Author: James Howard-Smith, 9 February 2024
Revd Osoba Otaigbe, a Baptist minister, is the man behind a game-changing Christian gathering that took place in Leeds last month.
Intercultural Church and City Transformation brought people from all kinds of different ministries together around Gather Movement’s vision to build collaboration and Osoba’s passion for intercultural unity.
‘I believe that cultural diversity if a gift from God,’ Osoba says. ‘God didn’t create us to compete with each other but to complete each other.’
Osoba is now based in Manchester and works as Bible Society’s Church Engagement Manager for the North of England, but he’s led Baptist churches in London and been an entrepreneur in Nigeria. Both experiences have fed his passion and brought him to the stage of forming this unique event.
Gather Movement’s founder, Revd Roger Sutton, and Co-CEO Andy Frost, challenged Osoba last year to put the event together. Andy said, ‘Osoba, you can do this, because it’s something you’ve always wanted to do. It’s a vision you’ve always had.’
‘It goes back to London,’ says Osoba. ‘During the 2012 Olympics, we helped over a hundred Baptist churches engage with the Games. I saw the beauty of cultural diversity – all the nations coming to London. Revelation 7.9 paints an image of people from all languages, all nations, coming together in worship. Since then, for me, it’s always been, “How can we make this happen?”.’
So last month in Leeds, Osoba hosted an epic discussion about the intercultural future of the church. Intercultural Church and City Transformation was partly facilitated by Bible Society alongside bodies like Churches Together in England (which was represented by their new General Secretary, the Pentecostal bishop Mike Royal) and the One People Commission.
‘The way it was designed, we had three parts, three tracks: intercultural church in the city, intercultural congregations, and intercultural worship. And each of these discussions split three ways: We started with what is, what’s already happening in the cities. Then second bit was what could be, where we dreamed together. And the third bit was what will be – in other words, what am I going to do about this personally?
‘When we were dreaming together, I saw the energy. When we got to the point where we said, “What can we do corporately?” a lot of people were sharing stuff, which was really cool. Joe Kapolyo, who made a biblical case for intercultural church, spoke about the need to move from that monocultural mindset to a more kingdom mindset. I think that connected with a lot of people.’
Intercultural exchange encourages dialogue as a profound opportunity for discovery. ‘It was framed as a conversation,’ Osoba says. ‘No one person or group has the answer. There’s always the danger of the single story, where you see one side of things but you don’t see the totality. We see as we are, not as things are. It’s only God who can see the big picture.’
The event, and the ongoing project, is a journey towards understanding every perspective – and not just the obvious ones that the media picks up on. ‘Over the years, what people have focused on is just the colour of the skin. We forget that there’s a lot more to it. In Leeds, we had young people, older folks, people from different nationalities, different class backgrounds and denominations as well as races. We wanted a space where a lot of diverse cultural groups could come together, and in Leeds we saw that happen.
‘So the big question was, “What would it look like? What would an intercultural church look like in our places? What impact can we make if we work together?” I think that got people saying, “Yeah! I’d like to be part of that”.’
Osoba saw intercultural exchange from an early age. When he was growing up in Nigeria, his father worked for Unilever and played tennis with British colleagues. From university, Osoba went into business for himself, working with British, American and European companies in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector. This meant lots of cross-cultural interaction, but not for the gospel, and not even necessarily for the common good.
‘It was all to make money,’ Osoba says. ‘We didn’t like each other, but for money’s sake we coexisted and everyone behaved. When I came to church ministry, it was a call to the family – to the family of God, to the body of Christ. That means a totally different ball game.’
The Church has an infinitely greater goal than making money, so there’s no excuse for operating like rival businesses. ‘Our main objective is love. We should be able to use that. If we stay in our silos and want to just coexist, with time it’s going to erupt. And we’re seeing that happen in most places, all over the world. The sooner we start talking, the better.’
When he moved to London, Osoba found himself on an intercultural path right away. ‘I joined my family,’ he recalls. ‘I wanted to be involved in raising our children rather than just make money. I sold my business and came over. The first Sunday in London, I went to an African church. And I just felt God saying, “This is not why I’ve brought you here”. So the next Sunday I went down the road to another Baptist church with very few Africans.’
Osoba got involved immediately, in a short while becoming associate pastor there. This was a small church with a vast building they didn’t need. Down the road was a church without a building but a congregation five times the size. With the building about to be sold to a non-Christian organisation, Osoba connected with the other church. ‘My business sense came in: I said, “We’ve got a building; we don’t have the people. You have the people; you don’t have a building. Can we talk about working together?” Within a year, the two churches merged. That’s where my ministry started.’
Osoba went on to lead another church and to chair London Baptist Mission Strategy Forum, the role he had in 2012 when he received his Olympic vision. ‘I think my work in business really helped me in doing what I’m doing. As a Baptist pastor, there was a time I felt stuck in the maintenance mode. But when I’m able to do some creative stuff out there, I really enjoy it.’
That vision of an intercultural Church, inspired by the Olympics and working towards the sheer glory of Revelation 7.9 – ‘a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’ (ESV) – led to Osoba running workshops on intercultural ministry. And from the workshops, Osoba wrote a book, Building Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry, as a practical introduction.
Now, following the event, Osoba is in full-on follow-up mode. ‘There will be things like an online taster session to help people get together and have conversations,’ he explains. ‘With cultural intelligence, there is a self-assessment you do so that you understand where you’re at with this issue. When people approach this topic, they want to know the other culture, but sometimes they don’t know their own culture and how it relates to the other culture. So if they want to go deeper after the online taster and do the self-assessment, they can – whether they’re an individual, a team or a church.
‘There’s also a one-day intensive workshop to unpack this. We’re designing a day so if people want to go on that journey, they can do that. And then on a continuous basis, we’ll pair cultures. We’re trying to set up a network of coaches from different cultures, a platform where pastors in different situations can support each other. For instance, if a pastor suddenly finds Chinese Africans coming to their church, they can say, “What do I need to know? How do I approach this?”
At the heart of Osoba’s project is the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. It’s difficult but it’s ultimately awesome. ‘Intercultural work can be challenging,’ Osoba says. ‘We’re called to be the body of Christ – one body, different parts. Everyone has their role. If we bring all our gifts to the table, it can be powerful.’