Ask Sanityville: What should I know about Lesslie Newbigin?

I keep hearing people (not on this forum) cite Newbigin and it seems like all discussion of missions/ministry insists on using his work as the essential paradigm. I don’t have the time right now to read up on him, but is anyone here familiar with is work? What does he get right and what are some things to watch out for? Thanks!

Edit: From what I’ve heard of him (or how he’s used) the categories of pre-christian, Christian, and post-christian in terms of cultures seems useful. But I’ve been kind of annoyed by the lack if scriptural categories in these conversations, which makes me ask the question.

I’m afraid I don’t know anything at all about him. Should I? I do care about missions, and I do think about it, being a former MK.

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I was going to write nearly the same thing as Lucas. I’m also a former MK but have never heard of Lesslie Newbigin.

I should clarify: it’s less about “missions” and more about “being missional.”

I found this thinkpiece a possible place to start:


From what I can see, Newbigin’s contribution at the time was groundbreaking, in
that he could see what was going to happen in the wider culture, well before it did (in the USA, anyway). In terms of evangelism, e.g., he could see that much evangelism relied upon a background understanding of faith in the wider culture that even then was beginning to dissipate.


I’ll just add that Newbigin was very popular in my Baptist Bible College back in the late 1990s. I was in NZ, a country that is far more liberal than the US.

The main takeaways for me were:

  1. Newbigin challenged the idea that England was still a strong example of Christendom.

  2. He famously answered the Indian proverbial statement about the blind men and the elephant, and in the process argued for “objective” truth.

  3. Lots of people liked his ideas; very few put them into practice.

  4. Those who attempted to do so ended up giving ground to pagans. I’m unsure if that was to do with Newbigin’s ideas themselves or the people trying to apply them.


Alistair - were you at Baptist Theological College or BCNZ?

I think with Newbiggin, it was a case of ask the right questions, if not necessarily come up with the right answers. Certainly in New Zealand, the older “standard model” of evangelism beloved of many a Fundamentalist/Pentecostal, had ceased to ‘connect’ by at least the early 1980s. What we learnt to do, and the Alpha course was very helpful in this respect, was to go right back to basics, and assume that when we were witnessing, people would know next to nothing about Christian faith. I knew one man who, when his girlfriend (now wife) began witnessing to him, knew nothing more about Christianity that what he’d picked up from Jesus Christ Superstar!

So - I would also like it if on Sanity, we could spend more time talking about evangelism. As I learnt in my Pentecostal years, it is the Christians who make the effort to get out there and preach the Gospel, who will then have the privilege of seeing the elect come to faith, and who will then have the privilege of discipling them.


Ross, I went to Carey Bapist College, though I realised I had my dates wrong - I was in Thailand in the late 90’s and went to Carey in the early 2000s.

I definitely agree the questions had to be asked.

Another point about Newbigin that I have remembered - he was a “missionary bishop” in the Church of South India, and therefore was faced every day with what it was like to be in a completely non-Christian culture, or one with very little Christian influence at all. Not just Hinduism, but Islam to contend with as well.


I originally posted this topic because I had heard Newbigin quoted by several different sources (people I talked to, podcasts I was listening to, a book I was reading, etc.) within a short amount of time and felt like I was missing something huge. Funnily enough, I haven’t heard a word about him since then.

In the little research I’ve done (and the posts on here), it seems to me like Newbigin had a lot of solid insights into mission–or at least was asking necessary questions. His observation that the West was becoming firmly post-Christian is a good one. Also, that ministry to a post-Christian culture needs to look more like ministry to a pre-Christian culture than a Christian one. I don’t know if he was the first to make the observations, but they are often credited to him.

I also think there are a lot of annoying hipster types who gush about Newbigin the same way they gush about the brilliance of the more obscure works of C.S. Lewis, which makes it difficult to suss out the difference between what Newbigin was actually saying and what his devotees hear him saying. A dive into Newbigin’s actual writings would probably clear that up, but I’ve already got too many books on my list and I’m not seeing this as a huge priority at the moment. :slight_smile: