A Century of Missional Thinking in the West

Mission used to be something our Western Christian countries did for the non-Western “heathen” lands that we called the Third World. Talking like that now will get your email boxed flamed. Times have changed. Now the global south and east has more Christians than we do. They even send their missionaries to our countries. Our own Western lands have become mission fields in themselves. Missions is now multi-directional and, like a donut, lacks a definite centre.

There has been a lot of talk in the past few decades about what mission to our post-Christian Western world might look like, especially since the 1970’s when Bishop Lesslie Newbigin came home from India to a post-Christian Britain. But the idea that we need to be missionaries in our own western countries has been discussed for a century. Wilbert Shenk tells of the Canon Rev. Walter Hobhouse, who spoke some prophetic words during the Brampton Lectures in 1909.

“ . . . the church of the future is destined more and more to return to a condition of things somewhat like that which prevailed in the Ante-Nicene church: that is to say, instead of pretending to be co-extensive with the World, it will confess itself the Church of a minority, will accept a position involving a more conscious antagonism with the World, and will, in return, regain in some measure its former coherence.”

The Church, argued Hobhouse, in an era no longer defined by the Constantinian era, should recognize more and more that “she is in reality a missionary church, not only in heathen lands and among races which we are pleased to call ‘inferior’ but in every country, and there is much in which she might learn from the methods of the Mission Field”

Now, almost century on, Hobhouse’s words ring true and aptly describe the new emerging missional communities that are starting, growing and multiplying in the post-modern post-Christian West.

Related: The Missional Church: Reformed Heritage?

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Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • joe says:

    Mmm.. although things have moved on even since the 1970s. I suspect that a few generations ago, there was at least some latent bible knowledge (for example) within much of the language and culture of western countries. I’m not sure this exists now. People no longer just think we’re wrong – they don’t understand the narrative at all.

  • becky says:

    What’s telling here in the states that despite the fact the US gets labeled a Christian nation, studies reveal that this is the first generation of Christians raised with no religious background. That was one of the reasons for the appeal of the New Atheists – no one had enough knowledge of the Bible and Christian history to know that Dawkins & Co’s interpretations of the Bible and Christianity in general were way off the mark.

  • andrew says:

    Hi Joe – yes, our cultural memory of anything Christian has been dissipating.
    Becky – thanks – good stuff.

  • Mike Lane says:

    Hobhouse has it totally nailed. My experience is exactly this: called out of an international “ministry” into mission right on my doorstep. Myself and my wife are employed by my church as community pastors, running an off-campus coffee joint as well as involvement with hanging out with local drug users and young homeless folks. We have downscaled all aspects of our life in a way that forces us into embracing a local focus (such as cutting down vehicles and travel generally, learning to walk and think locally) I am definitely moving toward a minority or micro-cosmic mission. With regard to “conscious antagonism with the World” we are experiencing a level of emnity toward the Gospel that bears comparison to local anti-semitism…not sure about the coherence part, but i do feel that the greater prophetic demand and command that is emerging lately is causing a level of coherence, based around resultant shared suffering and revelation amongst locally based and focussed believers.
    I’m not sure that makes any sense at all…

  • andrew says:

    makes total sense, mike. not bad for a musician.

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