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.