If you ask the average person in the street what they think of church, most would say it is boring and irrelevant, a view backed up by dwindling attendances and church closures.
So what’s the answer? Maybe it’s time for countries with thriving congregations to send missionaries to Britain to reverse the decline? That’s exactly what the BBC’s mini documentary series entitled Reverse Missionaries was all about as it followed the activities of three missionaries. They came from Jamaica, Malawi and India to visit Britain and grow local churches that have been in decline and which they see as ‘dying spiritually’.
For added interest, each missionary went to a town that in years past was the birthplace of missionaries that had worked in their own countries and had directly influenced their faith in God.
In the first programme, Baptist pastor and former gang member, Franklin Small, traveled from Kingston, Jamaica, to King’s Stanley in the Cotswolds. King’s Stanley was once home to Franklin’s hero, Thomas Burchell, a missionary who also fought for the abolition of slavery in Jamaica in the first half of the 19th century.
The second featured Pastor John Chilimtsidya who travelled from Blantyre, Malawi, to Blantyre, Scotland, the home of David Livingstone who inspired him to be a Christian. The final programme covered Kshama Jayaraj from India, and her experiences in Belfast, home to Kshama’s inspirational heroine, Victorian missionary Amy Carmichael, who spent 50 years in India helping vulnerable children.
Each of the missionaries have fast-growing, large congregations in the churches they run back home, many of whom are young people. Their challenge was to see if they could turn the church they were assigned to in Britain around.
Glimpses of God’s power
There will be many who would say that people of different nations have different views of God and so the results they see there could never be replicated here. And yet the program showed glimpses that this just isn’t true.
As my own pastor says, people in general do not have a problem with God, but they do have a problem with going to church and getting bored with vague, irrelevant messages delivered using out-of-date methods.
Although from different cultures and backgrounds, all three showed similar traits:
* a genuine concern for people who don’t know God as a personal friend;
* an infectious, enthusiasm about the gospel and absolute faith that God can change lives;
* going out to where people were, adapting to people’s situations and interests, such as getting communities involved in organising football teams, painting murals, rather than expecting them to come to the church on the church’s terms;
* an emphasis that the church has to change its approach if it is going to attract new and especially young people, particularly in its style of music and worship;
* not being afraid to openly ask people if they could pray for them or asking them if they wanted to come to know God.
As I watched these missionaries in action, I couldn’t help feel that this was the real church in action. Exactly the kind of thing that Jesus did and that he asks us, his followers, to do.
Did it work?
Interestingly, all three churches they worked with initially thought their direct approach wouldn’t work. However, despite the reluctance of many of the church members, they were allowed to change things, to go outside and ‘do church’ in a modern style among those who derided and mocked the church.
In each situation, the programme ended with the respective churches getting fuller with people of all ages and some giving their lives to God. Great stuff.
It’s interesting that these missionaries adopted the same approach as their heroes. Amy Carmichael’s secret was to adapt the gospel to the people’s needs. She was bold, saw the social problems and went into the thick of it. David Livingstone realised that direct preaching in a church situation didn’t work in Africa and so he adapted to their culture and involved himself in their daily lives. A lesson for us all if we are to reach our generation.
Connecting with people
I’ll leave the final words to three quotes from the third programme. Kshama Jayaraj said: ‘I just wish people would meet under the name of Jesus and no other name, whether that be Protestant or Catholic’.
‘She [Kshama] is a whirlwind of enthusiasm. Out on the streets meeting people, inviting them along. Maybe I should be a little more upfront and out there like her’, said the minister of the Belfast church.
‘We need to go and connect with people — sometimes you and I are the only gospel they will read — will they see Jesus in you?’ said Kshama Jayaraj.