Twenty-five years ago, when I worked for the Londonderry Presbyterian City Mission, my title was City Missioner. Note: ‘missioner’ not ‘missionary’. Missionaries worked in ‘the mission field’ overseas since Northern Ireland was a ‘Christian country’, not a ‘mission field’. The UK sends missionaries, it doesn’t receive them. Or does it?
As we moved into the twenty-first century, UK churches began to realise how radically the map of global Christianity had changed. Events such as the Third Lausanne Congress at Cape Town in 2010 highlighted the demographic shift of Christianity from its predominantly European and North American base (80% of all Christians) in 1910 to the present majority of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders (62%). So the growth of the Church in the majority world, combined with the ethnic and religious diversity of communities in the UK, means that mission is now multi-directional.
For many years OMF has been actively engaged in evangelism and discipleship among East Asia’s peoples here in the UK. Until recently, this ministry was largely carried out by men and women who had previously served as missionaries in East Asia and had then returned to the UK. However, OMF UK is now receiving missionaries sent from other countries – for example Hong Kong and the USA, who are serving in the Diaspora Returnee Ministries team in UK and Ireland, with the expectation that others, particularly from East Asia, will soon join them.
Over the past 200 years the missionary sending paradigm has largely been from the powerful to the powerless, from wealthy nations to poorer ones. As Amos Yong puts it, ‘the colonial enterprise put us in charge of God’s sending rather than allowing us to be carried by the sending God.’1
It could be argued that despite this God’s missionary dynamic has always moved from the periphery, and with the growth of the Church in the Global South we are now witnessing mission from the margins in ways that are reminiscent of the early church.
However, those being sent from countries that traditionally received missionaries are not always received well here in the UK. At a Global Connections meeting a Kenyan missionary to the UK spoke on behalf of others from the majority world: ‘We could cite examples of situations where due to years of some Western missionaries being patronising and domineering in the mission fields, contributions of those from the Global South have been practically ignored. Those of us who have come to the UK can experience the same thing.’
How should we respond to the great shifts we see happening in the worldwide Church?
First, we need to recognise ‘the wineskin factor’, the ways in which new movements, people, centres and structures periodically emerge, reminding us that ‘the mission of God is not confined to any wineskin. In fact, when any particular wineskin becomes old and hard, a new one comes along to hold and then spread the good wine of the gospel.’2
Second, we need to build relationships marked by trust and humility, welcoming those whom God sends to minister among us, especially those engaging in ‘mission from the margins’. This has been described as ‘an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalised… People in positions of privilege have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginal conditions.’3
Third, we need to change our structures to reflect new paradigm realities. We reflect old ways of thinking when we continue to use the language of ‘home’ and ‘field’, which as Chris Wright points out, ‘fundamentally misrepresents reality. Not only does it perpetuate a patronising view of the rest of the world as always being on the receiving end of our missionary largesse, but it also fails to recognise the maturity of churches in many other lands.’4
Sending and receiving, and the ministries of evangelisation and mobilisation, have always been part of what it means to engage in mission. But with reverse mission happening in places like the UK, and in light of the maturity of churches in East Asia, we need to be allowing more fuzzy boundaries so that evangelisation and mobilisation, instead of being confined by fixed structures, are encouraged to intersect and enjoy a greater degree of collaboration. In OMF we want to be developing mission structures that facilitate the creativity and ownership of mission in all its dimensions.
1. Wipf and Stock Publishers, ‘An Interview with Amos Yong’ YouTube, 20 January 2017, 11:45 go.omf.org/yonginterview.
2. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, p. 397.
3. Melisande Lorke and Dietrich Werner, [eds], Ecumenical Visions for the 21st Century: A Reader for Theological Education, Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013, p. 196.
4. Christopher J. H. Wright, ‘An Upside-Down World’ in Christianity Today, January 2007, p. 44