Authors Richard Bauckham in Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) and Leslie Newbigin in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) discuss the concept of mission and how it should be understood correctly by Christians today. While Bauckham initially explains the idea of metanarrative and universalist cultures, and how making an over-emphasis on them challenges the way Christians do mission today, Newbigin, instead, associates missions to the very ministry of Jesus and his baptism by John the Baptist.
Both authors agree that mission is God’s work as he uses mission as a means of not only proclaiming the Gospel but also bringing justice to the entire world. As Bauckham states,
This book’s proposal of a hermeneutic for the kingdom of God involves, as I have already suggested, a focus on one prominent aspect of the narrative shape of the biblical story: its movement from the particular to the universal (…) God is also given its identity in this movement from the particular to the universal, an identity whose God-given dynamic we commonly sum up in the word ‘mission.’ (Bauckham 2003, 12-13).
Despite their basic agreement about the fact that mission is a movement started by God and that the church plays a significant role in the whole process, Bauckham and Newbigin approach missions in singular ways, sometimes, even in opposite directions. For the first one, the church’s mission should not be understood as a static but ongoing process since people are always reinterpreting biblical stories in their own cultures. Thus Bauckham states,
We are always figuratively starting again from Jerusalem on our way to the ends of the earth. We are always starting again from Jesus who is the one human for all others, and we are always starting again from Pentecost, the event that gives both to the new community on its way to the new future. (Bauckham 2003, 21)
Newbigin, instead, holds that doing “the Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all.” (Newbigin 1995, 17).
The main difference between these two approaches is primarily because of the diversity of theological frameworks used in both works. That is, Newbigin is very close to the Reformed tradition in form and thinking in his book. For instance, he emphasizes God’s work while the church is doing the mission that Jesus has commanded it. Bauckham, however, although he recognizes God’s central role in mission, he places the Church in the middle between being slightly an agent in the missional work or the Church is the product of it (Cf. Bauckham 2003, 15).
On one side, Baulkham analyses the church’s mission in the late twentieth century in light of modernity discourses. He has written a very thought-provoking work about the Christian mission and how Christian can overcome cultural issues while they are spreading the Gospel. On the other side, Newbigin, with a very solid Reformed framework, emphasizes the doctrine of election to lead his discussions about the church’s mission as an integral part of the kingdom of God. Thus, when speaking of mission, it is almost necessary the notion of election and how God is under control of the whole process. And this is so because this framework is needed in order to understand the kingdom of God’s purpose and its adequate expansion in the world (Cf. Newbigin 1995, 68).
Overall, the importance of Newbigin’s proposal is to make Christians aware of the real meaning of the mission of the Triune God and the centrality of the Kingdom of God. Throughout his enriching theological thoughts, he challenges the traditional way most Christians have done missions. A key in regards to Newbigin is that he explains clearly that the Church’s mission is a task started by God and that Jesus’s work was introducing the Kingdom of God to us. It is for this reason that he says, “Jesus is introduced as the one who announces the coming of the reign of God, the one who is acknowledged as the Son of God and is anointed by the Spirit of God.” (Newbigin 1995, 21). It is through Jesus Christ that we know that the Kingdom of God was near and that God’s will so that we can participate in His Kingdom. Newbigin writes it in this way, “Jesus is thus not the initiator or founder of the kingdom. It is God’s kingdom. Jesus is the one who is sent as herald and bearer of the kingdom.” (Newbigin 1995, 22) So that when we connect with God the Father, we are also participating in his mission on earth. In this regard, the church’s purpose is to serve Christians as a means of communion through the Holy Spirit and the way we do it is through missions. Newbigin’s focus on this subject is not only according to the Reformed tradition but also strongly biblical.
The importance of Baulkham’s approach is that he identifies a series of drawbacks that Christians will have to face and overcome while carrying out missions in a postmodern world. Nonetheless, although he recognizes that God is who starts missions, he also overemphasizes the role of human beings and the cultural issues that could arise in the process, as he states “Jesus’ disciples are to be a center of attraction to which others will come.” (Bauckham 2003, 73) It seems most Christians usually pay more attention to the verb ‘going’ than ‘preach’ when they talk about missions. The word ‘going’ is not the main action (verb) in Jesus’s words, but preaching, that is, the sharing of the Good News with people in order to invite them to participate in God’s plan for the humanity.
Despite their differences, Newbigin and Baulkham’s approaches nourish the church in a very good way since we all should understand that doing missions is not a fixed church program that some people need to follow. Doing missions is not about going abroad and preaching the Gospel to other countries. That’s good, but it is not everything! Jesus’s words in Mark 15:16-18, 9 (NIV) has only two commands ‘go’ and ‘preach,’ and most Western countries have considered missions only when selected people (missionaries) go to a specific place and preach the Word of God. Nonetheless, the emphasis in this verse is not on ‘going’ but ‘preaching,’ as we noticed it here,
[Jesus] said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
Thus, going to missions is about inviting all people to come to the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ so that missions is something that are (and should be) engrained in the life of every Christian. Every Christian has the responsibility of sharing the Gospel with others with words and deeds.
It grabs my attention that the work done in Antioch by the Apostle Paul and others nurtured the Gentile mission in a very special way: it was in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were called ‘Christians’ for the first time. It was also there where Paul and Barnabas began their first missionary journey from along to John Mark. It was this mystery, now revealed, of the inclusion of people from all the nations of the world into the Church that led Paul to affirm that there was no distinction between Jew and Gentile since Jesus broke down the dividing wall of hostility on the cross as Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV) states,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
This thinking shaped deeply the theological vision of the Early church and its mission for spreading the Gospel to all nations. They understood that sharing or preaching the Gospel was a way to participate in God’s plan of consolidating His kingdom in just one group, that is, the Church of Christ. Paul then developed an inclusive theology of missions and election where Judaism and the Christian faith meet. It was in this process that the Apostle Paul defended the supremacy of faith in Christ and the value of Scriptures for everyone against the exclusivity of the Gospel only for Jewish. In other words, Jesus’s sacrifice let people belong to the kingdom of God: He not only announced His Father’s kingdom but also opened the door in order people could enter. It is noteworthy to pay attention to the fact that Newbigin offers very good insights about missions for today’s church, and connects such a topic to the doctrine of election, as he states, “[We] have found in the biblical teaching about election the clue to the problem of the relation between the cosmic universality of the kingdom of God which we proclaim and the particularity of the history with which we are concerned: Israel among the nations, Jesus among all the religious leaders of the world history, Christianity among all the religions.” (Newbigin 1995, 77) In the pragmatic level, Christians do missions to tell others about the Good News, but not in order to convince people with human reasoning, but with the power of the Holy Spirit.