Posted by: Titus Presler | July 1, 2011

“Inverse” or “reverse” mission? – Initiatives from the Two-Thirds World to the West

“We have an assistant pastor from Africa at our church.  He feels that he is a missionary to the United States.  It’s sort of an inverse kind of mission – and everyone loves him.”

My ears perked up on hearing this from a Lutheran layperson talking about the congregation of which she and her family are members in Roanoke, Virginia.  It indicated just how widespread the notion has become among laypeople of a new era of mission in which Europe and North America both need mission initiative from other parts of the world and are now experiencing such mission, mainly from areas of African, Asia and Latin America that historically received mission initiative from Europe and North America.

The congregation she was highlighting is St. John’s Lutheran Church in Roanoke, which is a member of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, an association founded about ten years ago that now has about 700 congregations in 42 states.  The African assistant pastor is the Rev. Elijah Mwitanti, who went to the USA from Zambia in 1994 to study but has stayed there in ministry in a variety of locales.  On the parish’s website the concept of “reverse mission” is explicitly invoked to frame his ministry in North America:

Elijah is an example of the 21st century reverse missionary movement.  God is calling people from areas like Africa, Asia and Latin America to spread the gospel in countries that used to be missionary sending agencies.  His ministry journey in the United States has seen Elijah serve in Texas, New Jersey, Utah, and currently at St. John Lutheran Church in Roanoke, VA.  Elijah is passionate about preaching, teaching, and missions.  He oversees Small Groups, Missions and Singles Ministry.  He serves on the board of governors of Orphan Medical Network International (OMNI) and Oasis Village in Zambia.

In Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, I critique the prominent Western assumption that mission primarily concerns outreach from the affluent to the poor and go on to comment on the phrase “reverse mission”:

It is used by Global North Christians, often with hints of amazement and humor, to refer to mission initiatives from the Global South to communities in Europe and North America.  The phrase may be unobjectionable if it is clear that what is being reversed is the historic movement of missionaries from the West to the Two-Thirds World and the view that it was only in the latter that there was mission to be done.  Often, however, there is also the sense that real mission continues to be from the affluent to the poor and that “reverse mission” from the poor to the affluent, while intriguing, is quixotic and faintly amusing.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Lutheran congregation is clearly using the term in a straightforward and unobjectionable way that is anchored in their experience of Pastor Mwitanti.  I was intrigued, however, that the parishioner said inverse mission, not reverse mission.  Inverse suggests complementarity and mutuality, whereas reverse mission can suggest a retort in a conflictual reading of mission history.

One question that hovers over the moves that Pastor Mwitanti and many others from the Two-Thirds World have made concerns mission intentionality versus migration happenstance.  Does a minister’s emigration from one’s own country and settling in another make one a missionary?  Certainly the ministry is occurring over boundaries of difference, which is essential to the nature of mission.  At the same time a sense of mission vocation is equally vital to missionary identity, and it would be fatuous to apply the term “missionary” to every transplant from one country and culture to another.  For its part, St. John’s is describing Pastor Mwitanti in missionary terms, which probably reflects his self-understanding as well – so there is a genuine missionary.

In contrast, while attending the consecration of the presiding bishop of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Mexico a number of years ago I was struck by the considerable number of expatriate clergy from the USA who had settled there and were leading congregations.  It was clear that they loved Mexico, its people and culture, but it was equally clear that they saw themselves primarily as emigrants from the USA and immigrants to Mexico.  They were making their lives there.  Far from seeing themselves as missionaries, they would probably be offended at the suggestion that they were missionaries.

Two takeaways from the Lutheran vignette:

– A multi-directional understanding of mission as a movement of witness from everywhere to everywhere is taking root among church folk, and it is a mistake to assume that they are stuck in outmoded stereotypes.

Inverse mission may be a better phrase than reverse mission, for it suggests a more complex movement characterized by complementarity and mutuality.

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Responses

  1. I can tell you how well this worked out for my home parish.
    -david/south hamilton

    • Hi David! Can you comment here on the blog? Always eager to hear news from Christ Church. Blessings, Titus


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