Historically, missionaries were sent out from Europe into the rest of the world. But as Christianity continues to decline in the West, many Christians from the Global South now see us as the mission field. Rev Dr Israel Olofinjana explains
I came to London from Nigeria in 2004, and I vividly remember some of the culture shocks I experienced as I transitioned from attending a Yoruba-Nigerian Pentecostal church to leading an English Baptist one.
I am what is known as a ‘reverse missionary’ – someone who has left the majority world in order to engage in evangelism and mission in the increasingly secular West. Samuel Escobar, a Latin American mission thinker, would describe me as “a missionary from below”. That is, a missionary with less resources. Although my church sent me, the main support I receive from them is prayer – which is vitally important but, in a climate of financial struggle, not always sufficient.
In past centuries, missionaries went from Europe to the rest of the world, because the majority world (Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania) was defined as the mission field. But the shift in the heart of Christianity from the global North to the global South has facilitated the sending of missionaries in ‘reverse’ – from the majority world back into Europe and North America.
According to Gordon-Conwell University in Massachusetts, USA, Africa now has the largest concentration of Christians in the world, which means the average missionary is now an African. For people like me, Britain is now its own mission field.
The question is often posed: “Is reverse mission really taking place if, for example, Nigerians are leading a church in the UK made up almost entirely of fellow Nigerians?” While there are several leaders from the majority world leading what could be described as monocultural churches in Britain, there are many other examples of Africans leading multi-ethnic churches, or Asians leading white-majority churches.
Since being in the UK, I have led three different churches, none of them Nigerian. Instead, these congregations have been of mixed ethnicities, cultures and ages.
From multicultural to intercultural
My current role, as the director of the One People Commission for the Evangelical Alliance, involves working with the breadth and depth of British churches. These include African, African Caribbean, Chinese, Latin American and South Asian churches. My strategy entails modelling world Christianity in the British context through unity, integration and justice. One significant part of this is helping churches move from multicultural to intercultural. Let me explain the difference.
Multicultural churches are those that have different nationalities, cultures, generations, ethnicities and classes represented, coexisting and working (most of the time) towards a British way of ‘doing’ church.
Intercultural churches are those that have embraced God’s vision and gift of ethnic and cultural diversity, therefore intentionally creating spaces and contexts where different cultures, nationalities, ethnicities, generations and classes integrate mutually and meaningfully to create something new for the sake of God’s kingdom purposes.
For example, multicultural churches often function on performative inclusivity. This happens when we see representation as a diversity exercise to make us look good. A church may prominently display flags of different nationalities in their building, but do the people from those nations have any say or power in how their church functions? In an intercultural church they will do. There will be constant questioning and discerning over whether power is shared and whether all truly have a sense of belonging.
From anywhere to everywhere
Some mission thinkers are now proposing that mission should be polycentric – that is, mission is now from anywhere to everywhere (no longer from West to East, or North to South). Dr Harvey Kwiyani, who leads Global Connections, talks about reverse mission in the context of the “blessed reflex”. This is the sense that missionaries have long looked forward to the day when Christians from the then-unevangelised lands would come to the West to reinvigorate Western Christianity; that Africans and other Christians from the so-called ‘young churches’ would one day be a blessing to global mission.
mission is now from anywhere to everywhere – no longer only from West to East, or North to South
Professor Babatunde Adedibu, who leads the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) theological institution in Nigeria describes reverse mission as “putting religion back in the public square in a postmodern, secular British society that somehow relegates faith to a private affair”. Reverse mission challenges aggressive secularism, which is impacting the faith of the Church negatively because it is eroding people’s theological convictions. Reverse missionaries therefore serve as a reminder to stay rooted to our faith convictions, thus inspiring a renewed confidence in incarnating, proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel.
An old idea
People of African ancestry have been involved in mission for centuries.
Thomas Lewis Johnson (1836-1921) served as a missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society in Cameroon. Joseph Jackson Fuller (1825-1908) was a missionary to the island of Fernando Po on the coast of West Africa, and Dr Theophilus Scholes (1858–1940) was a medical missionary in the Congo.
How should we define the theological contributions of St Hadrian, who migrated as a refugee from North Africa, first to Italy and then to Canterbury (AD 637-710), reforming the liturgy and rites of the English Church? And many of the early Church Fathers, whose theological output has been shaping the contours of Christianity for centuries, were African and Asian. But despite this, reverse mission brings a postcolonial critique to our mission enterprise, because it questions the centre of power in mission activity and asks: who are today’s missionaries?
Refugees and asylum seekers are now missionaries in Europe. This disrupts our traditional thinking of a missionary as someone who is well-trained, equipped and sent by a respectable church. But God in his wisdom, through people on the move, is using people from the majority world as missionaries nonetheless.
Transforming the world
The goal of reverse mission should be societal transformation that sees the gospel penetrating different spheres of our community. Currently, we have reverse missionaries who are evangelists. Some proclaim the gospel on street corners; some plant churches. There are also prayer missionaries who intercede for renewal, societal change and revival in our nation. There are reverse missionaries who work in the marketplace. These are African, Asian and Latin American Christians who have secular jobs but also a sense of calling to serve in our churches or through their vocations. Some are medical doctors, nurses, cleaners, clerks or administrators.
There are also reverse missionaries who are theologians, teaching in colleges and developing resources to diversify the curriculum to include subjects such as African Christianity, diaspora mission, the historical development of Black majority churches and world Christianity. This is important in centring a polyphonic voice within British theological education.
But are all these types of reverse mission enough to bring societal transformation?
In order to imagine an integrated, just society, as well as help us to address global issues, we also need reverse missionaries who are public thinkers and theologians, able to engage with public questioning on key cultural subjects. Public theology enables the public witness of the Church in this contested, postmodern, secular British society. We need reverse missionaries with prophetic imaginations who can engage with racial injustice, climate crisis, mental health, immigration and criminal justice – many of which disproportionately affect people from the majority world.
God’s mission has to be lived, proclaimed and demonstrated. We incarnate the gospel with our lives, proclaim it through evangelism and social action and demonstrate it through signs, wonders and political action. Black majority churches are very good in incarnating, proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel through signs and wonders, but they still lack political action. Having more reverse missionaries who are public thinkers and theologians could help address this deficiency.
Reverse mission is not without its problems but, at its best, it recognises that the West is a mission field, and God is using majority world Christians to remind the Western Church to stay faithful in the face of aggressive secularism. Reverse missionaries can best contribute to mission in Britain if we can develop a robust public theology that enables and empowers us to advocate on issues that dehumanise and affect us.