Reverse mission?

Colombian, Indian, Nigerian, Malawian – are they really mission workers?

As I am helping the European Evangelical Mission Association plan a conference on the diaspora church (churches made up largely of members of ethnic minorities) in Europe, a couple of weeks ago I went to a very interesting conference where none of the speakers were white, middle-aged, western European men.

It’s not often that one has the opportunity to listen to wisdom and experience from people who are often marginalized by what might be called the ‘mainstream’ church, apart from the wonderful Rev Joel Edwards, who is extremely popular as a speaker.  If you’re interested, you can read a review of the conference here.

Inevitably in such a discussion, the term reverse mission came up.  You may not have come across this term much, and a quick look at articles on the internet indicates the term has only been in use for a few years.  It is used to denote those people who have come from a majority world culture to bring the gospel to European people.  It is used with wry amusement by reporters, but also by serious missiologists, and one of the organisers of the conference I attended, Rev Israel  Oluwole Olofinjana of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World (CMMW), has written a very helpful  introduction to the subject.

Yet despite its wide adoption, I want to take issue with this term, because I believe it is essentially derogatory to the people it describes:

  1. It implies they are not proper mission workers. After all, real missionaries are white people who go to deprived places, not deprived people who come to white places, aren’t they? So we have to put a qualifying adjective in front of the noun to belittle them and make it clear that they don’t have the same status.
  2. It also does not reflect the prevailing view to which we all pay lip service, that mission is from everywhere to everywhere. Reverse mission implies that real mission is from the West to the rest, and if the rest start coming here, it’s not quite the same. If mission is really from everywhere to everywhere, mission workers must be from everywhere to everywhere too.
  3. The word ‘reverse’ has stigma attached to it. It means retrograde, or retreating. Plans that are overly ambitious are put into reverse.  Reverse means going backward.  Reverse is essentially wrong.  If we must use a qualifying adjective, at least ‘inward’ would be neutral, reflecting a geographic direction rather than a moral one.

In Britain there are now many mission workers from former colonies and elsewhere who are sufficiently grateful that a few generations ago our compatriots took them the gospel that they are now doing the favour of returning it to people who have lost it.  We should be grateful – after all the indigenous British church is not doing a great job of reaching our lost neighbours.  We need the help.

But many British churches are not ready to receive mission workers from another continent.  We might tolerate North Americans, but when we see a Ghanaian leading worship, a Pakistani preaching or a Mexican giving communion, we might be intrigued, or amused, but we seldom honour them for the sacrifice they are making, or respect their wisdom and Biblical understanding, or appreciate their pastoral skill.  We tolerate them with a paternalistic smile, but they’re not the real thing.

As a nation, we are not ready for reverse mission.  But if we stopped calling it ‘reverse’, at least we might start moving towards it.

A Gothic horror?

No, not those Goths!

No, not those Goths!

In the spring of 376 AD, thousands of hungry, weary Goths arrived on the northern bank of the Danube, in what is now Romania, and asked the Romans permission to cross the river into safety.  Displaced by war and violence in their homelands further east, they had migrated to what they believed was safer territory behind the Roman frontier.

For Rome, it was a wonderful opportunity.  Thousands of new citizens who could become workers, soldiers, farmers, taxpayers and consumers could breathe life into the old empire.  But it was also a threat.  Such a large influx could disrupt lifestyle, change culture, bring unhelpful new influences and potentially crime and violence.

The Romans prevaricated, and by not being decisive, lost the initiative.  The Goths forced their way in but instead of being settled and absorbed, they remained a separate cultural (and military) identity within the empire.  Within a few years war broke out, the Goths had inflicted on Rome its biggest defeat in centuries and killed an emperor.  For decades they migrated around western Europe looking for a home, and became the first invaders to sack Rome in nearly a millennium.  They destabilised the empire and contributed to the collapse of the western half of the empire.

1640 years later, is Europe now in the same position as the Romans were?  Faced with a massive influx of people from different cultures, desperate for safety, jobs, a home, will we make them into friends or enemies?  How are they going to influence Europe?

This is the background to next month’s EEMA conference on refugees.  Refugees in Europe – a Fence or a Bridge? will consider what the church in Europe will be doing in the face of the current refugee crisis/opportunity.  How do we show we care about refugees?  What changes are going to be forced on the European church as a result of this?  Is it legitimate to take this as an opportunity to evangelise displaced people, and if it is, how do we do it?  What does this mean for mission from, to and in Europe?

For more information on this key conference, which will be held in Bucharest (in Romania, where the Goths arrived) from 21st-24th June, go to the EEMA website.  We’re going – we hope to see you there!

From a Wall to a Bridge

Cracked wall

A crack in the wall (Source: www.freeimages.com)

A few weeks ago we celebrated the Fall of the Wall.  For much of the latter part of the 20th century Berlin was divided in two by this physical barrier, which also by allusion applied to the Iron Curtain which divided much of central and eastern Europe from the west.

Walls don’t necessarily create division but they certainly perpetuate it.  They keep people apart.  They stop trade and traffic.  They divide families, prevent the exchange of ideas, and contribute to misunderstanding.  The Berlin Wall did all those.

The Wall only stood for 28 years but its shadow continued to hang over Europe much longer.  For a whole generation after its demolition, it continued to exist in the mind of churches, agencies and mission workers.  It was, in effect, a stronghold, even though it no longer existed, because it affected missional thinking on both sides of the boundary.

In the west, many mission workers viewed eastern Europe as a new mission field.  They ignored the rich religious tradition, the oppressed but faithful churches, the many heroic believers who continued to be a witness to Jesus throughout the communist times, and assumed that the lack of Bible colleges and seminaries meant that the local believers were immature and biblically illiterate.  They moved in with money and programmes and sidelined locals who didn’t get on board with their projects.

But it wasn’t only the westerners who made mistakes.  Often the believers in central and eastern Europe resented the intruders and refused to work with them.  They let them get on with making their mistakes rather than helping them.  They looked down on the westerners who had money and programmes but were not interested in important things like relationship and culture.

Chain bridge

The Chain Bridge in Budapest (source: www.freeimages.com)

Therefore much mission in eastern Europe was characterised by division and mistrust.  Granted, this was not always the case, but it was the dominant theme which emerged at the conference of the European Evangelical Mission Association as it took stock of the last 25 years since the Fall of the Wall.  Yet the same conference heard much good news.  We met leaders of many thriving churches from a dozen countries in eastern Europe.  We heard stories from eastern European mission workers to several Asian countries.  Mission leaders from all over Europe got together to discuss strategy, training, education and member care.  And most of all we were greatly encouraged to hear of a new paradigm that has begun to emerge.

In her opening presentation, Anne-Marie Kool cited the example of the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the city where she has lived and worked since 1987.  She pointed out that it was built through cooperation between east and west and at the time was a symbol of progress and unity.  Inspired by a Hungarian nationalist, it was constructed by local builders and engineers consulting with an English designer and a Scottish chief engineer.  It brought together the two diverse communities of Buda and Pest for the first time, and stopped the great expanse of the Danube preventing traffic flowing easily from east to west and back again.

This could be the dominant image to emerge from the conference – that having demolished a wall which kept us apart, Europe is now in the process of building a bridge to bring us all closer together as we reach out to take the gospel to diverse communities across Europe and beyond.  A new spirit of genuine humility and cooperation, based on mutually respectful relationships, is starting to emerge.  At Syzygy we welcome this strategic development, and look forward to the result becoming even more elegant, beautiful and functional than the Chain Bridge.

The crack in the wall

Cracked wall25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall was breached.  Few of us alive at the time can forget the emotional scenes of Germans from both sides of the barrier greeting each other freely, without risk of being shot.  The Wall had divided the city since 1961 and was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe into two ideologically distinct halves.  The fall of the Wall was a dramatic change in European geopolitics which had been unthinkable only a few months before.

Berlin was a microcosm of global issues and the fall of the wall was a turning point in modern European history.  It brought down with it the Iron Curtain, and shortly afterwards the Romanians overthrew their dictator, and other communist regimes fell in eastern Europe.  Within a few years, The Czech Republic and Slovakia had parted company, Yugoslavia had violently fractured and the Soviet Union broken up.  The impact of those events still affect millions of people today – just think of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Berlin itself wasn’t the start.  The roots of the popular overthrow of communist regimes across eastern Europe began with the election of a Polish pope in 1979, which gave a new legitimacy to the Roman Catholic church in Poland.  The trades union Solidarity stood up to the communist government.  Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika.   Prayer meetings started in East Berlin.

Gods_smuggler_headerChristians played a significant part in this movement and continue to do so.  New liberties allowed Christians to meet freely and take the gospel to their neighbours.  Western mission agencies and churches could enter countries freely where only a few years before Brother Andrew had been smuggling in Bibles in his battered VW.  Protestant churches were planted where previously there had been no evangelical witness.  Church buildings were reconsecrated and put back into use.  Eastern Europe began to send its own mission workers to other countries, and today it provides the world with significant theologians and leaders.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time there will be many retrospectives.  The current issue of Vista has an excellent review.  Syzygy is proud to be helping the European Evangelical Mission Association run a conference called Revolutions in European Mission, which will take place in Bucharest in two weeks’ time on the anniversary of the Romanian revolution.  Not only will it review the successes and failures of the last 25 years of mission, but it will ask important questions about how we do mission in the future.  You can read more about it here.

Today a million tourists have taken away most of the Berlin Wall, though its location is remembered in the paving on the Berlin streets where it once stood.  On this important anniversary we rejoice with the people of central and eastern Europe, recognise what it cost many of them to gain their freedom, and pray that they will use it well.