Recently, I’ve found myself dipping into Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society quite frequently. And his take on the old Preaching vs Social Action chestnut has particularly grabbed me.
Newbigin argues that both parties to this dispute tend to neglect ‘the central reality, namely that mission is not primarily our work — whether of preaching or of social action — but primarily the mighty work of God’ (page 136).
In failing to recognise this, those who insist on the primacy of preaching and personal conversion put themselves in danger of treating the Church — and adding members to the Church — as the goal and end-point of mission (and indeed of history). Consequently, human strategies for ‘bringing in’ take centre stage.
On the flip side, those who hold that Jesus’ message of the kingdom should propel us above all to pursue justice and social action risk identifying the gospel directly with particular projects, causes or parties.
All of which is true enough. But it’s in the pages after this (pages 137-140) that things get really interesting.
There Newbigin proposes six positive implications of recognising the prior reality of God’s mighty action:
- It puts the total life of the Christian community, fully and faithfully engaged in the life of the society it’s part of, at the centre rather than simply preaching or simply action. Words and deeds can both play a part in this — as the Spirit of God provides opportunity.
- The way the new community is to follow Christ’s lead — challenging the patterns and powers of this age, to be sure; but not in the name of establishing a mirror-image regime — has justice and compassion at its heart, yet without collapsing the kingdom into any present agenda.
- Pointing to what God has done in and through Jesus, and calling people to respond, can never be dispensed with. For it constantly reminds us that, however sincere, noble and compassionate, no human project is free from the need for redemption through Christ.
- All this should send us back into the world, alert to the possibilities for loving and serving God and others that stand open to us at any given moment. While we can’t guarantee we’ll make infallible judgements here (in fact, we know we will make lots of mistakes), we cannot disengage and opt out.
- Speaking out against particular abuses, must be backed by and reflected in the distinctiveness and integrity of believers in our everyday lives and engagements with our society. If we want to oppose abortion, for example, we must find ways to help each other pursue — and make possible more widely — an expansively pro life alternative.
- We must resist at every turn the lure of ‘comfortable cohabitation with the powers of this age’ (page 140) as we explicitly proclaim and point to God’s decisive, saving achievement through Jesus.