A must-watch on BBC2 — ending Friday, March 30, 2012, is Reverse Missionaries.

My heart went out to these three people — two men and a woman — as they make their separate ways to our shores for a brief attempt at evangelising the British.

One would think that the established churches would be doing that, but, no, our intrepid evangelists from Jamaica, Malawi and — this Friday — India see us for the ungodly heathens that we are.

The first programme, featuring Baptist Pastor Franklin Small from Jamaica, showed the challenges he faced in King’s Stanley, Gloucestershire (western England). King’s Stanley is an old village but now also a commuter exurb for people who work in Bristol. Pastor Franklin hoped that people would display a kindly, well-mannered disposition, which they did, except where God was concerned.

Pastor Franklin visited King’s Stanley because his inspiration, the Revd Thomas Burchell, grew up there. Burchell was baptised as a young man into the faith at the Baptist chapel called Shortwood, on the outskirts of town where non-conformists had to worship. Around the 23-minute mark in the film, a lady who lives in the house where Shortwood once stood said that it had four ancient footpaths leading to it, whereby worshippers could come from miles around to attend Sunday services, morning and evening. If you’ve read my posts on non-conformism and pietism (see Christianity / Apologetics page), you will recall that this was common practice. Laws at the time protected the established churches in Europe — Anglican and Lutheran — against renegade (non-conformist) Anabaptists and pietist groups.

The lady who lives at the site of the former Shortwood chapel told Pastor Franklin that a Baptist church of the same name is in St James, Jamaica. He reacted enthusiastically, because although he knew the church, he hadn’t connected it with Burchell. You can read more about Burchell here in an old issue of The Baptist Quarterly.

About Shortwood in Gloucestershire (p. 2) The Baptist Quarterly has this record (emphases mine):

Thomas Burchell was born on 25 December, 1799, at Tetbury in Gloucestershire, and could boast among his ancestors Sir Isaac Newton, while has paternal grandfather was the Baptist minister at Tetbury.

It was while training to be a cloth manufacturer in Nailsworth, that he came under the influence of the Shortwood Baptist Church and from then onwards his thoughts were turned towards the mission field. Once more this little church was to supply a missionary for the island of Jamaica. During this particular period there went out from the fellowship, Mrs. Coultart, Joshua Tinson and his wife, Burchell himself and then his niece Hannah Bancroft who married Samuel Oughton; later in 1840, Jabez Tunley and Eliza Tainton who had married Samuel Hodges of the L.M.S., later to become a Baptist and to serve many years in the West Indies.3

Once in Jamaica, Burchell described his mission work, mentioning the Shortwood church he established there:

Every alternate sabbath is occupied in attending to duties of the church at Gurney’s Mount, or Shortwood, or some other place. In addition to this, I frequently go into the country to preach in the interior, at fifteen or twenty miles distance; and, until lately, I had to supply other places at thirty or even thirty-five miles’ distance: so that when I inform you that last year only, for thirteen successive weeks, I journeyed at an average of one hundred and three miles per week on the affairs of the mission and during ten months travelled three thousand one hundred miles, you will be convinced that my toils were not inconsiderable; especially if you keep in mind the climate, and that there are no public means of conveyance.

How did the Baptists in Gloucestershire come to know about Jamaica? Wikipedia relates:

Burchell, along with James Phillippo (1798–1879), William Knibb and Samuel Oughton was one of the group of early Baptist missionaries sent from England to respond to requests from pioneer African Baptists who had become free from slavery, for support in establishing chapels and education in Jamaica. They were representatives of the Baptist Missionary Society of London and followed the pioneering preaching of the African George Lisle.

And:

It is not uncommon for Jamaican parents to name their children ‘Burchell’; indeed it is almost as popular a Christian name as Manley.

Pastor Franklin was saddened to see that the Baptist church in King’s Stanley had very few members in attendance. He believes that the church needs young people for the next generation of a continuing congregation, so set out to meet them wherever he could — local youth football (soccer) matches and the community centre.

His two possible converts were young Daniel and the considerably older ‘Big Kev’ (he lifted his shirt to show his tattoo). Daniel related that he had been bullied at school, but started playing football at the weekends. He and Pastor Franklin took flyers around town inviting people to church. Big Kev had the pressing issues of disability — heart and respiratory problems. He was thinking about euthanasia. Pastor Franklin was no doubt shocked but didn’t show it. He asked Kev, a churchgoer in his youth, why he fell away from the faith. Kev said that it had a lot to do with the death of his sister in her teens. And these are the big issues: ‘How could God do such a thing if He were loving?’ And ‘If there is a loving God, why am I in such a mess with a cocktail of pills to take every day and a mobility scooter?’ Those weren’t actual quotes; I’m paraphrasing.

Because Pastor Franklin walked around town every day and with such a wide remit — with the local Baptist pastor’s permission — he made a lot of friends in a short space of time. Kev — a hard nut to crack — finally attended Small’s bank holiday church festival, where Pastor Franklin related the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21-34, also Matthew 8:19-26, Luke 8:40-56). Kev told him afterward that he might just have changed his mind about God — because Pastor Franklin cared enough to visit him at home.  Pastor Franklin advised him to ask for the Lord’s help.

Daniel palled around with Pastor Franklin — because he cared enough to play football with him and the other lads. Daniel did indeed bring his family and a few other people to the Baptist church to hear him preach.

It seems we need a larger presence in our communities of pastors and churchgoers. Pastor Franklin believes the church can bring a community together. The programme showed that he might have a point. However, it might have been little more than a novelty factor — unless our clergy are willing to keep up the momentum. This is why I advocate Bible first, then church. Pastor Franklin would no doubt disagree with that, because he was saved on — and from — the streets of Jamaica in his youth by a local pastor. The film showed that Pastor Franklin has also saved local kids in his Jamaican neighbourhood from a life of crime, largely by engaging with them in football first.

The second episode featured a Charismatic pastor, the Revd John Chilimtsidya from Blantyre, Malawi. Pastor John heads a church which has grown from 25 to 800 people in just a few years. He believes this is thanks to energetic preaching and lively music. I’m not sure about that as a universal rule, but it works for him.

Pastor John travelled to Blantyre, Scotland, to visit the home of his Christian inspiration, the missionary David Livingstone. Yes, he of the ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ with which Henry Morton Stanley supposedly greeted him.

Many of us assume that Livingstone grew up in a privileged household, especially as he had a medical degree. However, he grew up as one of nine family members, spanning three generations, in a one-room ‘house’ — what we would call a studio flat — in lodgings for textile mill workers. (Pastor John could relate, having been one of 12 family members growing up in one room.) Livingstone grew up as a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland), then joined the Congregational Church. The BBC film showed a tour guide at the mill describing how the young Livingstone would perch a Latin grammar book on one end of his spinning machine to read a new word, do what he needed to do on the apparatus, then come back to read its definition. The tour guide related that he was not well-liked by the other boys at the mill.

Wikipedia reveals:

… David, along with many of the Livingstones, was at the age of ten employed in the cotton mill of H. Monteith – David and his brother John worked twelve-hour days as “piecers,” tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines.

Livingstone’s father Neil was very committed to his beliefs, a Sunday School teacher and teetotaller who handed out Christian tracts on his travels as a door to door tea salesman, and who read extensively books on theology, travel and missionary enterprises. This rubbed off on the young David, who became an avid reader, but he also loved scouring the countryside for animal, plant and geological specimens in local limestone quarries. Neil Livingstone had a fear of science books as undermining Christianity and attempted to force him to read nothing but theology, but David’s deep interest in nature and science led him to investigate the relationship between religion and science.[3] When in 1832 he read Philosophy of a Future State by the science teacher, amateur astronomer and church minister Thomas Dick, he found the rationale he needed to reconcile faith and science, and apart from the Bible this book was perhaps his greatest philosophical influence.[4]

Other significant influences in his early life were Thomas Burke, a Blantyre evangelist and David Hogg, his Sabbath School teacher.[4] At age nineteen, David and his father left the Church of Scotland for a local Congregational church, influenced by preachers like Ralph Wardlaw who denied predestinatarian limitations on salvation. Influenced by American revivalistic teachings, Livingstone’s reading of the missionary Karl Gützlaff‘s “Appeal to the Churches of Britain and America on behalf of Chinaenabled him to persuade his father that medical study could advance religious ends.[5]

The film showed that in Malawi, a number of streets and places still bear the names Livingstone and Blantyre. Meanwhile, here in the UK, Livingstone has been largely discredited for having ‘imposed’ Christianity on Africans. He was the source of British jokes and comedy sketches in the 1970s and 1980s, which portrayed him as an inept fool when Stanley happened upon him.  Pastor John would have been most disappointed to find that out.

As it was, Pastor John found the town of Blantyre, near Glasgow (west coast of Scotland), ‘sad’ because of its lack of faith. He had assumed we British would all be full of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he saw drunken young people falling about the streets of Glasgow when he went out with the local team of Street Pastors.  He was specifically instructed not to evangelise: ‘If it worked, we would do it’. He said that what he saw would have been illegal in Malawi.

Another difficulty for Pastor John was the staid worship in the Congregational Church in Blantyre. Again, fair enough, but we British are a low-key people. Horses for courses. Pastor John wanted to hold a service at the local outdoor skateboarding venue but the older members of the church said that it was a place for young people and that they would be chased away. I can believe it. Anyway, he preached there at a pre-announced day and time. The youths were welcoming and respectful. Then they joined Pastor John and church members at the Congregational Church for a cookout.

Whether that will increase the church, I cannot say. It might have made a difference for some, such as one of the church’s Boy’s Brigade mothers, who had fallen away from the faith, again — like Kev from King’s Stanley — because of a family member’s death. Pastor John helpfully explained that we did not have any say over our entry into this world, nor have we any control over our exit. He said what my mother often said, ‘We don’t know why, but things happen for a reason. God has a plan in mind’. The Boy’s Brigade mother found that helpful, and it seemed to get her back on the road to church.

Both preachers were upset at what they found in the United Kingdom, and rightly so. More than a century of Fabianism has deadened our souls. As Pastor Franklin said, we are spiritually naked, by and large.

To my readers considering a missionary path, there is no finer place to start for English-speakers than the United Kingdom. Please come. If you can bring New Testaments with you, all the better, as the Word of God will be indispensable and a tangible memory of your visit.