Theology of Reverse Mission
Is there any theological justification for using the term ‘Reverse Mission’? Baptist minister Israel Olofinjana argues there is
The subject of reverse mission, that is, missionaries and pastors from a former mission field now ministering in Europe and North America is becoming a phenomenon that is attracting the attention of both academics and the media. The BBC documentary titled reverse missionaries which was aired last year is an example of the latter.
Within academic circles and mission practitioners the question remains, is reverse mission a rhetoric or a reality? I believe only time will answer this question because we are still living through missionaries and pastors being sent by churches and mission agencies from the global south into Europe and North America.
To illustrate,in the summer I was speaking at a mission conference organised by Global Connections (http://www.globalconnections.co.uk/) of which the theme was, Passion for mission: Mission to a Dark Continent. The conference had speakers who are pastors and missionaries from Nigeria, Kenya, Peru and Zambia sharing their stories and missionary journeys in Britain. One thing the four stories had in common was the fact that they were all ministering within a multicultural context or in strategic partnership with British indigenous churches or mission agencies. Also at the conference I met a missionary couple who have only arrived from Nigeria in the last three weeks. Their church in Jos, Nigeria have just commissioned and sent them over here as missionaries! All these indicate that we are still living through this phenomenon and therefore it is inconclusive: the jury is still out!
As one of the speakers at the conference one of the questions I was asked was whether there is any theological justification for using the term ‘Reverse Mission’. In essence, what is the theology behind reverse mission? It is in response to this question that I write this piece.
As someone who came to the UK as a missionary, I believe there are four theological reasons for reverse mission.
Firstly is the understanding that God is a missionary. It was mission that led God to create the world in the first place. This was also played out in the Old Testament by God revealing himself through the children of Israel to the other nations. It was this understanding that also saw God sending Jesus, his only son, to redeem humanity. The redemptive work continued through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church as we see in the Acts of the Apostles. In essence, the Triune God is a missionary! If Jesus, the head of the church is a missionary, automatically, his body will have to be a missionary people (Ephesians 5: 25-32). It is within this understanding that the church must see her mission. We are only joining in with God’s mission and not ours.
One implication of this is that just as some European missionaries heard God’s call to go to Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean so are these former recipients now hearing the same God calling them back to Europe. The same God that called some European missionaries is the same that is calling missionaries from the global south. This is why it is important to listen to the stories of pastors from the global south when they use expressions such as, “God has called me to the UK”, “the Lord said to me to travel to Europe as his servant” or “I sense God’s call to Britain”.
Expressions such as these confirms God’s call and they should not be ignored. Often times academics writing about this subject concludes that it is only diasporic factors such as economic recession, inflation, political dictatorship and instability that have brought people from the global south to Europe or North America. While these are part of the story, they do not tell the entire story and credence must be given to those coming for the sake of the Gospel. This is why some have left good jobs to come over here as missionaries or pastors. The truth is some of them will be better off in their country but the sense of God’s call motivates them to leave behind their lucrative jobs in search of fulfilment in God.
Secondly, is the fact that global mission has no headquarters, permanent address or post code. Whereas global mission used to have a permanent address in Europe and North America, but not anymore because mission is now understood as from “everywhere to everywhere” It is in this framework that we can talk about reverse mission. Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean are no longer just receivers but givers and contributors to global mission. This does not mean that Europe and North America have stopped sending missionaries or should stop sending missionaries into the global south or the rest of the world, but it only means that the previous monopoly on world mission is no longer tenable.
Thirdly, reverse mission is theological because it implies that the global church or in this case the Western Church can learn about God from the global south. If it is not a theory that Christianity is growing in the global south and somehow it is declining in Europe, then what can the Church in Europe learn from Christians from the global south? I want to highlight three things that I think European Christians can learn from the Church in the South.
In the case of Africans, the European Church can learn about God being involved in everyday life. For many Africans, God is a reality that is part of their day to day activities and living. For example, in many parts of Africa, people will pray in the public transport when they are travelling, they will not only dedicate new children, but also the buying of a car or house. Many times I have been invited to bless someone’s new car or used car, I have also been invited on numerous occasions to bless people’s new houses or when they move to rent a flat. African spirituality is weaved into every day realities of life. This point is significant for British Christians because some of us (I include myself because I am also British) have the tendency to reduce God to two hours on a Sunday service. The implication of being Jesus’ disciples demands that He becomes part of our every day routine. This will lead to a robust Christianity that is able to challenge aggressive secularism.
The first point leads to the second and that is God cannot be privatised. To take the case of Africans again, God cannot in the African eye be reduced to private life. If God is seen as part of our everyday reality then He has to be seen in public. This is why in Africa and now here people will have corner shops or grocery shops having names such as “Amazing Grace shop”, “God’s blessings shop”, “Almighty God barbers shop” and so on. This is why names of African Churches are always interesting, take for example “the Ladder of God Christian Ministries” For Africans God has to be public. In Britain we have the tendency due to our post modern secular or post secular society to reduce God to our private lives and spaces. This means we only do God in church, our home, or with other Christians anything outside that will be intruding into other people’s personal lives. Being Jesus disciples means we have to take him public and African Christians are very good at that.
The two points above leads naturally into the third one and that is confidence in proclaiming the Gospel. Part of the implications of reducing God to the private is that it disempowers us as Christians and affects our confidence. African Christians are very confident about the Gospel therefore we can learn how to regain that confidence once again. Paul in Romans said he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16-17). If our discipleship informs us that God has to be public then proclaiming him is part of that, although we need to be wise how we proclaim him. Shouting at people on the public transport might not be the best way to proclaim him but we can seek other ways of proclaiming Jesus in the public square
The last theological reason for reverse mission is the recognition that God somehow is using the Diaspora of people from the global south to do His mission. I am not saying God is the cause of people suffering in Africa, Asia, South America and Caribbean through political oppression and socio-economic hardships, but I do recognise that God in His wisdom has somehow used the scattering, displacement and in search of better life of people from the global south to advance His kingdom.
Just as Daniel and the three Hebrew children through the Diaspora found themselves in Babylon and God used them to transform that empire so I think God in the same way is using Christians from the global south who are in search of a better life or are running away from one form of hardship or the other to remind Britain about God. This is why some have come as economic migrants but on getting here discovered that God is calling them to minister to people in Britain. In concluding, I do understand that some people find the term reverse mission problematic and are suggesting a different language, but whatever term we use God is sending people to Britain from the global south to put God back on the public agenda.
This article originally appeared in Israel Olofinjana's blog and is reposted with permission
The Revd Israel Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister and has pastored Crofton Park Baptist Church before becoming the Team Leader at Catford Community Church in September 2011.
He is Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background. He holds a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and MTh from Carolina University of Theology (CUT).
He is the author of Turning the Tables on Mission
Related: The work of a Baptist minister is set to deepen understanding of missionaries from the Global South - or 'reverse missionaries' - in the United Kingdom