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Intuitions for talking about ‘mission’ in Australia

How would you go about talking ‘mission’ with Australian churches?

‘Mission’ is a term in pretty wide usage today, especially in connection with church planting and the adjective ‘missional’. This is a good thing, because ‘mission’ was once used to refer exclusively to overseas cross-cultural work — but because we now understand mission first and foremost as God’s business, Missio Dei, talking about local mission broadens ‘mission’ in a really truthful and useful way.

But the pendulum seems to have swung from one extreme to another. Mission was all about Over There, now it’s all about Here. Along with the new emphasis on local mission and loving the city, there’s an ambivalence about world mission. There’s a new generation of energetic Aussie Christians who are committed to being a life-giving community of witness, but do they care about the rest of the world any more than the next Aussie? Maybe world mission is seen as irrelevant; maybe it has been eclipsed by the local conversation; in any case mission no longer has much ‘world’ in it.

One example is the 130-page vision of a high-profile Melbourne church. It’s a massive document, but there’s pretty much no mention of the world Christian movement or intercultural partnerships. Even locally speaking, despite all the references to ‘culture’ and the diversity of Melbourne, there’s little sense that this church’s ministries might need to be cross-cultural, or that this church could be called to become a multiethnic community. I’m highlighting these guys not because they’re a bad example but because this seems pretty normal — and if they haven’t mentioned this stuff in 130 pages, will your church do any different?

There is a real need to give Aussie churches a global horizon, to get them excited and informed about the world Christian movement, and to understand mission in this context — after all, Missio Dei is about as global as things get!

There’s a second problem, however. There are some people trying to re-energise Aussie Christians about world mission, except it’s in traditional terms — terms which don’t make sense today. It’s old paradigm according to CMS head honcho Peter Rodgers. For example, at one major Australian conference in 2012, the mission seminar was thick with assumptions like these:

  • ‘Mission’ is about us reaching them (the West to the Rest).
  • ‘Missionaries’ are people doing full-time word ministry.
  • ‘The mission field’ means jungle tribes.

The problem is that world mission really has changed, radically and permanently — as the world itself has changed. Maybe, in the nineteenth century, Westerners were the only people available to pioneer the gospel with tribes in Tanzania, but today, decades after the rise of Christianity as a truly global movement, world mission means ‘from everywhere to everywhere’. The best people to continue pioneering with Tanzanians are their cultural near-neighbours: other Tanzanians. There’s still an important place for Westerners, even in this pioneering work, but as colleagues. Here in Dodoma, SIL does translation for remote tribes who lack the Bible in their first language. Each translation team includes Tanzanians who speak the language, plus a Westerner with theological and linguistic training. All of them speak Swahili, which forms the common medium for the translation to take place. It doesn’t have the old-world glamour of a ten year, solo translation slog, but it’s a process that produces better translations because it’s better at bridging the cultural distance. Because Christianity is global, we can’t keep thinking of ourselves as the only ones with something to offer.

We need the humility not only to see ourselves as participants in a worldwide body, but also to see ourselves as receivers, not just senders. The world is in our backyard, which means cross-cultural opportunities abound in Australian cities. But immigration also brings fellow Christians to us, so how will we unite with them and learn from them? One striking example of being a receiver is NZCMS, which in 2009 appointed a Kenyan as its national director. And the fact that his grandfather first became a Christian through CMS is an example of how our former students are becoming our teachers. We can’t keep acting as if mission is something in which we’re leading the way.

So there is a second need: the need to genuinely and thoroughly update our mission talk for today’s world and today’s church. There is no point trying to give Aussie churches a global horizon if we’re old paradigm people.

No matter how exciting we can make it sound, we cannot go on talking about world mission in the traditional way. Things are different now. ‘World mission’ is not a topic on a website, an item in a church’s vision, a choice to go overseas, or the passion of a select few. It’s a call to be global Christians who self-consciously understand ourselves as participants in a world movement.

Here are a few starting places for this:

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. I belong to said high-profile Melbourne church. ” there’s little sense that … this church could be called to become a multiethnic community”. Perhaps that’s because we have been from the start and it never occurred to anyone to say so. My home group has had meetings where not one of us present was Australian born – over my five years we’ve had members from NZ, a number of Asian countries, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Holland, UK and USA and sharing our varying backgrounds and experiences enriches us all.

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