The American Captivity of Christianity

 The lecture that Lesslie Newbigin gave in Stuttgart, Germany in 1994 is just as timely today as it was back then – if not more so.  It is called “The Cultural Captivity of Western Christianity as a Challenge to a Missionary Church.”  I believe this article is something that all solid and serious Christians should read as they wrestle with evangelism, missions, and the church in our day and age.  Here are some excerpts.

“Since I came to live in England after a lifetime as a foreign missionary, I have had the unhappy feeling that most English theology is falling into [the danger of] syncretism.  Ours in an advanced case of syncretism.  In other words, instead of confronting our culture with the gospel, we are perpetually trying to fit the gospel into our culture.  In our effort to communicate, we interpret the gospel by the categories of our culture.”

“…I am moved to ask, Who will be the missionaries to this culture?  Who will confront this culture of ours with the claim of absolute truth, the claim that Jesus Christ is the truth?  Who will be bold enough to say, not that the Christian message can be explained in terms of the facts as we know them, but rather that all so-called knowledge must be tested against the supreme reality: God incarnate in Jesus Christ, present yesterday, today, until the end, in the power of the Spirit?”

This quote is a little longer, but please read it carefully:

“The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise or could arise from empirical observation of the whole human experience.  It cannot be based upon inductive reasoning.  It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point for the whole lifelong enterprise of understanding and coping with experience.  It is a new starting point.  To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion.  We cannot side-step that necessity.  It has always been the case that to believe means to turn around and face a different direction, to be a dissident, to swim against the stream.  The Church, it seems to me, needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner….  But the Church also needs to be very bold, bold in bearing witness to him as the one who alone is…King and Head.”

Though Newbigin wrote here specifically about England, it is true of the U.S. as well, since we are Western relatives.  And Newbigin’s words cut down to our own churches: do our sermons try to fit the gospel into our culture or do they challenge our cultural idols and beliefs?  Do our worship services and songs echo the spirit of the age or do they resonate with the Spirit-inspired word that critiques the spirit of the age and points us to the age to come?  Do we repent in our prayers together that we’ve become too worldly, that we’ve sinfully domesticated the gospel and that we need Jesus to help us follow him better?  Do we stand firmly upon and for the truth of Jesus even when people call us intolerant doctrinal bigots?  May God give us the courage, wisdom, and faith to fight syncretism tooth-and-nail, starting with our own hearts and churches.

The manuscript of Newbigin’s lecture is found in A Word in Season.  Trust me; it is one of those short and powerful pieces that 1) leads to repentance and 2) leads to greater zeal for the gospel.

shane lems

sunnyside wa