Reverse Mission: South Asian contributions

Turning the Tables on MissionNations traditionally known as the mission-fields of Western missionaries are now sending their own people to minister in Europe and North America. This ‘reverse mission’ is a phenomenon that is attracting the attention of both academics and the media (for example the BBC documentary Reverse Missionaries, aired in 2012[1]).

Within academic and mission circles, however, a question remains: is reverse mission a rhetoric or a reality? Some are questioning whether reverse mission is really taking place when, for example, an Indian pastor is leading an Indian church in London? This leads us to ask whether reverse mission is only validated when an ethnic minority pastor is leading a white congregation? Another important question is what is the goal of reverse mission? Is it just about evangelising white people, or planting and building ethnic minority mega-churches? These are some of the questions addressed in my new book, Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the global south in the UK.

The book, a first of its kind, includes contributions from significant leaders such as Dr Ram Gidoomal (one of the founders of South Asian Concern), Rev Joel Edwards (international director of Micah Challenge and former general director of the Evangelical Alliance), Dr Jonathan Oloyede (convener of National Day of Prayer) and Bishop Donnett Thomas (chair of Churches Together in south London). It also includes the first-hand stories of less well-known Christians from Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean who are ministering in the UK.

Each contributor shares their own story, reflecting theologically on their calling into cross-cultural mission and multicultural ministry and sharing their struggles and experiences. This article gives you a flavour of some of the stories told in the book, all of which help us think about the phenomenon of reverse mission and the realities of multicultural ministry.

According to Professor Matthew Ojo, an African Church historian and theologian, reverse mission is “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 16th century to the late 20th century”.[2]

In this definition Professor 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, with the deliberate sending of missionaries from the global south. Dortha Blackwood’s story is an example of this, as she was sent from Jamaica to start a mission school in London.

While it is true that missionaries are being sent from the global south, there are also those who migrate for other reasons and end up planting churches and ministering in the UK. These other factors include economics, politics, education, family links and tourism. A good example of someone who migrated for other reasons but ended up doing mission in the UK is Dr Ram Gidoomal (CBE), one of the founders of South Asian Concern (SAC).

Dr Ram Gidoomal’s family went through two forced migrations, moving to East Africa following the partitioning of India in 1947, and settling in the UK in 1967 after being forced to leave Kenya. In 1971 Ram met the Lord after reading the New Testament. Since then he has being involved in various mission initiatives to bring relief to the poor and marginalised in the UK and across the world. Deeply affected by the poverty he witnessed in India, Ram co-founded the Christmas Cracker project which mobilised people in the UK in the 80s and 90s to raise money for the developing world. This project was very successful and pivotal to the start of South Asian Concern in 1989.

Ram’s account describes the struggle South Asians face when becoming a Christian, as well as how the Church in Britain has failed to reach South Asians. Like many of the stories in the book, Ram’s story challenges the notion that migrants are only ministering to their own people. He is clearly involved in cross-cultural mission through the work of the Lausanne Movement and other initiatives.

Harry Tennakoon’s story is different, as he is a Singhalese minister leading a Singhalese-speaking church in London. Harry asks an important question in his chapter; can British indigenous people really meet the spiritual, economic, political and social needs of all the different nationalities and cultures who have migrated to the UK,? This is an important question because history and contemporary experience demonstrate that the needs of migrants are easily ignored, especially when they are stigmatised by a public discourse which portrays them as draining the country’s resources. Harry indicates that the reason we have Tamil, Chinese, Nigerian and Brazilian churches etc is because of the need to care for the spiritual needs and welfare of migrants.

Rev Israel Olofinjana

Rev Israel Olofinjana

This book allows Christians from the global south to tell their own stories and provides fascinating insights into the realities, challenges and struggles of those who are ministering in cross-cultural situations. It is therefore a unique compilation well worth reading, particularly for those involved in multicultural ministry.

Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the global south in the UK by Rev Israel Olofinjana is published by Instant Apostle and available to purchase on Amazon in both paper copy and e-book (ISBN number 9781909728305).

[1] Reverse Missionaries, a three part documentary on BBC aired on 16, 23 and 30 March 2012, 9-10pm.

[2] Ojo, Matthew (2007) ‘Reverse Mission’ in Bonk, Jonathan (ed) Encyclopedia of Mission and Missionaries, NY, Routledge, p380.