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Free Churches and Liturgical Churches: Behind the Numbers

Lesslie Newbigin on Communicating the Gospel

I am a teaching assistant in Geoffrey Wainwright's class on Newbigin at Duke Divinity School.  (Wainwright wrote Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life).  Yesterday we dealt with Lesslie Newbigin's book Foolishness to the Greeks.

At the beginning of the book, Newbigin explains the importance of communicating the gospel "in the language of the receptor culture" (5)  But the gospel should also "radically call into question" that receptor culture (6).  In the final analysis, conversion "can only be the work of God" (6).  Some of us fail to communicate the gospel in language people can understand and others of us are not sufficiently aware of the way we have capitulated to the culture around us.  Thanks be to God for working through us in spite of our shortcomings.  Here is Newbigin's marvelous longer explanation of this concept.   

The same threefold pattern is exemplified in the experience of a missionary who, nurtured in one culture, seeks to communicate the gospel among people of another culture whose world has been shaped by a vision of the totality of things quite different from that of the Bible.  He must first of all struggle to master the language.  To begin with, he will think of the words he hears simply as the equivalent of the words he uses in his own tongue and are listed in his dictionary as equivalents.  But if he really immerses himself in the talk, the songs and folk tales, and the literature of the people, he will discover that there are no exact equivalents.  All the words in any language derive their meaning, their resonance in the minds of those who use them, from a whole world of experience and a whole way of grasping that experience.  So there are no exact translations.  He has to render the message as best he can, drawing as fully as he can upon the tradition of the people to whom he speaks. 

Clearly he has to find the path between two dangers.  On the one hand, he may simply fail to communicate: he uses the words of the language, but in such a way that he sounds like a foreigner; his message is heard as the babblings of a man who really has nothing to say.  Or, on the other hand, he may so far succeed in talking the language of his hearers that he is accepted all too easily as a familiar character--a moralist calling for greater purity of conduct or a guru offering a path to the salvation that all human beings want.  His message is simply absorbed into the existing world-view and heard as a call to be more pious or better behaved.  In the attempt to be "relevant" one may fall into syncretism, and in the effort to avoid syncretism one may become irrelevant. 

In spite of these dangers, which so often reduce the effort of the missionary to futility, it can happen that, in the mysterious providence of God, a word spoken comes with the kind of power of the word that was spoken to Saul on the road to Damascus.  Perhaps it is as sudden and cataclysmic as that.  Or perhaps it is the last piece that suddenly causes the pattern to make sense, the last experience of a long series that tips the scales decisively.  However, that may be, it causes the hearer to stop, turn around, and go in a new direction, to accept Jesus as his Lord, Guide, and Savior.

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 7-8.

This section from Newbigin is also excerpted in the excellent book:

I have also reviewed some other Newbigin books: