What in the world is World Mission?

I write from Edinburgh, where I’ve just attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It was a fascinating experience and will take a little time to think through all that I’ve seen and heard. At this Assembly two great missionary anniversaries were celebrated – the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone and the 1450th anniversary of the arrival on the Island of Iona of St Columba, the apostle to Scotland. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is “mission”, particularly what “world mission” might mean today.

I was part of a large group of international delegates, hosted by the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland. We came from just about every part of the world – from Australia to Zambia. Talking with these sisters and brothers has driven home how the concept of “world mission” has changed. It used to mean taking the Gospel from here (wherever “here” was) into the un-evangelised world to win people and nations for Christ through worship, witness and service.

But that understanding of “world mission” assumed a distinction between the spiritual haves and have-nots – between sending and receiving nations, and between older and younger churches. Such distinctions really have no place in the world church today, even though they linger unconsciously in the imagination of many Western Christians.

These days the former “sending churches” recognise tremendous missional challenges “here” at home, where decades of decline have seen us shift from the centre to the margins of our communities. Meanwhile the former receiving churches have become dynamic, confident agents of God’s mission in their own places and, as diaspora churches within the homelands of the missionaries of old like Scotland or Australia.

But they are not generally turning into new sending churches. Rather, they are more like partners who, seeing us face a great missional challenge in our own countries, gently share what they have learned with us. That the whole world is God’s. That there are no God-less corners or peoples. And that mission is God’s, not the churches’.

So “world mission” essentially means recognising that God is engaged in a mission of reconciliation and renewal throughout the whole world, discerning that activity of the Spirit in the bit of the world to which we have access, and joining in.

So “world mission” is going on where we live, just as it is in the communities of those from all the continents of the earth who were represented here in Edinburgh.

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4 comments

  1. Echoes of recent trends or glocal mission thought… Playing with this quite a bit at the moment… Just got back from exploring this among missiologists at Fuller… Look forward to exploring further…

  2. For me, World Mission incorporates what God does close by and recognises that “the bit of the world to which we have access”, to use Andrew’s phrase, is always more than what we presently access. Our imaginations are often limited to a smaller “world” than God intended for us. For Western cultures, limitation has partly come through the influence of the Enlightenment. World Mission involves going beyond what we presently access and “where we live” to access other “worlds”. A great part of the Church of Scotland Assembly is the conversations shared with people from around the world about how they live faith in different circumstances. I learned about their “world” and their experience of God which was other than mine. We access those other “worlds” through building relationships and engaging, sometimes physically, sometimes virtually, and at least by using our informed imaginations. The Basis of Union envisages a Church in Australia in partnership with churches beyond Australia, not as optional for those who might be interested but as essential to its identity and the faithfulness of its people. World Mission is horizon-stretching, other-engaging, frontier-crossing, seeing what things look like from there not just here, affirming both the proximate and the distant.

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