Reverse Missions: Clash of Civilizations (Part 2)

"There's such an obsession here with nudity," said the African Christian leader as my wife and I had strolled with him through the center of his adopted Scandinavian city.

As we walked, we were struck by an in-your-face display of a nude model on a large advertising poster. The African leader was embarrassed, and it was as if he wanted to apologize to my wife especially for the raucous photo.

Clearly, he had not stood in the check-out line at an American supermarket.

In Part 1 of this series we noted the ironic twist of Africans whose worldview is shaped by the Bible, and who now call Europe the "dark continent"- the same conglomerate of nations that once spoke smugly and sometimes derisively of "darkest Africa."

Adding to the irony, on this spring day an African was decrying the obsessiveness with going naked in public in a European society that had once stereotyped Africans as unclad "savages" living in steamy jungles.

The moment in Scandinavia struck me not only with its irony, but with two powerful implications. The first brought to mind the "clash of civilizations," a theme explored by the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington in a 1990s book of that title.

"Of all the objective elements which define civilizations … the most important usually is religion," wrote Huntington. "Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes," he continued, "and the clash of civilizations is tribal conflict on a global scale." The "clash" will be experienced along the "fault lines" where two "civilizations" collide. Sometimes, Huntington noted, such "fault lines" will exist inside a country, "between groups from different civilizations within a state."

In the previous article in this series I termed the African Christians with whom I work in Europe as "reverse missionaries." Many of them are the fruit of 19th and 20th century European missionary efforts. Now they have returned to that Continent to work, and, in the process, they plant theologically conservative, seriously Bible-based churches.

What happens when biblically formed African Christians bump into the "new savage" post-Christian European civilization? Rather than violence and terrorism to bring down pagan institutions and kill their constituents, the Christian "reverse missionaries" with whom my wife and I have worked in Europe have a different strategy as they clash with European paganism: they make disciples of Jesus Christ.

The "reverse missionaries" scatter across the cities, meeting during the week in home-based cells that focus on Bible study and disciple-making. Then they come together on the weekend for worship celebrations and proclamation of the Gospel.

"Everyone in our church must have a ministry role," one of the leaders told me. So, in addition to the discipleship groups, there is also ministry training, often on-the-job.

A Gypsy woman we'll call Carmen and her family reveal the effectiveness of this biblically based approach. The beautiful lady told us of how she had been taught to be a thief from childhood. Recently, however, she stood with her husband as they were "set in" as leaders in the "reverse missions" mainly African congregation of which they are a part. The encounter with Christ and His message of grace is having a transforming effect on her life. She and her husband are reaching out to others in their Gypsy community, where they hope to plant a church.

The second implication of the African Christian leader's embarrassment over Scandinavia's obsession with nudity was in the way it provides an illuminating model of the first century church in pagan Rome.

The "reverse missions" immigrant churches are "communities" that meet often in "catacombs," but who are "catalytic" in the facets of European society they touch. We will look at this aspect of "reverse missions" in Part 3 of this series.

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