Reverse missionizing: Migration, Christianity, and civic engagement in London

Published 17 June 2014 / By COMPAS Communications

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Much current public and policy discourse in the United Kingdom is concerned with migrants and with religion. When these topics converge, it is typically in relation to Muslim (im)migrants.  Yet, at Easter this year, Lady Warsi, the Foreign Office minister and minister for faith, 'told the [Guardian] paper that immigration was making Britain more Christian "because some of the biggest church-goers are those whose heritage is in Africa and the Caribbean".'  Her comments followed on the heels of Cameron’s Easter reception at which he proclaimed Britain to be a ‘Christian country’. He said, 'Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago, I just want to see more of it… And that is something I think we should all want to see: a bigger role for faith-based organizations in our society'.

If one looks at the statistics on church attendance in the United Kingdom, Lady Warsi is indeed correct about whom church-goers increasingly are. Brierley (2006) reports that, during the period between 1998 and 2005, non-white church attendance in England increased by 19%, while white church attendance decreased by 19%. And, the highest percentage of black churchgoers could be found in Greater London (Brierley 2006: 91, 99-100; see also Rogers 2013: 25-39). Growth in attendance comes primarily from Pentecostal churches: Brierley notes that these churches showed a 30% increase between 2005 and 2012, accounting for just over half (52%) of all churchgoers in London (2013: 6).

Hands Holding BibleIn my research among migrant Kenyans living in London, it is impossible to miss the centrality of religion and the churches they attend to their spiritual and social lives. Kenyans’ religiosity is not surprising: according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 88% of Kenyans in Kenya identify as Christian.  Roughly four out of five Christian Kenyans in Kenya say religion is very important to their lives (86%) and attend church at least once per week (81%).[1] When I first began conducting research among migrant Kenyans in 2009, a London-based website,, listed ‘31 Kenyan churches in the United Kingdom’; I know of several churches, which have been established in London in the intervening years. They are Pentecostal churches, representing the fastest growing form of Protestant Christianity in the world (Robbins 2004) and reflecting Brierley’s findings above.

The churches also represent additional faith-based organizations, which the British government can ostensibly tap to meet the needs of local communities. But how do Kenyan Pentecostals and the churches they attend see their role in wider British society?  This question is one of several, which animates my current research project on migration and religion. As I have only just begun exploring it, I offer some initial thoughts on Kenyan Pentecostals’ views of British society, a civic issue of concern to them, and some challenges they face in engaging in British civil society.

Reverse mission
Knowing that many of my interlocutors moved to the United Kingdom to ‘work or study’, I was intrigued when I heard a female evangelist from Kenya proclaim at a religious conference 'you are not here to work, you are here for God'.

Her remark alludes to the notion of 'reverse mission' whereby missionaries are sent to 'Europe and North America by churches and Christians from the non-Western world, particularly Africa, Asia, and Latin America' (Ojo 2007: 380), thereby reversing the direction of earlier missionizing efforts.  Some of these missionaries refer to themselves as coming from the ‘majority world’,[2] a term which signals a re-positioning of people from parts of the world that have historically lacked geopolitical power.

The re-casting of their migration as a religious mission might at first seem to be a response to experiences of racism and discrimination in the United Kingdom. Yet Freston calls our attention to the fact that the idea of Africans being the 'chosen carriers of a religious message for the world' has a long history, which implies that it cannot be interpreted solely or primarily as a reaction to current circumstances (2010: 157). He traces the idea (and the practice) to an era prior to colonization: in 1880 the West African Christian leader Edward Blyden wrote, 'Africa may yet prove to be the spiritual conservatory of the world…when the civilized nations…shall have had their spiritual perceptions darkened …[through] a captivating and absorbing materialism, it may be, that they have to resort to Africa to recover some of the simple elements of faith' (Hanciles 2008: 350, as cited in Freston 2010: 157).

shining dove with rays on a darkThe notion of being 'chosen carriers' resonates with my conversations with Kenyan Pentecostals.  In migrating to the United Kingdom, they knew they would be marked as racially different from the majority of the British population, yet many expected they would be acknowledged as religiously familiar, as fellow Christians. Some have expressed surprise to me at the low level of church attendance among British people, as well as at the perceived hostility to Christianity evidenced most recently in response to Cameron’s Easter address. Asserting that Christianity did not come from Europe, but rather from God, some migrant Kenyans have embraced God’s call to those from Africa to re-introduce Christianity into the lives of Europeans.  In doing so, they have heeded the female evangelist’s plea to 'bring [the] UK back into the Kingdom of God'. The timing of another call – Cameron’s appeal for an expanded role for faith-based organizations – is potentially fortuitous for these religious messengers and their churches, though the political expediency of such a call cannot be underestimated in this era of ongoing austerity.

Education, Christianity and the church
Many migrant Kenyans have children who were born in the United Kingdom. They want them to excel in their studies, as education is integral to their ideas of 'bettering themselves'. In talking with several Kenyan Pentecostal pastors recently, I have been struck by their keen interest in the students I teach at Oxford, especially whether or not I have any African students. Their questions reflect concerns raised in reports about institutional bias against BME students in higher education, especially at universities like Oxford and Cambridge – and their desire to do something about it.

For Kenyans, Christianity has long been bound up with education. Many denominations flooded into Kenya when it first became a British Protectorate in 1895 (Anderson 1970).  Their missionizing efforts found an ideal outlet in the desire for schools in local communities. Mutongi, a historian, quotes one mother as saying ‘You sent your son to the new school because you wanted him to make enough money, to be seen as someone with maendeleo ([Swahili for] civilization) and speak English like an Englishman’ (2007: 106).  Thus, the value Kenyans attach to education has important historical antecedents that reflect the intertwining of faith and education, churches and schools. What form(s) might their interest in and commitment to education take in London?

Some challenges to civic engagement
The churches I am referring to face numerous challenges to participating in British civil society and engaging with civic issues, such as, education. Despite Cameron’s enthusiasm for faith-based organizations, some African-led (Pentecostal) churches have engendered scrutiny from local authorities and the media, which may taint perceptions of these churches more generally. Moreover, community cohesion policies have shifted services and funding to local areas. Yet most churches tend to follow a ‘gathered’ model whereby congregants travel, often significant distances, to attend services and other activities, rather than the ‘parish’ model of mainline churches whose congregants live locally (Rogers 2013: 35).  Their immediate ‘community’ – i.e., their members – is thus not a local one. Most of the churches also do not own their own buildings, but rather rent space, for example, in local community centres and schools, film screening rooms in cinemas, and warehouse spaces in post-industrial areas.  In this way, the churches are transitory, at least for now, which may pose additional challenges to their ability to take on a (greater) civic role.

Engaging with Kenyan Pentecostals
Returning to the question I raised at the start, what do Kenyan Pentecostals and the churches they attend see as their role(s) in British society? Do they have a notion of ‘civic’? Can reverse missionizing activities be understood as a form of civic engagement?  These questions necessitate engaging with Kenyan Pentecostals and their churches on their own terms and being attuned to how they negotiate their social and moral positioning vis-à-vis the context(s) in which they live, worship, and work and which are themselves always changing. Ethnographic methods are well suited to this kind of endeavour, that is, to rendering lifeworlds intelligible to others.


Anderson, John E. 1970. The Struggle for the School: The Interaction of Missionary, Colonial Government and Nationalist Enterprise in the Development of Formal Education in Kenya. London: Longman.

Brierley, Peter. 2006. Pulling Out Of The Nose Dive: A Contemporary Picture of Churchgoing: What The 2005 English Church Reveals. Eltham, London: Christian Research.

------.  2011. UK Church Statistics, 2005-2015. Tonbridge: ADBC.

------. 2013. London's Churches are Growing: What the London Church Census Reveals. Tonbridge: ADBC.

Freston, Paul. 2010. Reverse Mission: A Discourse In Search Of Reality? PentecoStudies 9(2): 140-152.

Mutongi, Kenda B. 2007. Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ojo, Matthew. 2007. Reverse Mission.  In Encyclopedia of Mission and Missionaries. Jonathan J. Bonk, Ed.  London: Routledge.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. The globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 117-143.

Rogers, Andrew. 2013. Being Built Together: A Story of New Black Majority churches in the London Borough of Southwark. London: University of Roehampton.

[1] Pew Forum on Religious Life, Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, April 15, 2010 poll. (accessed 27 September 2011).

[2] See, for example, Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World (