I was asked to join an International Think Tank on Mission to Western Culture later this month, specifically focusing on Lesslie Newbigin's contribution to the conversation. Here is my brief response to the question...
Newbigin created a space for Western churches to analyze their relationship to Western culture. Returning to 1980s Britain after forty years in India, Newbigin viewed the Western church with a different set of lenses, and he spoke a message that the Western church needed to hear.
Newbigin returned to a church held captive by the culture and its own church traditions. He asked how the church had become so marginal to public life. He traced the church’s current form back to the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason, the individual, and the removal of values from the public (or factual) sphere. In addition, Newbigin identified another source of the lifeless nature of the Western church – Christendom. Because of the church’s historic relation to the state, Western churches served passively as chaplains to the culture, baptizing the culture’s agenda. With the church’s domination by the powers (the ‘isms’) and its historical relationship with Christendom, the church found itself beaten-down with little ability or energy to respond.
All was not lost. Newbigin argued for a response, another way out of the church’s predicament. Because of the historical nature of the church’s position (it was not a ‘given’), other trajectories were possible. He advocated that the gospel must be the starting point for Christians -- specifically the as expressed in the Incarnation and the Trinity. The gospel must frame all other structures and practices, not science or any other ‘tradition’. The gospel can handle pluralism, provided the gospel is located at the center. The church, not the culture, sets the agenda, speaking from within the biblical narratives to the wider world.
For Newbigin, the church must embody this public truth in all realms, foregoing the facts/values split of the Enlightenment, e.g. in neighborhoods, in arts, science, politics and economics. Rather than accept life on the margins, the church must serve as pointer to the coming reign of God. In retrospect, Newbigin gave the church a gift by exposing the powers and encouraging a gospel-like response in all spheres of culture.