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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Third Mission to the West

Os Guinness is an internationally renowned speaker and the author of numerous books, including Time for Truth, The Gravedigger File, and Long Journey Home. An Englishman, he was born in China and holds degrees from the universities of London and Oxford.

If it is right (as argued in essay #1) that we are on the verge of a radical new possibility in history: a post-Christian West and a post-Western Church, then we face a crucial choice as how to respond—to engage our culture for Christ or to disengage.

Voices that argue for disengagement are strong. Some do so in the name of forming a faithful remnant in a godless age, some out of weariness and disillusionment after a generation of fruitless political engagement, and some out of exaggerated notions of the end times that leaves them heading for the hills and reading the Left Behind series. Millions more are voting with their feet (or with their easy chairs), and a recurring cry is that “It’s all over.” Western culture has been lost decisively already. As an eminent Christian scholar said recently, “We are not on the verge of losing the West. We are long past the point of no return.”

I would call openly for the contrary—for a fresh engagement with Western culture in order to win it back to Christ. Indeed, what we face today is the need for a “third mission to the West,” or in the words of the new Pope Benedict XVI, “the re-evangelization of the West.” For those who know God and the power of the gospel, history is never deterministic, no odds are so overwhelming that it’s ever all over, and no door is truly closed unless God has closed it.

Winning back the West will not be the work of five minutes, five months, or five years. It may take a hundred years, for the hardest spheres of our society such as the universities are not going to be won without immense toil and perseverance. And our motive must not be to win back the West for the West’s sake (or for the sake of America or Europe, or even for democracy or civilization), but to win back the West for Christ’s sake—out of faithfulness to the Great Commission. In other words, our concern is the West, not because it is in any way superior and worth saving—we could easily argue the opposite—but because the West is our Jerusalem and our Judea, from which we must join hands with others around the world and reach out to bring the gospel also to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.

Why “third mission” to the West? The first mission to the West was the conversion of the Roman Empire, a three centuries-long movement under God that was a staggering accomplishment through which the faith of a bunch of provincial malcontents grew to replace the faith of mighty Rome herself. The second mission to the West was the conversion of the barbarian empires, a less known but equally staggering achievement through which the violent tribal peoples of Europe were “gentled” and the foundations were laid for what became Christendom. Today, as the legacy of those great and successful missions runs out, we face the challenge of giving up or setting out on a third mission to the West.

In subsequent essays I will set out the challenges and opportunities of what it means to consider winning back our civilization. But one truth will underlie them all. The task of winning back the West is so stupendous that we can only succeed if we determine unflinchingly—in Hudson Taylor’s great phrase—to “do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.” With all due respect to the brilliance of modern insights and technologies, reliance on them, as much recent church growth and mission has done openly, will be to court failure and be exposed as faithless.

Put differently, winning back the West involves many things, but it is an essentially spiritual, theological, and evangelical task. Hence the need to surmount the widespread disdain for theology and to shed the recent cultural and political baggage of the evangelical movement and be truly evangelical—people who define themselves and their lives by the first things of the good news (or evangelion) of Jesus Christ.

There have been times in the past when things have been far worse than they are today, and those who responded in faith were far fewer than those who stand ready to respond now. But the challenge is the same: to trust only in God, to have no fear, to let God be God, and watch and wait to see what He alone can do.