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Reverse Mission: Is It Rhetoric or Reality?

The subject of reverse mission, that is, missionaries and pastors from former mission fields 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 aired in March 2012, is an example of the latter.

Within academic circles and mission practitioners the question remains: Is “reverse mission” a rhetoric or a reality?

To put the question in another way: Can we say reverse mission is taking place when, for example, a Nigerian pastor is leading a Nigerian church in London?

A different but related question to ask is whether reverse mission is only validated when an ethnic pastor is leading a white congregation?

Another important question is what is the goal of reverse mission? Is it just about evangelizing white people, or planting and building of ethnic megachurches?

These are some of the questions addressed in my book, “Turning the Tables on Mission,” published by Instant Apostle, but here is a flavor of some of the stories told in the book that seek to answer some of the above questions.

To address the question of whether reverse mission is a rhetoric or reality, we have to define what reverse mission is.

In “The Routledge Encyclopedia of Missions and Ministries,” Matthew Ojo, an African church historian and theologian, defines reverse mission as “the sending of missionaries to Europe and North America by churches and Christians from the non-Western world, particularly Africa, Asia, Latin America, which were at the receiving end of Catholic and Protestant missions as mission fields from the sixteenth century to the late twentieth century.”

In this definition, Ojo highlights the shift in the geography and direction of mission from the south to the north. He also refers to the intentionality of mission by the deliberate sending of missionaries from the global south.

One of the stories in the book is that of Jose Carlos Lara, a Brazilian missionary who was intentionally sent to do mission in Northern Ireland.

Jose Carlos came with his family in 2004 through Latin Partners, which are part of Latin Link, a South American mission agency.

Jose Carlos’ ministry in Northern Ireland is fascinating because amid the tension between Catholics and Protestants are large migrant communities, including Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking groups.

His ministry has involved starting an English class for some of these migrant communities so that they can integrate into the Irish society.

He has also worked tirelessly to help them find jobs and to overcome discrimination.

As a result of prejudice and offending Protestants by getting involved in a joint prayer meeting involving both Catholics and Protestants, his car was set on fire and his house window stoned during the night.

Through all these experiences, and many more, Jose Carlos is still living and serving in Northern Ireland.

He is currently involved in a multicultural church helping to run Bible studies for the Portuguese-speaking people of the church and those in the community.

Another illustration of someone deliberately sent is the story of Dotha Blackwood.

She left Jamaica reluctantly in 1993, leaving behind a fruitful ministry and a banking job, to answer God’s call to start a Bible Training Institute in the United Kingdom.

Since being in the U.K., Dotha has lectured at Moorlands College and is currently lecturing in Practical Theology at Spurgeon’s College, training and preparing men and women for ministry.

She has been and continues to be involved in church leadership in multicultural congregations.

The two stories above are examples to illustrate that people are being sent to do mission in the U.K.

They also demonstrate that not every migrant pastor or missionary is ministering only to their own ethnic group, as Jose Carlos and Dotha are clearly serving in multicultural contexts.

For those pastors and missionaries that are serving in contexts involving their own people, there are historical as well as contemporary reasons.

One reason is that it is very easy for the needs of migrants to be ignored, especially when the current public discourse stigmatizes them as draining the country’s resources.

Someone has to help them spiritually, economically, politically and socially, which is why we still have Tamil churches, Chinese churches, African churches, Brazilian churches and so on.

There is also the factor of feeling comfortable among your own people, which is common to every human being and that is why we still have white majority churches as well.

Israel Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister who is the team leader at Catford Community Church in London. He is Nigerian, coming from a Pentecostal background, and blogs at IsraelOlofinjana. He is the author of several books, including “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in Britain,” which is available on Amazon U.K. here and Amazon U.S. here.