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26 April 2016

Reverse missionaries: how the migrant Church is shaping European Christianity

Reverse missionaries: how the migrant Church is shaping European Christianity

For the past two years, hundreds of South Koreans have come to the UK for a two-week prayer mission, organised by the National Day of Prayer. The Alliance's general director Steve Clifford was among hundreds that joined the group for the evening of prayer and worship at the end of the trip in London.

Pastor Jonathan Oloyede, convenor of the NDOP, said: "This Prayer Mission has created a very powerful prophetic picture of the global Church uniting with the British Church for the reviving of Christianity across these isles. This is not the end for what God wants to do, but the start as the legacy of the Korean visitors is being lived out in the 30 towns and regions they have visited." The South Koreans credited their mission partly to gratitude for the missionaries that went out from the UK in the past, introducing the nation to the gospel. 

But when did all this start? It used to be that the United Kingdom sent out missionaries – primarily to Africa and Asia. There is debate today about whether these trips were a force for good or bad, but examples from our own membership show the evangelical commitment to evangelism bore fruit. The Church Mission Society was founded in 1799 by a group of activist evangelical Christians committed to three great enterprises: abolition of the slave trade, social reform at home and world evangelisation.

OMF's roots were planted in 1831 when James Hudson Taylor embarked on his first mission to China, dedicating his whole life to bringing the gospel to Asia and encouraging the Church to support the establishing of reproducing communities of believers in
East Asia. 

And closer to home, France Mission has a long history of planting churches throughout the country, despite its secular reputation. Today, the Alliance member is still planting churches, training leaders and growing communities. So when did the tide turn, and the missionaries from countries we previously sent our young men and women to, start sending their own back to us? 

Israel Olofinjana, himself a reverse missionary from Nigeria, has researched the subject extensively, writing four books around this phenomenon. While many believe the practice began in the 1940s, he believes it dates as far back as 1906, when Sumner Road Chapel was founded in Peckham, London, by Ghanaian Rev Kwame Brem-Wilson.

The author, who's also director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World, wrote in his book Reverse in Ministry & Mission: "Africa is part of the two-thirds world where the expression of Christianity that is growing is Pentecostalism." 

He goes on to explain: "Apart from revival another reason for the explosion in growth in these churches has been because Africans are taking initiative, leading fellow Africans and successfully adapting Christianity to African culture and context. This increase in Church growth has led to another shift, which has been recognised by anthropologists, missiologists and religious scholars. This has been the efforts of Africans in reaching out to the western world. 

"African ministers and missionaries are on the increase, crossing over to Europe to share the gospel." Rev Olofinjana believes this is due to these ministers having the conviction that Europe has become too secular and has forgotten its Christian heritage.

The African theologian John Pobee wrote in African Reformation: "It's a contemporary mantra of the study of Church history and missiology that the centre of the gravity of world Christianity has shifted from the North Atlantic to the South, with Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Pacific as the new heartland of Christianity." 

It doesn't make easy reading for the Church in the West. Christianity is growing in the two-thirds world, while it's on the decline in the West – Africans are now leading the largest and fastest growing churches in Europe. Because of the increasing secularisation here noted by Rev Olofinjana, many commentators now call it "the dark continent".

Evangelical Alliance member Latin Link established their multi-directional mission in 1999, noticing the trend before many others. The organisation has placed evangelicals from Argentina, Peru and Brazil in mission with UK churches across Britain and Ireland. Latin Americans are also commissioned to go to Switzerland, too. Member churches such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God are also leading the way in this area. 

One of Britain's fastest growing churches, the RCCG was founded in Nigeria in 1952, but now exists in more than more than 100 countries, with more than 700 parishes in the UK alone, and has a clear focus on evangelising the West.

But sometimes, missionaries to the UK are from the West themselves. The Evangelical Alliance Wales runs Missional Links Wales, an initiative to encourage American and Welsh churches to collaborate in mission across each Welsh county and across the nation in long-term relationship. Each summer, a group of Americans come to Wales to minister in local communities. 

Wales has a population of more than three million. For a long time Wales has been known as the land of revivals, but the last was in 1904/5. Since that time, there has been a steady decline in church attendance and closure of churches has been higher than in any other part of the UK.

Alliance research suggests that there are about 60,000 evangelical Christians in Wales – two per cent – though around seven per cent of the population claim to attend some form of church regularly. A large proportion of the churches in Wales are made up of 25 members or less, usually elderly, and many towns and villages have no evangelical witness at all.

In recent years, thanks to the work of many mission organisations, there have been encouraging signs of growth, and churches and church leaders are increasingly having fellowship across denominational lines, and Missional Links in working to increase that. 

Christianity in the UK is undoubtedly being shaped by the migrant Church, yet is our Church unity reflecting that? The Evangelical Alliance's One People Commission constantly challenges the work done throughout the Alliance, and commitments have been made to ensure diversity is represented in everything the Alliance does.

But if the rest of the world sees Europe as the "dark continent" and views the UK as the new mission field, are we doing enough ourselves to share the good news of Jesus here?

If you'd like to find out more about the One People Commission, the Evangelical Alliance's network of national leaders from across denominations, representing the diversity of the evangelical Church in the UK, visit eauk.org/onepeoplecommission

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