Western Culture Observed by a Cross-cultural Missionary
Author: Dae Ryeong Kim
December 24, 2000
Although we tend to think of evangelism only at personal level, it was Lesslie Newbigin who preached the necessity of “social evangelism” so that Christian message can be heard and accepted in wider circle of society. In a society where Christian gospel has become marginalized, the Church has to claim it as a public truth. He served almost forty years as a cross-cultural missionary in the east. Yet, he is better known to us a missionary to western culture by initiating “gospel and culture” movement. His life, ministry, and writings demonstrate us how missiological insights enable someone located within a culture to see beyond that culture. It was he who invited us to re-examine the western culture of modernism from Christian perspective. It was he who advocated that the secularized western culture is a mission filed no less than a foreign mission filed. He even argued that re-evangelizing the western culture would be very strategic for the mission of the Christian Church challenged by modernism and postmodernism. In that his missionary contribution calls for a paradigm shift of Christian evangelism, one might say that his cross-cultural insights is equal to Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity in natural science.
One day Issac Newton was sleeping under an apple tree and was awaken when an apple fall on his forehead. Of course, Newton was not the first person who had ever seen an apple falling from the tree. And there were thousands of people who would mention, “The apple had grown big enough so that it was time to fall down” or “It was a matter of natural law that things above fall dawn below.” But the greatness of Newton lies in that he refused to be satisfied with that kind of explanation and continued to ask the question why the apple fall down until he discovered the law of gravity. No less great is the insight of Newbigin the missiologist. People usually attributed the stagnation of the English Church in the twentieth century to secularization, and if asked why the English society was going through secularization, they would vaguely attribute it to the trends of modern times. But Newbigin did not stop there and investigated until he attributed the root of the secularization of western culture to the wrong assumptions of the Enlightenment.
Like the Queen Mother of the British monarchy, Rev. Lesslie Newbigin was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, and lived almost a century. If the Queen Mother is the history of the British monarchy in the twentieth century, and Newbigin the history of English Church mission movement in the century. Just as Moses in the Old Testament had become a leader of the Exodus after forty years of his life in Egypt and forty years of cross-cultural experience, Lesslie Newbigin had become a leader of the “gospel and culture” movement after forty years of his life in Britain and forty years of cross-cultural experience. With his unusual gift of communicating all the difficult philosophical, sociological, and theological concepts, he tells us what he experienced in his life and ministry.
Returning from his forty years of missionary service oversees (with most of his service in the East) Newbigin saw that Britain was no longer the same Britain he saw before his departure to his mission field in India. The Great Britain in the past was the center of modern civilization to where people from every side of the world came to learn advanced civilization including government and medicine. But about the time he was returning home, he saw English young men in India wandering the city in unwashed clothes to learn the oriental wisdom. Issac Newton’s vision of modernism was to export the light of enlightenment and civilization to the whole world. But here were the British young people who were disappointed by the civilization that modernism had brought. The hope for the promise of modernism had faded away!
His pastoral experience as a retired missionary was another illustration of the cultural context of modernity Newbigin observed. When a small church in the district of the Asian immigrants was about to be closed by the presbytery, Newbigin appealed for the preservation of the congregation and was allowed to assume the pastoral position of the church on the condition of no pay for his pastoral ministry. When he was visiting the neighborhood to win a chance for evangelism, the English family often met him with cold refusal on the door. It was rather the pagan Asian families who invited him to the living room for tea. And when rarely an English neighbor opened the door, it was no longer the Bible but the television which occupied the center of the English family living.
In this context Newbigin experienced that far more difficult than to evangelize a Hindu was to evangelize a British. To bear witness to Christ to a Hindu is a hard work enough. But even though they opposed to Christian faith, the Hinds were, at least, not uninterested in a spiritual topic. And far more difficult was to evangelize who were not interested in spiritual affair than who oppose to Christian faith. It was the kind of society where faith was considered as a matter of personal choice, and therefore evangelism was taken as intruding one’s privacy. And that in the homeland of the Puritan movement, in the land with the heritage of the Wesleyan spiritual revival, and the hometown of the great preachers such as Spurgeon! This illustrates that the same Britain can be a spiritually productive land in one age, and barren in other age.
As Newbigin’s life and ministry demonstrate it, a cross-cultural missionary sees his or her own culture with the Christian eyes of a foreigner, and the foreigner can see what the native cannot see (Newbigin 1994:68). This is why cross-cultural mission has implications for theology. Even a brief survey of the history of western theology illustrates this. Because of the total dominance of European culture in the ecumenical movement, there has seldom been any awareness among Western theologians of the extent to which their own theologies have been the result of a failure to challenge the assumptions of their own culture. This failure reduced Western Christianity to what Karl Barth calls “Culture Christianity” whose theology was a mere reflection of the modernist assumptions. Now it was Lesslie Newbigin who challenged the false assumptions of the western culture shaped by modernism.