On Reverse Mission

‘We’re sending Gospel workers to the Dark Continent!’

Praise the Lord, right?! But what exactly does this seemingly simple statement mean?

Its meaning used to be plain enough. For over 200 years it meant that western churches were setting aside people, resources and prayer to send Christian missionaries to Africa, or some other continent where the Gospel was not yet known. This is still happening, and rightly so.



But we wouldn’t dare use the term ‘Dark Continent’ for Africa, or Latin America or Asia today! The reasons are a complex mix of political correctness, delight in a mission task nearing completion and embarrassment that in the West we’re no longer feeling so ‘Enlightened’.

In fact, if you still want to hear the term ‘Dark Continent’ used, you’ll probably have to go to a mission conference in the Global South. As mission agencies springing up south of the Equator seek mission recruits, ‘Dark Continent’ is how they are describing Europe.

How does that make you feel? How do you feel about African Christians in Nigeria putting up a world map in a mission meeting in a church in Lagos and pointing at Europe to single it out as the spiritually most needy continent? It’s a bit shocking really, but at our most honest we’d have to agree, sadly, with that description. We’re living in the ‘New Dark Continent’.

Problem is, nobody quite knows what to do about it. Should we clean up our own mess? Is this just the way God’s kingdom waxes and wanes geographically, and there’s nothing to be done about it? Is it divine judgement on our Laodicean tepidity? Can anyone from the outside really help?

Frankly, we’d like to maintain control of the situation – keep our grip on the mission tiller. But that’s not looking very realistic any more. We never asked for permission to send our Gospel workers to other countries and, now that the tables are turning, they are not asking us for permission to come here! They are just coming.

It seems to me that we are at a bit of a turning point, similar to the critical moment when a river flowing out to sea begins to be pushed back up the estuary by the incoming waters of the sea. Water is flowing in both directions, but mixing, churning, swirling.

Assuming that we admit our need of help, what should that look like? Should incoming missionaries just do their own thing? ‘No!’ we cry, there is an existing church here, ‘They should join us and strengthen what remains.’ But we’re not always that easy to join. Lots of reverse missionaries have tried but failed to work alongside us.

‘They are more conditioned by their culture than informed by scripture!’ is a criticism I’ve certainly made as a western missionary in various Ethiopian contexts. Now I’m hearing it from reverse missionaries trying to serve within UK churches. And I’m not talking about dying, liberal churches but evangelical churches with a heart for mission. The finger starts to point back at me. I’m squirming.

Whose fault is it that as the Church universal we haven’t been able to get it right yet? I guess some of the fault lies on both sides. All evangelicals seem to be better at speaking and acting than listening. But also, this is an unprecedented situation for all of us and it is going to take time for us to sort ourselves out. To hear each other and organise ourselves together in co-operation, not competition. I think much of the confusion is just the tide coming back in, before we expected.

So what should we do? Sorry to disappoint you, but I haven’t got the silver bullet solution to this one. There are certainly no easy answers. I think it’s a bit like having more people than seats at church – it’s definitely a problem …  but actually quite a nice problem.

We always wanted our mission endeavours to know success under God’s almighty hand, didn’t we? Well now, looked at in human terms, we are becoming the victims of our own success. By God’s grace we planted mission minded churches alright, and now they want to evangelise us.

Some of the solutions are going to be structural and programmatic. For example, my own mission, Serving in Mission, has the beginnings of a pipeline. At one end of the pipeline there is a recruiting office in East Africa, at the other end SIM UK has just started project Engage to pilot placing missionaries from the global south into UK churches. Other missions are doing similar things. The coolest I heard about was an Argentinean serving through Latin Link on Shetland! It’s all quite exploratory, but it’s a start. We’ve all got so much to learn about how to do this well together.

I’d like to suggest that undergirding these organisational first steps, the real keys are going to be attitudinal – issues of Christian character. Being awed by God’s sovereign surprises (Romans 11:33), astounded at our own sinfulness (Psalm 51), ‘slow to speak and quick to listen’ (James 1:19) and ‘in humility considering others better than ourselves’ (Philippians 2:3). Without these things in bucket loads, and on both sides, there’s really no point talking.

Note: This year at LCGM there will be a seminar led by Nigerian missionary Peter Ozodo, of Capro, addressing UK church leaders on the opportunities and difficulties of serving as a reverse missionary in the UK.

You can book you place here

Dave Baldwin works for SIM (Serving in Mission) and is seconded to Oak Hill to direct the Theology for Crossing Cultures stream. After graduating from Belfast Bible College, Dave, along with his wife Maura, served with SIM in Ethiopia for 11 years in Bible teaching and using English Language Teaching in urban outreach. Since returning from Africa, they have served in two local independent churches in their home town of Reading, helping them engage with and minister to urban internationals.