The missionary problem of modern culture…
“Privately engaging, socially irrelevant” is how one sociologist describes privatized Christianity. Things of faith are restricted to the Christian’s personal life. Faith is left at home and at church and not taken into the public arena.
Religion doesn’t disappear from modern cultures. It relocates and is restricted to the believer’s private life. This dualism is the essence of the social process of secularization, a fundamental reality of modern Western culture.
In Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Lesslie Newbigin argues that understanding and addressing the public/private split are essential requirements if there is to be an “effective missionary encounter of the gospel with this culture.”
No state can be completely secular in the sense that those who exercise power have no beliefs about what is true and no commitment to what they believe to be right. It is the duty of the church to ask what those beliefs and commitments are and to expose them in the light of the gospel. There is no genuinely missionary encounter with our culture unless this happens. Here we must face frankly the distortion of the gospel that is perpetrated in a great deal that passes for missionary encounter. A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as Savior but does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which controls our public life today must be condemned as false.
What Newbigin’s challenge means to each of us depends on where we stand—as a parent, a teacher, a truck driver, a lawyer, a businessman, a mechanic, a politician. But whatever it means, it first requires a proper understanding of the times in which we live. And Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks is one of the best places to start for anyone who would take up the task of being “salt and light” in our secular age.
Foolishness to the Greeks was published in 1986, twelve years after Newbigin retired as a missionary to India where he and his wife served for almost forty years. An excellent introduction to Newbigin’s missionary career and later vision of mission to modern Western culture is provided by Tim Stafford in “God’s Missionary to Us.” Published by Christianity Today, Part 1 is here and Part 2 here.