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Inner-city missions have been present in Melbourne since the gold rush, a testament both to the church's desire to evangelise the working class and to the sectarian rivalries that arose in the process. The Melbourne and Suburban City Mission, founded in 1854, was modelled on the London City Mission which had opened nineteen years before. An interdenominational Protestant organisation it reflected concerns that the parish model was ineffective in the rapidly expanding and class-divided inner city where working-class districts were increasingly conceptualised as dark or foreign and hence an appropriate field for mission.

Missions proliferated in subsequent decades, particularly in the area around Little Lonsdale Street which had become identified as a centre of poverty and vice. The earliest missions were often the initiatives of enthusiastic individuals, the most prominent of whom was Dr John Singleton, the prison evangelist who established shelters and medical dispensaries for the poor and homeless. By the 1880s the major denominations had entered into the fray, with Scots' Church, the Mission to Streets and Lanes, the Salvation Army, the Sisters of St Joseph and Wesley Central Mission all staking their claim. Despite their doctrinal differences, inner-city missions offered a similar mix of recreation, relief and redemption. Sharing the belief that the working class were not attracted by traditional worship, they offered a range of clubs and entertainments, directed particularly at women and children, and employed workers to visit and relieve the poor in the hope that those attracted to their halls would participate in the lively worship and be saved. The most successful developed an institutional structure as an auspice for ragged schools, child and boy rescue societies, female rescue homes, medical dispensaries and shelters for the homeless and the aged.

The first half of the 20th century saw an expansion of denominationally based mission activity, with many inner-suburban churches reconstituting themselves as mission districts. Although they had little success in increasing formal religious observance among the poor, they did position the church as a centre for social provision and social activism in their neighbourhoods. Staffed by enthusiastic and often charismatic clergy and women in Protestant religious orders, they provided one of the foundations for social work in the city, performing a similar role to that played by settlement houses in Britain and the USA. They were an important focus for the evangelical movement, providing a platform not only for the anti-gambling, temperance and Sabbatarian movements popularly derided as wowserism, but also for campaigners for peace and economic reform.

The challenge of secularisation and mass migration in the postwar period forced the remaining missions to rethink their role. Some, like the Church of All Nations in Carlton, the Centre for Urban Research and Action and the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Fitzroy, reconstituted themselves as centres of community action, advocating for the poor and working toward client empowerment. Others, such as Wesley Central Mission, the Mission to Streets and Lanes and the Mission of St James and St John, have concentrated on service provision, competing for government contracts to provide for children, families and the aged across the metropolitan area.

Shurlee Swain