I recently read an article by Lesslie Newbigin titled, “The Enduring Validity of Cross-Cultural Mission.” It was originally presented as an address at the dedication of the new location of the “Overseas Ministries Study Center” on October 5, 1987. In this essay he discusses some of the sentiments that lie behind the center’s former use of the word “foreign missions” to “overseas ministries.” Behind this change, in part, was that the old term carried with it a hint of arrogance. (50) The term “foreign missions” connoted expansionist, colonialist, and primarily Western notions. Also behind this change was contemporary embarrassment about the missionary movements of the past century. (50) In some ways, Newbigin explains, the shift in terms is welcome. After all, the “gospel escapes domestication,” it is “universal, supranational, [and] supracultural. Yet, despite these shifts, he argues, “the foreign missionary is an enduring necessity in the life of the universal church.” (50) Increasingly these foreign missionaries are coming from the global south to the West.
Although Newbigin’s article focuses quite a bit on the shift in attitudes about mission, the heart of this essay seems to be about how the reality and truth of the gospel clash with Western pluralistic values. Thus, he says, “If there was a danger of arrogance in the call for the evangelization of the world in that generation, there is a greater danger of timidity and compromise when we lower our sights and allow the gospel to be domesticated within our culture, and the churches to become merely the domestic chaplains to the nation.” (50) One of these contemporary dangers is pluralism. Pluralism undermines the missionary task. If the gospel simply becomes statements about religious experiences, rather than statements of truth, then the gospel cannot be announced as the good news that it actually is. The kind of relativism that has taken hold of Western society not only undermines the missionary task. It undermines the gospel itself. The gospel has a particular narrative. It includes an account of what it means to be human, what God intended for humans. The gospel tells us how this story of God and humanity hinges on the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (52) If this is not a universal story, but merely one story among billions of other individual (relativized) stories, then why should Christians be concerned to share it with others?
The fact that the gospel is a story that is universal in scope, he argues, also has implications for ecumenicism and inter-religious dialogue. The church across time and space bears witness to this story, thus it can engage in dialogue despite differences. On the other hand, there is what can be called “the larger ecumenicism,” which is not simply inter-religious dialogue, it is the thought that all the religions of the earth can and should move to form one fellowship across doctrinal differences. (52) Such a possibility is pluralistic and reveals a source of unity besides God himself.
There are a missiological implications that come to my mind when I read this particular essay: 1) how the gospel presents a metanarrative that clashes with other narratives, 2) how pluralism undermines the preaching of the gospel, and 3) the need to discern how particular cultural narratives fit into the larger narrative of the gospel.
You can read the essay here: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/1988-02/1988-02-050-newbigin.pdf