BLOGGERKatherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development. After a long career in...
Faith in Action tracks the activities of people of faith across the globe and across religious traditions, with a focus on development issues. Posts are originally published by the Huffington Post. Older blog posts appeared on the Washington Post's Georgetown/On Faith site.
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AT THE CENTER
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A New Kind of Missionary
June 30, 2008
Planting churches in The Hague?
I admit I was a bit baffled to hear a Nigerian pastor discussing this subject at a conference in the rather staid and orderly capital of the Netherlands. But meeting Dele Olowu in person, I came away with new respect for the phenomenon that some call the “reverse missionary movement”—Africans bringing religion to Europe. He upsets plenty of notions about religion and proselytizing, which he calls planting churches.
Olowu arrived late at a lively discussion I was co-chairing with scholar Gerrie ter Haar about faith-inspired organizations working in Africa and Europe. Cell phone glued to his ear and glasses jauntily tilted across his head, he brought a new energy into the room at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
Olowu leads a dynamic Pentecostal church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, in the Netherlands, where he lives. Born in Nigeria, he joined the church there while teaching at the university. The RCCG, only 55 years old, has grown rapidly and has branches in 100 countries today.
Olowu weaves the different strands of his life together. A scholar and professor, he has worked in the international development world for many years including stints in Ethiopia and Tunisia, and today he is a part-time consultant. In each place he lived, he says, he saw deep spiritual need and so, in each place, he and his wife Bukky “planted churches”. “The Lord helped us to see a different approach. There were four to five churches planted before we left Ethiopia. In Tunisia, a Muslim country, by the grace of God, we started a parish there by the time we left.”
But the biggest surprise and challenge came when he arrived in the Netherlands in 1995 to teach at the Institute of Social Studies. He had expected to find a society that was very Christian, but realized soon that few Dutch people go to church in today’s secular Europe. Olowu saw the chance to do some planting, starting with buying up traditional, empty churches. He now has 21 parishes in Europe. They are thriving.
Who’s in the congregations? They are very diverse, he says, with members drawn primarily from immigrant communities, including those from Surinam, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Congo. One group, of Turkish descent, includes families that have been in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. The congregants are also diverse in terms of their occupations and ways of life. Some work for large organizations, like Shell or the port of The Hague. Some are posted to the Netherlands by their companies and may stay for several years. Some have taken on permanent employment and status and live in the Netherlands. Others are in asylum status. Some native Dutch citizens are members, as well as some who have married Africans.
Olowu’s churches respond to the needs of their members, and don’t restrict themselves to narrow religious roles. They help their congregants find jobs and get off drugs. They do marriage counseling.
The main thrust of the work is in Europe but Olowu’s church also links the communities in Europe to those in Africa and other parts of the world. The church raises its own funds. Olowu commented that it is a “bit on the lazy side” to count too much on governments to solve problems.
Leaders like Olowu--brilliant, dynamic, and fearless--are part of a new religious landscape. It transcends conventional ideas of nation states and religious hierarchies. It deals with all dimensions of people’s lives and many different social groups. Olowu skips from talk of God and the Gospel of Jesus to nuts and bolts of the Paris Declaration on Aid Harmonization. His energy and insights give life to his contention that the real energy today for social transformation, in both Europe and Africa, is coming from the kind of new religious institution he leads. In Dele Olowu we are seeing new faces of both Africa and Europe.