPCK, 2006).

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