British man Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary sent to India in 1936. After a long career in India, one that included building a relationship with Heather’s grandfather, he moved back to England. Among many other things, he was struck by a huge culture shift in the country he grew up in. Upon arriving back to England, in just two generations, he observed how Christianity no longer held its privilege place in culture. He started writing about this problem and called Christians in the West to identify themselves as missionaries in a post-Christian culture.
Newbigin came up with a couple of handy phrases to describe the Church. He wrote that the church is a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom. Being that Jesus is the King now, the church is the place where people can experience what it’s like to taste and feel and experience and anticipate this new Kingdom. Those who experienced the 5 short verses of Acts 2:42-47 got to tasted what the Kingdom feels like:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. This community was beautiful and intimate. Support was there. Community was there. Most importantly, the values of the Kingdom of total surrender, prodigal hospitality, and pure joy were all there. Their responses were all subordinate to and manifestations of thanksgiving of the gospel. The church needs to be together to experience this kind of love. In fact, the strategy for church planting right now is to gather with a leadership core of Christians. We are only inviting those with Christian foundations. We are taking in a big breath together in order to out to gather.
That’s where we get this second handy Newbiginism phrase. The church is the sign and foretaste of the Kingdom, but the church is also the hermeneutic of the Gospel. This is where the church breathes out in the world. Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible in such a way that it relates to this world. This second Newbiginism phrase challenges Christians to take context seriously. For us living in a suburb of Raleigh, the context is different then other places I have lived. The culture, the language, the needs, the resources, the politics- all of these things impact the way we effectively breathe out. I have had to drop ‘eh’ and replace it with ‘y’all’. Pastor Tim Keller says, “Contexualization is not--as it is often argued--‘giving people what they want to hear.’ Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and form they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them. “ (Center Church pg.89)
It is paramount that the church continues to explore and experiment how to be the hermeneutic of the Gospel today. We have to take risks and stick out our head. We have to listen. The Gospel is a message that needs to be spoken, yes. But more often than not transformation happens in the context of relationship. We have to listen and keenly observe because if not, the culture’s metanarrative will gobble us up.
But finally, no matter how hard we listen, no matter how much pressure we put on ourselves to grow- a pressure that is ongoing in the church planting world- we have to daily surrender to the fact that it is the Lord who adds to the church. We are called to be faithful witnesses, but we don’t do the adding. The LORD added to the early church, and the Lord adds to our number today.
By being a missionary people, we depend on the Holy Spirit. We must always leave with this firm conviction that the Lord is already working out there. He knows about the challenges ahead for us and He continues to provide for us the Holy Spirit (aka the ruach or Wind or breath) who goes before us. God is already at work in the hearts and lives of people you know. The church needs to breathe, but it is the Lord who is blowing His breath in and through us.