Tim Keller and Lesslie Newbigin—An Appreciative Comparison

By David Cassidy
Lead Pastor, 
Spanish River Church, Boca Raton, FL
July 11, 2024

“And since the gospel does not come as a disembodied message, but as the message of a community which claims to live by it and which invites others to adhere to it, the community’s life must be so ordered that it “makes sense” to those who are so invited.” ― Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

“Contextualization is not – as is often argued – ‘telling people what they want to hear.’ Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular place and time are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.” — Tim Keller, Center Church

Authentic contextualization of the Gospel in mission and preaching never seeks to remove its offense; on the contrary, by making the Gospel more clear and accessible, it clarifies both its offense and its beauty.

We are to clarify the message, remove impediments to belief as we go, and never bury the message under our accumulated cultural baggage. We are to make the unchanging truth of the Gospel comprehensible in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of cultures, near and far. This will require deep personal preparation in prayer and a compassionate curiosity to discover and translate the Gospel clearly for those who’ve not yet heard its resurrecting and forgiving announcement. Where this happens, “those who’ve had no news of him shall see, and those who have not heard will understand” (Romans 15).

This is why contextualization in Christian mission is an essential and often debated concept, focusing on how the Gospel can be communicated effectively within various cultural settings without compromising its core message. In a world marked by an ever-increasing plurality of cultures and beliefs, not to mention a new and open hostility to the Christian message in the West, the task of making the Gospel understandable to different audiences has become more challenging and critical. Among the many voices that have contributed to this conversation, Tim Keller and Lesslie Newbigin stand out as influential figures. Both have extensively addressed the need for the Church to engage thoughtfully and creatively with the culture surrounding it. However, while sharing a common goal, their approaches and emphases reveal nuanced differences that offer unique insights into the practice of Christian mission today.

Keller, known for his work in urban church planting and reaching intellectual and secular audiences, emphasized the use of cultural narratives to present the Gospel. His approach reflects a keen understanding of contemporary urban contexts and the challenges they present to faith. On the other hand, Newbigin, with his extensive missionary experience in India, offered a critique of the secular assumptions of Western culture and emphasized the church’s role as a herald of the Kingdom of God, challenging cultural norms and narratives from a distinctly Christian standpoint. Both have proven to be helpful voices for my understanding of helping all Christians to be mission-minded people and creating congregations that are self-consciously engaged in missions near and far. 

I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how the views of Tim Keller and Lesslie Newbigin on contextualizing the Gospel for mission, their contributions, and the implications of their approaches for the church’s mission in the post-modern world can be beneficial. A brief comparative look into the theological foundations, key principles, and practical applications of their perspectives can help inform and enrich our contemporary practice of mission.

Contextualization in Christian Mission – An Introduction

Contextualization is making the Gospel message understandable to specific cultural contexts without altering its essential truth. It involves an expression of Christian faith that respects and engages with the audience’s cultural background. This concept is crucial for effective mission work, as it acknowledges the diversity of human cultures and the need for the Gospel to be communicated in ways that are meaningful to different people groups.

The importance of contextualization in missions is rooted in the biblical mandate to preach the Gospel to all nations, recognizing the variety of languages, customs, and worldviews that the message must intersect and transcend. The Apostle Paul’s missionary strategy, as seen in Acts 17:22-31, is a prime example of contextualization. Paul addresses the Athenians by engaging with their cultural and religious context, quoting their poets and philosophers to make the message of Jesus Christ relevant to their specific intellectual and cultural milieu.

Historically, the church’s mission has navigated the tension between universal truths and particular cultures. From the early church’s engagement with Greco-Roman culture to the global missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, the task of contextualizing the Gospel has been a complex and evolving challenge. Theological importance is placed on ensuring that contextualization does not compromise the Gospel’s core message while effectively communicating its transformative power within different cultural frameworks.

In sum, contextualization is a nuanced and vital aspect of the Christian mission, reflecting the church’s commitment to the incarnational aspect of the Gospel – Jesus Christ entering into human culture to redeem and transform it. This theological center is critical to the work of both Keller and Newbiggin. 

Tim Keller’s View on Contextualization

Timothy Keller, author and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has significantly influenced contemporary Christian thought and practice, particularly in urban settings. His ministry, which began in one of the most secular environments in the United States, provides a rich case study in contextualizing the Gospel for a modern, intellectual audience. Several key principles characterize Keller’s approach to contextualization.

Engaging Urban and Intellectual Contexts

Keller emphasizes the importance of engaging with urban and intellectual contexts, recognizing that cities are cultural, economic, and social hubs that shape societal trends and ideas. He argues that effective mission in urban settings requires understanding the city’s cultural narratives and values and engaging with them in a way that demonstrates how the Gospel subverts the idols that characterize modern life, contradicting the false answers to the primary existential questions many ask, while it also shows the heart’s true wholeness is discovered in Christ. 

Utilizing Cultural Narratives

One of Keller’s notable strategies is his use of cultural narratives and popular media to bridge the gap between the biblical message and contemporary culture. He often references literature, film, and philosophy to illustrate Gospel themes, arguing that common human experiences and cultural stories can provide a starting point for discussing the Christian faith. This approach not only makes Christianity more accessible to secular audiences but also shows the Gospel’s power to provide deeper meaning and fulfillment than the secular narratives can support.

Balancing Cultural Adaptation and Gospel Integrity

A critical aspect of Keller’s contextualization philosophy is the balance between adapting to the culture and maintaining the Gospel’s integrity. He advocates for a “centered-set” approach, where the focus is on the core truths of the Gospel rather than the boundaries of cultural or denominational identity. This means being flexible in matters of style and method while remaining uncompromising on the essential truths of Christianity. Keller’s ministry exemplifies this through its innovative church models and emphasis on gospel-centered preaching that simultaneously addresses both believers and skeptics, pointing them both to Christ as he is revealed in the Bible. 

Examples of Contextualization in Keller’s Ministry

Keller’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church offers numerous examples of effective contextualization. The church’s emphasis on small group ministries, integration of the arts, and engagement in social justice initiatives reflects a holistic approach to mission that resonates with urban dwellers. Additionally, Redeemer’s church planting efforts in New York City and beyond demonstrate a commitment to contextualizing the Gospel in diverse cultural settings, establishing congregations that reflect and serve their communities while also challenging many of the dominant norms that are destructive and sinful.

Lesslie Newbigin’s Perspective on Contextualization

Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian and missionary, spent much of his career in India, where he developed a profound understanding of the challenges and opportunities for mission in a pluralistic world. Returning to the UK, he became a leading voice in missiology, critiquing Western secularism and advocating for the church to reclaim its missionary calling. Newbigin’s approach to contextualization is informed by his experiences in both the East and the West, offering insights into how the Gospel can engage with and challenge contemporary culture.

Critique of Western Christianity

Newbigin’s critique of Western Christianity’s accommodation to secular rationalism is foundational to his approach to contextualization. Here, he is perhaps more openly unsympathetic to prevailing culture than Keller’s ministry might reflect. He argues that the church in the West has often failed to challenge the prevailing cultural narratives, instead allowing the Gospel to be marginalized as a private belief rather than a public truth. This critique leads him to call for a bold, missionary engagement with Western culture, presenting the Gospel as a comprehensive truth that challenges secular assumptions and offers a transformative vision of reality.

Gospel as Public Truth

Central to Newbigin’s thought is the concept of the Gospel as public truth. He contends that the Christian faith should not be relegated to the private sphere but boldly proclaimed as truth that speaks to all areas of life and society. This involves engaging with the prevailing cultural narratives and worldviews, not only to critique them but to offer the Gospel as a more compelling and holistic way of understanding the world. Similarly to Keller, Newbiggin looks to connect through and then subvert cultural norms, offering the alternative of Jesus Christ as the sum of truth and the way of deliverance from death (comprehensively considered) into citizenship in God’s Kingdom. 

The Church as a Sign, Instrument, and Foretaste of the Kingdom of God

Newbigin emphasizes the role of the church as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. This vision involves the church living out the values of the Kingdom in its communal life, witness, and service, thereby demonstrating the reality of the Gospel in tangible ways. For Newbigin, contextualization means not only adapting the message to cultural contexts but also embodying the message in the life of the community, showing how the Gospel transforms relationships, structures, and societies.

Engaging with and Challenging Cultural Narratives

Like Keller, Newbigin recognizes the importance of engaging with cultural narratives. However, his approach places a greater emphasis on challenging and transforming these narratives from a distinctly Christian perspective. This involves critical engagement with the philosophies, ideologies, and assumptions that shape contemporary culture, presenting the Gospel as a radical alternative that redefines understanding of truth, identity, and purpose.

Examples from Newbigin’s Work

Newbigin’s work in India, particularly his leadership in the Church of South India, exemplifies his approach to contextualization. His efforts to develop a church that was both fully Indian and fully Christian demonstrate a commitment to incarnating the Gospel in a specific cultural context. Additionally, his writings and lectures in the West, challenging the church to engage missionally with secular culture, provide a model for contextualizing the Gospel in a post-Christian society.

Some Comparisons

The contextualization of the Gospel for the conduct of mission, as discussed through the lenses of Tim Keller and Lesslie Newbigin, presents a compelling study of two influential approaches within contemporary Christianity. While they share a common goal of making the Gospel clear and compelling in a late-modern context, their methodologies, theological emphases, and views on the church’s role in society offer distinct pathways for engaging with culture. 

Similarities in Understanding the Need for Contextualization

Both Keller and Newbigin recognize the critical importance of contextualizing the Gospel in a way that speaks to the heart of contemporary culture without compromising its essence. They agree on the necessity of engaging with cultural narratives, understanding the philosophical underpinnings of society, and using this engagement as a bridge for the Gospel. Their ministries reflect a deep commitment to demonstrating the relevance of Christianity to the modern world, addressing intellectual and existential questions through the lens of the Gospel.

Differences in Theological Emphases and Implications for Mission Strategy

While Keller and Newbigin share common ground in their recognition of the need for contextualization, they diverge in their theological emphases and the implications these have for mission strategy. Keller’s approach is heavily influenced by Reformed theology, emphasizing the sovereignty of God in salvation and the need for rational engagement and apologetics in mission. His strategy focuses on leveraging cultural narratives to make the Gospel appealing to an urban and intellectual audience, emphasizing the transformation of individual lives through the power of the Gospel. He is highly influenced by Puritan piety and spirituality, especially in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, as channeled through Richard Lovelace’s work and his influential book, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life.

Newbigin, on the other hand, brings a more ecclesiological and eschatological focus, emphasizing the church’s role as a sign of the Kingdom of God and the Gospel as a public truth that challenges societal structures. His experience in India and his critique of Western secularism led him to emphasize the church’s communal and societal witness, advocating for a more confrontational engagement with culture that challenges and seeks to transform cultural narratives.

Methods of Engaging with Culture and Intellectual Contexts

Keller’s method of engaging with culture is characterized by an apologetic approach that seeks common ground with secular narratives, using this as a platform to introduce the Gospel. He advocates for a dialogue with culture, where the Gospel is presented as the true fulfillment of cultural aspirations and human desires. This is a deeply Augustinian path in many ways, one which underscores the ways in which the soul’s loves are vital but misdirected and in need of conversion and cleansing. 

In contrast, Newbigin’s approach is more prophetic, challenging the assumptions and idols of culture with the truth of the Gospel. He emphasizes the church’s counter-cultural witness, calling for Christians to live out the implications of the Gospel in a way that serves as a critique and alternative to the prevailing culture. This is not altogether absent from Keller’s teaching, however. He is quick to note that the Christian view of human dignity, sex, generosity, fulfillment, power, and greatness stands in stark contrast to those of late-modern urban elites. 

Views on the Church’s Role in Society

Both Keller and Newbigin are cultural transformationalists, reflecting a particular view of the Kingdom’s present effect that all Evangelicals do not share. They both envision the church playing a transformative role in society, but their views on how this should be accomplished differ. Keller sees the church primarily as a community of believers who live out the Gospel in their personal and professional lives, influencing society through individual transformation and social engagement.

Newbigin, however, places a stronger emphasis on the church’s corporate identity and its role as a collective witness to the Kingdom of God. He advocates for a more integrated approach to mission, where the church’s communal life, its engagement with social issues, and its proclamation of the Gospel work together to present a holistic vision of Christian faith and life. 

While Keller’s vision for evangelistic engagement is more individual, Newbigin’s is more ecclesial. 

In Conclusion

In my view, Tim Keller’s and Lesslie Newbigin’s views on contextualizing the Gospel for mission reveal a rich tapestry of theological reflection and practical wisdom. Both offer valuable insights into how the church can navigate the complexities of mission in a post-modern world, engaging with culture in faithful and innovative ways. While they may differ in their emphases and methodologies, their shared commitment to proclaiming the Gospel in a culturally comprehensible manner underscores the importance of contextualization the re-evangelization of the late-modern West. 

Their contributions highlight the need for a nuanced understanding of culture and a strategic approach to mission that is adaptable and grounded in the core truths of Christianity. As the church seeks to navigate the challenges of the 21st century, the insights of Keller and Newbigin serve as vital resources for engaging in mission with creativity, integrity, and faithfulness. 

I’d note in closing one often overlooked asset of their work, namely its wide application. Because of Keller’s helpful analysis and emphasis on cities, as well as Newbigin’s emphasis on structures, those in suburban and rural settings might imagine their message to be irrelevant to their work. This would be a mistaken conclusion. All can benefit from the need for the exegesis of a locality and its people, together with the need to discern the various idols that harbor in the hearts and ideologies of the various communities we serve. Even for those who do not share the cultural transformationalist vision behind so much of what Keller and Newbiggin seek to emphasize, their lessons in effective communication and bold but comprehensible witness still prove helpful. 

David Cassidy is the Lead Pastor of Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, Florida, and the author of Indispensable, A Guide to Christian Basics (P&R). He has been a pastor since 1980, serving congregations in the US and the UK. He and his wife Toni have been married since 1980.

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