Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a Britist missionary for many years to India. He wrote many books focusing on the church and her mission. The Open Secret introduces some key issues surrounding the concept of mission. Because church plants must be mission focused in order to survive, the book has direct implications for shaping the discussion around church planting. Here are seven important questions that the book answers.
“What right do you have to preach to me?”
Western people buck against authority. They don’t like people “preaching” at them. So what right does the church have preach Jesus as the only way? What the church has to show is that it is “truly a work of love to call men and women out of their traditional allegiances, and to invite them to accept–with all the cost involved–the yoke of obedience to Christ” (12).
The church has the right to preach to people because she does so “in the name of Jesus.” Jesus’ authority is not derived from anyone else (14). He is God. On the basis of His authority, the church proclaims salvation through Christ alone.
“Who is Jesus?”
Proclaiming the name of Jesus should provoke the question, “Who is Jesus?” First of all, we take Jesus’ authority and words by faith. We trust them (15). We cannot prove Jesus’ authoritative, otherwise that piece of evidence would hold higher authority than Jesus’ own words. We start with faith.
We have faith that “Jesus is Lord.” He is the one who stands over every culture (17). The Lordship of Christ also leads into a discussion of the heart of mystery in the Christian faith: the Trinity. Jesus announces God the Father’s kingdom and Jesus is acknowledged as the Son (22). Jesus is also anointed by the Holy Spirit. So in all things, the question of “Who is Jesus?” leads us to consider who God is. He is not solitary. He is Trinity.
“Where do we begin the story?”
Newbigin confesses that where to start in explaining who Jesus is perplexed him (30). Each of the Gospels starts in a different place. The Bible is “universal” history but it also has a particular structure: selection and highlighting (31). All authors, even God, emphasize certain material and downplay others. In a sense, we must start at the beginning, Genesis. A main principle woven throughout Genesis, and indeed, the rest of the Old Testament, is one of election. The Bible shows time and again that “election is for responsibility, not for privilege” (32). God’s chosen instruments, such as Abraham and Israel are to bless the world.
In a similar way, the church is chosen by God to bear witness to the kingdom of God. We are to proclaim that God’s reign has come in Christ and call all people, everywhere to repent and believe the gospel.
“Is Jesus really the only way?”
Can’t people just worship however they want? Isn’t their experience of God valid? Why do they have to switch their allegiance to Christ? Is it fair for God to pass over so many billions of people and only reveal Himself to a select few?
The answer to these questions is found in the doctrine of election again (68). The particular people are chosen for the sake of the universal, the whole (68). The doctrine of election shatters human individualism. We are not our own. The biblical vision for human nature and destiny is communal, not individual (69). We are relationship with others and the world! “Real life” is found in relationship with other and stewarding the physical world (69). So God doesn’t just interact with our “pure spiritual selves” as individuals. But He calls us to a communal life where we have responsibilities to one another.
Therefore, “if the truly human is the shared reality of mutual and collective responsibility that the Bible envisages, then salvation must be an action that binds us together and restores for us the true mutual relational to each other and the true shared relation to the world of nature” (70). Thus, salvation comes from a neighbor, not a beam of light from above. Election, then, supports and undergirds mission (71)! So yes, Jesus really is the only way because of the nature of human existence. God deals with us collectively and our responsibilities are to one another. His mission rolls forward through us.
“How can we know our interpretation of Jesus is correct?”
How many we know our interpretation of Jesus, or even Scripture itself, is correct? Newbigin points out the New Testament itself provides for us different “models” of interpreting Jesus (89). All are true. But there is a range. We’re not locked into one answer. We must start with faith, trust. We also look at the Bible’s big story, not just the little pieces. We must also be attentive to the past and what Christians before us have said about Christ.
“How do evangelism and justice relate?”
Newbigin argues that preaching the gospel and doing justice cannot be separated. No true Christian can ever separate them. Even if they try to only preach the gospel, a redeemed person will inevitably help others. In contrast to Liberation theologians who favor a focus on overthrowing unjust political structures, Newbigin seeks for the church to be involved in acts of compassion and weep with those who weep: “Acts of compassion, therefore, acts by which the church tries to share in and to bear the pain of those who suffer, are not as escape from the real business of fighting for liberation, or an alternative to it: they are an authentic part of the victory of the Lamb” (108).
Newbigin sees a call to political action as part of the church’s mission but not the whole thing (109). Although the church is a foretaste of the reign of God, the church must be careful not to equate the life of the church with a particular political cause (110).
“How do we evaluate growth?”
On the one hand, besides Acts, the rest of the New Testament is not concerned with the numerical growth of the church (125). “In no sense does the triumph of God’s reign seem to depend upon the growth of the church” (125). But, on the other hand, if a church does not desire to grow, something is wrong. Those who know Christ want others to know Christ too! So it’s a balancing act of striving for others to come to know Christ but not being so overly concerned with numbers that makes the church pursue unbiblical means.
“How to we properly contextualize the gospel?”
Bringing the gospel to other cultures requires humility. We must realize that our American way of life is “only one of the tribal cultures of humankind” (152). We humbly enter another culture (even if its a local culture in our own country). We must use the common language of that culture (146). In doing so, when the gospel takes root, we must allow the new converts to challenge us! Contextualization also involves a significant amount of dialogue with others, even with other religions. We cannot be proud. We don’t possess the truth as if it is our own. God is the truth. We bear witness to Him (181). Therefore, we can humbly talk with others. But we also approach others knowing the Spirit is sovereign and we are hoping that He uses our conversation as the means by which the other person comes to accept Christ (187).