Book review: The Church and Its Vocation

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Michael W. Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018)

by James Butler, CMS

What does it mean for the church to be missionary by its very nature? This was clearly a key starting point for Lesslie Newbigin, and, through deep engagement with his writings, Michael Goheen attempts to explore the depth and complexity of this question. The book presents a thorough and deep survey of Newbigin’s writings, drawing together his writings across half a century, with many stimulating and fascinating insights to offer. These are the book’s great strengths. In light of this it probably is most helpful to those studying Newbigin and missional ecclesiology. It is a reference resource, and as such the titles and headings mean it is easy to navigate.

The book uses themes of Newbigin’s writing as its structure, beginning with the centrality of the biblical narrative in chapter 1, and developing an understanding of the good news of the kingdom and arguing for a missionary church in chapter 2. It continues by exploring Newbigin’s writings on the church’s vocation, its life, its engagement with culture and with western culture in particular in its remaining chapters.

While the comprehensive survey of Newbigin’s writings and the way it is laid out for easy reference are its great strengths in one sense, these are also its weaknesses. Each chapter is split into many subsections, each exploring another element of Newbigin’s writings, and each of those tend to be split into a further list of components. I found it increasingly off-putting to find every section begin with a phrase such as “Newbigin explores this in three ways…”. Almost every element of Newbigin’s thought seems to be recounted in X number of components. The result is something that feels like a collection of insights rather than having a clear narrative. Some of these insights were fascinating and made me want to pursue them within Newbigin’s writings, and perhaps that was the point, but I couldn’t help feeling that Goheen had more to say.

Where it does depart from this pattern in chapter 5 there is a sense of flow and an argument builds, which is very engaging and thought-provoking. I kept asking myself why the book was written and eventually found my answer on p. 191 – that Newbigin’s call to the church is “profoundly relevant” today. I think it would have been a better read if this were the narrative of the book, rather than providing simply a foundation for this conversation. This could have been through a critical engagement with Newbigin that really explored the details and complexities of his work. Or it could have taken a more biographical approach and presented this more clearly in his own story – or perhaps a more creative piece that began to imaginatively explore the ways this challenges the church today. While I know The Gospel and Our Culture Network has been doing this, I feel it could have been drawn more clearly through the book. Goheen does say that his teaching method is about presenting and developing lists that can be the starting point for imaginative engagement, but my experience was that the lists in this book did the opposite.

In sum, it is a fascinating book and a brilliant survey of Newbigin’s work, but with a more creative and imaginative engagement it might have drawn a wider readership and been a more engaging read.

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