Sharing the Gospel in the UK: A Nigerian's perspective
Reverend Israel Olofinjana, is a Nigerian and an ordained and accredited Baptist minister who has pastored at Catford Community Church in London since September 2011. He speaks about some of the challenges of being a missionary from the Global South
CT: Your book "Turning the Tables on Mission" looks at the increasing phenomenon of missionaries from the Global South coming to work as missionaries to the UK. How did you come to the conclusion that such a book needed to be written?
IO: There are lots of scholars writing on this subject in universities and divinity colleges, but most of them are writing from an academic point of view, which has its place, but I felt we needed something that combined academic research and the perspective of a practitioner living the life of a missionary to this country.
The subject is still relatively new. I published a book in 2010 which is sort of an introduction to this one, called Reverse Mission, and after that book came out, conversations started and people asked questions. And one of the big questions was "is this really happening?" and so I thought that I needed to write a book to answer that question.
CT: So you encountered lots of people who didn't believe that reverse mission is happening. Why do you think that was?
IO: I can understand why there are critics of reverse mission, and the reason is we have churches in the UK that are led by Nigerians whose congregation are majority Nigerian, or a Ghanaian pastor whose church is majority Ghanaian, or Jamaican or Chinese etc. So when people see things like that, they ask questions. They say how can that really be reverse mission? If a Nigerian is reaching out to Nigerians, that's not reverse mission, that's just reaching out to your own people. You're not going beyond your own culture. You're not reaching out to the white indigenous. And that is true, and I have seen cases of that, and there are many reasons for that. But there is another picture, and that picture is of pastors from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean or South America, and they are leading either white majority churches or multicultural churches. And so when you have cases like that, you can see something is going on here.
CT: Harry Tennakoon seems like a lone voice in your second book. Whereas all the other contributors seem to be an advocate of multi-cultural churches, Harry appears to take the view that perhaps it is okay that people of one culture minister to their own people.
IO: No, not really. I suppose what I was trying to do with Harry's story was to say that there are still cases of people leading their own people and culture, like Harry's case, and there are reasons for that. In the multi-cultural climate of the UK, there are still peoples whose needs are neglected - economic, physical, or spiritual needs. There are still large numbers of white majority churches, but many people don't see that as an ethnicity. But I do suggest that even if you have a mono-ethnic church, you should still find ways to engage ... good relations and good engagements [are] something we should be working towards.
CT: The issue of accents comes up several times in the book, and how easy it is for indigenous British people to understand pastors with thick Nigerian or Ghanaian or Kenyan accents. Is that really a big problem, and what kind of solutions do you think there are to deal with that?
IO: Many of us came to the UK when we were already grown up. I came here when I was 26-years-old, others when they were 30-something, others 40-something. Their accent is not going to change, no matter how British they try to be. English is still a second language. Some of us were privileged to learn it nearly from birth, but many of us were not. It's just like if a British person was to learn another language. You would still be pronouncing those words with a British accent. When we lead churches with white British people in them, I've heard people say they struggle to understand, and I think that okay, that's an issue, it might be difficult to hear, but if you truly understand where the missionary is coming from, there is a way you go about saying that. It is how you complain rather than the complaint itself that is an issue. With time you can get used to that accent, and then with time the leader will adapt their tone as well. But you can't expect that person's accent to just disapper straight away, it's a question of take and give, and time, and love, and respect. At times, people say it in such a rude way, you think "what other languages do you speak"? And many people who come to the UK, they can speak four languages etc.
CT: What do you think white majority churches have to change or do better in order to work more effectively with missionaries from the Global South?
IO: I think that we have to see people coming in as a gift. If they are viewed as a threat or competition or we treat them with a haughty tone "why are they coming here, this is England, we're a Christian country" that sort of view, that will make it difficult. There's a scripture in Esther that says "Who knows that this was for such a time as this" and I think that's the best way I can summarise. There is a need here, and in Europe, and people recognise that. When we talk about world mission or global mission, it should not be monopolised as the West going to the Global South. We have to understand the Missio Dei, that this is God doing something, God orchestrating something. This is a gift, let's work together, and I've seen people saying "thank God you came". We must all remember we are all working for the same kingdom, and that should be our priority.
CT: Would you say there is a lack of humility in the indigenous church? Is that a big issue?
IO: I think it is a big issue in certain quarters. I've travelled around the UK a lot and I've seen various attitudes. That sense of pride, often not said in so many words. Often people are not even explicitly verbal about it, it's in their body language. It's interesting when I take my book to places, and people ask "do you think there is need for this?", that makes me surprised as to how little people understand what is happening in the UK.
CT: Are there particular denominations or church groups that are working better with Global South missionaries than others?
IO: Many of the missionaries and pastors coming are within the Protestant tradition, particually independent Pentecostals. I am a Baptist minister and I know in the Baptist Union in the UK, many pastors especially in London have come from outside and are leading churches, even some of the largest in this country. But I think the concentration is found in the independent Pentecostal movement.
CT: What would you say are the biggest challenges for the people of the Global South coming here? In particular, your own experience, are there challenges specific to those of Nigerian origin coming here?
IO: I think one of the biggest challenges is to not have that arrogance ourselves. I've seen pastors coming here thinking "oh, Christianity is dying out here, so we're just going to do our own thing and set the place ablaze". When people go on that kind of journey, they don't understand things. They think we can transplant the church experience in Nigeria into a British context, when in fact it's a very different place. That's part of the reason why I wrote this book. You can't really do mission in the same way in the UK as you do in Nigeria. In Nigeria people are very open to religion, but here people are very closed to the idea because its becoming very secular. People coming here need to understand that and to go on a journey of humility, and they need to understand people need to benefit from each other.
The other issues are things like finance. Many are not financed by churches or mission organisations, and so they will need to get a job and that means they can't go to so many meetings and that can create problems.
CT: Why do you think secularisation has come about here in a way that it hasn't in these countries that missionaries are now coming to the UK from?
IO: I think I would trace the roots of our current situation back to the enlightenment. It was a period in history where many thought they had matured. They had come of age, and thought "we don't need God now". And so God was dethroned and man was imposed. The reason for that was that religion was a big tonic issue, with conflicts between Catholics and Protestants etc and people were thinking "if religion is so good, why is there so much evil around it". And so it started with Deism, with people thinking "okay maybe God created the world, but now he's left it to its own devices, we're not sure he cares about it". And then we move to atheism which for many sprung from evolution, with people saying "well maybe God didn't create this world after all" and people start to think we have no need for God, and they look at how we are progressing technologically, scientifically etc, but then after the first and second world war, we thought that maybe we weren't so enlightened after all, so we moved to the post-modern shift which simply means what you think is true is different from what I think is true, and that's kind of good because it allows people to be free thinking and have their own values, but what that means is that there is no clear united background of experience anymore. And that is why you begin to have aggressive secularism. So Christianity is not the favoured religion anymore, and that is good because it means that those people who are members have made a committed decision about it, but the downside is we lose the values associated with it in our society more widely.
CT: One of the things the book talks about is worship styles. Is it more difficult for people from the Global South to engage with the more sombre or reserved worship styles in the UK?
IO: I think it is a cultural issue. If you think of Brazil or Africa, these are both very expressive cultures, with singing and dancing etc. And there is this British reserve in the traditional churches, "let's just sing and think about what we are singing", what some of my friends would call cerebral Christianity, where we think and reflect on what we are signing. And I have seen my African brothers struggling and thinking "Can we just not sing and express ourselves please?". In terms of changing and how you deal with the differences, it depends on how flexible you are, which I think is one of the key virtues the book supports. I've gone from a Pentecostal background to a Baptist community, similar but also difficult. I struggled initially, but I understand it now and I can see the value in both.
CT: What is do you think the biggest single gift that missionaries from the Global South bring to the UK?
IO: I think it is a certain confidence in articulating the Gospel. People in the UK are still confident in the Gospel, but because of the history of Christianity in this country, and because of the culture and such you kind of feel reserved about it. I have a friend from Azerbaijan and he said that he can't understand why people don't preach in this country, because where he comes from, people who preach have their families taken from them, and they can be thrown in prison, but they still preach. And yet here, if you do that, none of those things will happen to you, yet people still don't preach, because you're afraid of getting in people's faces etc. So I think that it's a lack of confidence to speak out, not a lack of faith, that makes people in the UK nervous. And it's that confidence to speak that the Global South missionaries help to bring back to the country.
CT: And conversely, what does the British church offer to the Global South missionaries?
IO: I think it is that contextual understanding. At the end of the day, this is England, and you have all grown up with the culture here, and you understand it. And it is just like the missionaries who went to Africa, many of them did not have much success until they started partnering with those who lived there. No matter how good the pastors and ministers from the south are, we still need British leaders and pastors who know the territory. That knowledge and understanding is needed.
For example, my wife is English, and there are some things that I would like to say when I am writing and preaching, and there are some phrases and ways with words that could be taken a different way in England compared to how I would expect them to be taken in Nigeria. She's almost like a window, framing the situation and helping me with the culture. You need that insight and understanding to be able to effectively reach out and share things.
CT: Do we need more British people going to Africa and other parts of the Global South to explain what the mission field is like in the UK? Are there things that need to be better explained to missionaries coming to England?
IO: There are many ways that we can encourage partnership, but the most important thing is that no one should be colonial, or patronising, or paternalistic. There's been a history and so that's very easy to cause suspicion. We have to start with genuine friendship, and then say "how can we help you?". I am in conversations with a lot of mission agencies in the UK, and they are just asking me questions, and you can tell when they are genuinely wanting to know, verses people who are not genuine and just want to use you. I think we need each other, but we need more than a cheap partnership.
One thing I have seen recently is the One People Commission which is bringing together leaders of African and Caribbean and Asian and British churches. That was started in 2010-2011. I've also seen white and black majority churches working together well, with the more established black churches especially, the ones who have been here since the 1960s, they know the terrain. Those are the kinds of partnerships we need. Just based on the question "how can we help you?".
CT: Do you find it frustrating that there are so many British people who still feel that mission is something where you need to go to another country? Do you find it strange that there are people who think there are other places more in need of the Gospel than their home?
IO: I do actually, I see a lot of need here, and I see a lot of money being poured into churches preparing mission to go off to a lot of different places. And I think, yes there is need in those other places, we can't ignore that, but there's a lot of need here. Maybe this is because you take it for granted, but I think there's a lot of need here, maybe more than in many other parts of the world. We might have a whole generation who don't know who Jesus is.
CT: Do you think Global South missionaries see a more desperate situation than the white majority churches?
IO: I think they do, and I think we have seen British responses, fresh expressions and urban missionaries, and there is a British response to that. But we still see British churches sending people all around the world, and I think that is good, but we also need to focus on what is happening here. Maybe do both.
CT: What would you say is the most successful Global South missional experience that you've heard about or come across?
IO: I would say Street Pastors, because Street Pastors are started by Rev Les Isaac, who was from Jamaica. Recently there was a celebration of 10 years of Street Pastors, and that was a really brilliant movement. And then there is the Global Day of Prayer, initiated by Jonathan Oloyede, the praying for revival and other initiatives like that. These have been great works of community.
CT: Which parts of the UK would you say are currently being underserved by missionaries from the Global South? Where are the places that really need help?
IO: I suppose that would be the countryside. Those other places, the rural areas where there is little cosmopolitanism, and that presents its own challenge. Going there would mean a lot of sacrifices. One of the black church leaders, Alfred Williams, was saying that many black churches need to spread outside of London. Many black churches are spreading to Europe, Sweden, France etc. But in the rural areas you do have the issue, a black church leader shows up, you don't know the kind of reception you'll be getting.
CT: If you could give a short message to the indigenous churches of the UK who perhaps have not considered inviting a missionary from the Global South, how would you sell it to them?
IO: I would say that at the heart of reverse mission is God's kingdom. It's about that passage in Matthew 28:18-20, the great commission. The thing is that now that the UK is multi-cultural, one culture cannot reach all these different cultures. This is God's agenda. The UK is going to become more multicultural and so we need more missionaries from those cultures to help that. I think the main advantage is a set of new perspectives and new ideas, and we bring that confidence to preach the Gospel. I think that this is something the British church can learn from us, because often we are very bold, and that boldness is something we learn from being in many different contexts.
Turning the Table on Mission is available to purchase from Amazon