Can the West be converted?


Can the West be converted?  This question was asked in 1985 by Lesslie Newbigin, a retired missionary who had spent almost forty years in India.  Although many would not consider Newbigin an Evangelical, his insights into the challenges of doing missions in the modern world are invaluable.  He was one of the first to make the case that the West had become a mission field.  He argued persuasively that modernization brings with it the “acids of modernity” which dissolve even the “most enduring of religious beliefs including the beliefs of Christianity.”


Can the West be converted?  “God alone knows the answer to that question,” was Newbigin’s response.  Here is a brief, oft-quoted summary of what Newbigin thought the Church should be doing to resist the “acids of modernity”:


If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noon time of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.



This quote can be found on pages 232 and 233 of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989).  It comes at the end of a chapter entitled “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel,” a chapter in which Newbigin discusses at length the responsibility of the Church to “claim the high ground of public truth.” Newbigin’s essay, “Can the West be Converted?” is available online.

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