The much publicized missionary work in Europe conducted by networks of South American preachers only attracts small European followings, but it serves to reinforce the legitimacy of sending churches and their leaders, writes Ari Pedro Oro (Professor of Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil) in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (May).
“Reverse mission” to Europe is popular among Latin American and African churches. Europe is said to have strayed from the path, but evangelical groups from the Southern hemisphere feel they have a mission to launch a new religious awakening. Mimicking the early Christian expansion, they intend to “conquer Europe spiritually” and “Christianize” the old continent, in contrast with earlier missionary work originating from Europe.
Oro distinguishes between three models of evangelical propagation in Europe. First, there are Latin American missionaries (mostly Baptist or Assemblies of God) who come to help local European churches in need of manpower as they are confronted with an influx of Latin-American faithful. Second, some churches open branches in Europe (and other parts of the world); two well-known examples are the Brazilian-born Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, now present in 120 countries, and the God Is Love Church, with branches in 100 countries.
Third, there is “the network organization of temporary missionary travel to Europe by charismatic preachers,” such as Carlos Annacondia, who comes from Argentina, but constantly travels to other countries. Oro’s research focuses on that third type: those preachers have been influenced by the beliefs of the “New Apostolic Reformation,” that emphasize “conquering all world nations for Christ” as well as spiritual warfare.
Oro observes that there has been no significant success brought by those efforts to “re-Christianize” Europe and suggests that they should be interpreted as part of symbolic struggles in the highly competitive South American religious market (both within the evangelical milieu and between it and the Roman Catholic Church). Europe is seen both as modern and the cradle of Christianity: being invited there confers an elevated status, plus some material benefits.
More than “Christianizing Europe,” these missionary trips and international connections boost the legitimacy of South American preachers in their local religious market, Oro concludes. But “reverse mission” can also be vested with other meanings, for instance in the case of African churches sending missionaries and establishing branches in Europe.