“Reverse Missions” or “Revised Missions”?

February 5, 2020

I originally wrote this post for the Dutch magazine de Nieuwe Koers (Februari edition, 2020).

To read this article in Dutch click here 

It is generally believed that the term “reverse mission” is about non-Western people, especially those who have been reached by Western missions in the past, bringing the gospel back to the West. Some Christians believe that reverse missions are incorrectly labeled because these migrants are not reaching out to the natives but to those within their own churches and communities. Thus, they have created ghettos and are not engaged in Christianity in their host nations. They believe that the notions of reverse missions are often romanticized and do not describe the reality in which migrant Christians are functioning.   

 

When we are talking about missions, and especially reverse missions, what do we, in essence, mean by “missions”? I often ask myself the question, “To what extent were the European missions true missions?” I am sure that my question may upset some, and I admit my suggestion is quite general because missionaries from Europe did, indeed, undertake great work among the peoples of the world. At the same time, the European missions, although to some extent beneficial and well-intended, resulted in an unhealthy synergy of colonialism — in some cases, native languages died out, local cultures were considered evil, and natural resources were exploited.

When we speak of missions from a Western perspective, we talk about numbers, statistics, and the maps we create with beautiful colors signifying “reached” or “unreached“ nations and regions. However, I look at missions differently. In my understanding, a mission represents being a witness for Jesus’ love of all people, including natives. Since we consider migrants part of the society, and since these migrants are becoming more active within their communities, they contribute to the broader society, i.e., their hosts. 

 

Several critiques have suggested that migrant churches are not representing reverse missions because they do not reach out to the natives of the host countries but rather serve only the migrants within their own communities. Thereby, new migrants receive care and assistance from other migrants, giving them a better foundation on which to build new lives and contribute to their host societies. Just because migrant churches offer services for their migrant communities doesn’t mean that their missions are not successful; on the contrary, they are successful because they are providing much-needed services that the wider society cannot (or will not) offer. There are some things governments cannot do that local migrant churches can do – and more effectively.  

I know of a number of case studies of migrants ministering, serving, and praying for natives in their host societies. Some even host them in their homes and give them places to stay. I will never forget the days when we were having a permanent sanctuary; some of the Dutch Christians needed a hall for conferences or services, and we made our space available to them for free or at a minimal fee. Yet, when we lost our building, we knocked at the doors of many empty native churches and found them unable (or unwilling) to share their sanctuaries with us.

 

In closing, do migrant churches have a colonizing agenda? Do their governments support them in a political take-over of Europe? Do they intend to change the culture and the language of their European hosts to Swahili, Egbo, Yoruba, or Bahasa? I believe that the missions of migrant churches throughout Europe are far more innocent, pure, and fragile than they are organized. They can be considered mission organisms instead of organized missions. The reason is that, for them, a mission is a part of their lives: as life itself is unfolding, so are their missional lives in a foreign land.  

 

Perhaps the term “reverse missions” is symbolic. These migrants are literally as well as figuratively “revising” what Western missions brought to their regions. They are, in fact, demonstrating the opposite of what it means to conduct a mission: no numbers, but “beings,” no hidden agendas or superior attitudes; no weapons, only guitars and keyboards among the crowds in the streets of London, Amsterdam, and Paris – only a simple evangelistic message of Jesus’ love.

 

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© 2010-2019 by Samuel C. Lee

 

Samuel Lee (Ph.D.) is university lecturer, at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam - Faculty of Religion and Theology (FRT-VU), and director for Center for Theology of Migration, the educational program of Samen Kerk in Nederland at the FRT-VU. 

He is the founder of Foundation Academy of Amsterdam, offering higher education in liberal arts and humanities for migrants, refugees and persecuted minorities.

 

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