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Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary, Theologian

“A world-famous preacher!” Such was the definitive description of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998).1 Yet few of his sermons have appeared in print. For many, his fame derives rather from his more academic published writings. He is known worldwide as a significant missionary
theologian. Books like The Open Secret, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and Foolishness to the Greeks all made a great impact and continue to exert influence in our postmodern Western society.
But, he was also a great preacher. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought tells us that, “As rarely in modern times, the church had in Lesslie Newbigin a bishop-theologian whose career was primarily shaped by his evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities and who yet made contributions to Christian thought that match those of the more professionally academic among his brethren.”2
This puts his total work into proper perspective. He was (and often insisted he be referred to as) first and foremost a “pastor and preacher.” But the entire spectrum of Newbigin’s “theological life” constitutes a unified and richly colorful whole in which every individual strand is interwoven with the others. “The liturgical preacher” is not only also “the scriptural teacher” or “the Christian apologist,”3 but he is the one only because and insofar as he is at the same time each of the others. Yet, it was because he was called to preach that he became everything else.
The high regard in which he was everywhere held is evidenced in the many ecclesiastically significant places and occasions to which he was invited as preacher. Having begun as a Presbyterian missionary, over his long career he preached widely—from the villages and dusty streets of Tamil-Nadu, in South India, to the ecclesiastical and academic heights of great cathedrals, universities and colleges in every continent.
The centrality of the Bible in Newbigin’s personal life is unquestioned. During his final years he wrote, “I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the 30 or 40 minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible.”4 He early regarded “the crisis of faith in the modern West” as “bound up with the question of biblical authority.”5 In this he was typically perceptive and prophetic. The doctrinal turmoil in many churches today is fundamentally associated with the same question. In issues of human sexuality, scriptural authority is a critical consideration, and the current resurgence of theological interest in hermeneutics reflects this.
Newbigin’s extant sermons (about 100 in the Archives,6 and others elsewhere—both scripts and tapes) are intellectually well thought out and usually require close attention on the part of hearers. Many are demanding in that the thought-forms used and the rigorously rational development of arguments force hearers to concentrate carefully throughout. This impression is strengthened by the fact that most are full texts, not just outline notes. Frequent editing of these texts, with stylistic and verbal alterations or improvements, indicates a concern for good presentation and striving for accuracy and impact. One sermon alone, used on several occasions, has about 150 changes in subsequent versions.
Newbigin’s preaching methods obviously varied. Street preaching in India, or preaching in the villages of Tamil Nadu, was something entirely different from preaching in a church or cathedral. In the villages it was usually interactive. Special occasions (of ecumenical or theological significance) required greater precision of expression and deeper content relevant to the specific event. Yet his North India colleague Hakim Rahi, when Newbigin was Minister at Winson Green United Reformed Church in Birmingham, U.K., in “retirement,” testifies that there, “he never read his messages, but used an outline to keep his thought consistent,”7 and, “...he always looked into the eyes of the people while preaching, which secured full attention from his audience.”8
Always busy and in great demand as a preacher, he would re-use (and be thoroughly familiar with) earlier sermons. His retentive memory and ability to speak (often in depth, at length, and on complicated topics) without notes is legendary and was used to great effect in various places and contexts, homiletical and other. At the annual church teaching holiday of Holy Trinity, Brompton (home of the Alpha Course), in 1997, “he stood and without notes9 over two mornings told the story of the Bible.”10 Newbigin preached with great delight and acceptability on several occasions at HTB during his later years.
A characterization of Newbigin’s preaching given by Dr. Martin Conway,11 from a layman’s perspective, portrayed it as “invariably clear, intelligent and trenchant.”12 Other features of the totality of his preaching show that it was:
• “always biblical,”
• “fully gospel-centred,”
• “thoroughly Trinitarian,”
• “contextually Kingdom-based.”
Newbigin was a missionary and preacher who through commitment and hard work (he usually arose at 4:00 a.m. for reading, study and preparation) became increasingly also a theologian. Throughout his life, he remained all three and certainly never ceased to be a preacher. Rev. Prof. Timothy Gorringe wrote, “he remained a fine preacher, in English or Tamil, to the end,”13 and Dan Beeby claimed he was “perhaps happiest in an Indian village and in Winson Green,” and, “as ecclesiastical civil servant (on the staff of the World Council of Churches), wanting to be in a pulpit or preaching in a street.”14
He was acutely aware of contemporary intellectual currents, often asking questions nobody else was asking. Adopting appropriate methodology in sermon preparation, with full use of his gifts and abilities (e.g. in Hebrew and Greek study of texts), he provides an inspiring example. Structural strength of language and imagery in sermon design, and relevance and practical application adorn all his sermons. Tape-recordings demonstrate his proper voice control and mellifluous clarity of diction.
In preaching and living, Newbigin’s spiritual integrity is everywhere apparent. His close “walk with Jesus” was the foundation of his personal life. That is surely the master key for us all. Dan Beeby tellingly said of him, “When he dropped a name, it was always the name of Jesus.”15

1. Address by the Rev. Dr. Dan Beeby at Newbigin’s funeral service, Dulwich Grove URC Church, London, on 7 February 1998.
2. Hastings, A., Mason, A., & Pyper, H. (Eds.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, (Oxford, OUP, 2000), p. 471.
3. These are chapter headings in Wainwright, G., Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, (Oxford, UK, OUP, 2000).
4. vide Newbigin, L., A Word in Season, (Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 1994), p. 204.
5. Wainwright, G., Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, (Oxford, OUP, 2000), p.299.
6. These are held in the Special Collections Section of the Main Library of the University of Birmingham, UK.
7. Wainwright, op. cit. p. 279
8. ibidem
9. His facility of memory was a great asset during these final years when he became almost blind.
10. Newbigin, L., A Walk Through the Bible, (London, SPCK, 1999), p. viii, (Foreword, by Rt. Rev. Sandy Millar). The book contains the talks as given, in straightforward and simple language.
11. Conway is a former president of the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, UK, where Newbigin taught after he left India.
12. Epworth Review, 20/3, September 1994, art. “Profile: Lesslie Newbigin’s faith pilgrimage,” also quoted by Wainwright, op. cit., p. 279.
13. Church Times, 6 February 1998. cf. also, “His last and best sermon was the one he preached in the Abbeyfield Home” — referring to the humble and caring actions he displayed to fellow-residents, virtually all of whom had no awareness of his fame or achievements.
14. Address at Newbigin’s funeral service, Dulwich Grove URC Church, London, on 7 February 1998.
15. ibidem.

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