By Pastor Michelle Porco.
This review of The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology by Michael W. Goheen originally appeared as part of CBWC’s Theology for the Ordinary initiative. Learn more here.
Over the past couple of years, I have repeatedly heard Christians wrestle with the question, Why does church matter? This question has become prominent in pandemic living where restrictions prohibited Christians from gathering for public worship together. We were pushed to our homes to worship, tuning in online or on zoom. For many, it seemed that no worship services meant no church. So for my final sermon series before maternity leave, the elders and I decided it was time to address this question both theologically and practically. This book was recommended to me by a colleague to explore more deeply the purpose and vocation of the church, to understand who we are and how we engage in God’s world.
Michael Goheen is a teacher and writer who has devoted himself to the study of Lesslie Newbigin’s work and character. Newbigin was one of the most influential and important missiological thinkers of the 20th century. In this book, Goheen succinctly summarizes Newbigin’s thinking, not dialoguing with other authors but instead focusing on Newbigin. Although one of the book’s strengths is its focus on Newbigin’s theology, the book does not express any kind of critique of Newbigin’s thought and legacy. What areas are undeveloped in Newbigin’s thought? Additionally, while there are some practical examples from Newbigin’s life and work in the book, the writer does not evaluate Newbigin’s impact on communities, churches, and denominations. I wonder, for example, how churches and denominations in which Newbigin served have continued to embody and live Newbigin’s teaching.
The book deals with both the mission of Christ and the purpose of the church. In an advertising culture that emphasizes developing witty mission statements for businesses and organizations, Goheen carefully reminds us that the church doesn’t have a mission. Rather, the mission of Jesus has a church. In turn, the church realises her identity and purpose in light of God’s mission.
The book addresses first God’s purpose or mission. The Western evangelical church has often described this in very individualistic terms and Goheen is purposeful to explain that God’s purpose and mission is both individual and corporate, both personal and cosmic. It includes the restoration of all that has become broken so we may experience true shalom and wholeness. Our relationships with God, with each other, with the non-human created world, and with ourselves are broken and God’s mission is to redeem and restore. Recapturing this holistic Biblical vision and theology of God’s salvation is critical for understanding our identity and purpose as God’s people. It is also critical when responding to the question of why the church matters.
Next, Goheen sets out to explore and explain what a missionary church looks like in relationship to the world, in relationship to itself (examining church structures and life together), in relationship with the surrounding culture, and specifically in relationship to western culture. There is a valuable balance of theology and practice in these chapters. These sections invite us to reflect on our own practices and thinking, our own structures and assumptions. We would do well to dwell and absorb these chapters if we are to live and embody being a missionary people. Though these sections are quite repetitive at times, they may help cement some of his points.
I strongly recommend this book for pastors, church leaders, and all Christians who want to wrestle with being the church in the West. This book is especially relevant post-COVID and in an environment hostile to Christian thinking and practice.