You mean they weren’t so bad after all?

Missionary

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A recent cover story on Christianity Today tells of the groundbreaking research of Dr. Robert Woodberry.  Dr. Woodberry has done a thorough examination of the economic and political realities of a number of formerly colonially-controlled modern nations and sought an answer to the question of why they are as they are.  In his Ph.D. dissertation he answers this, arguing convincingly that the best historical indicator of whether a such a nation is today going to be advanced in a variety of social arenas such as democracy, healthcare, education, infant mortality rate, treatment of women, and the like is whether or not they had a strong, independent, conversion-minded missionary presence during the Colonial Era.

This conclusion is turning some heads because the long standing opinion of the academic world on Colonial Era mission work is generally pretty negative.  In fact, for many years one of the case-closing arguments of critics of the church has been that proselytization harms indigenous cultures more than it helps.  Therefore, the conclusion goes, Christians should just stay in their little sub-cultural bubbles and leave the rest of the world alone.  It was not and is not right for Christians to act like their way of life is better than any other way of life in any kind of objective sense.

Even folks who counted themselves within the Christian camp began parroting this notion.  Popular books like The Poisonwood Bible teach that while missionaries meant well, they did at least as much harm as good.  They came in with a paternalistic attitude, convinced of their cultural superiority, and tried to force these poor natives to embrace a thoroughly westernized version of Christianity to the detriment of their own culture.  We’ve heard stories about how a missionary came to an African village where the women used to walk several miles a day to get water and built a well in town for them.  It was a nice gesture, we were told, but it ended up hurting the social life of the village which had depended on that long walk.  Now the people were lazier and they didn’t really embrace the faith anyway.  Missionaries have always been like this we are told.  It’s better to hand off the faith to the indigenous people and get out of their way.  Let them enculturate it so we don’t poison their culture with ours.

I learned this in school.  You probably learned this in school.  This was simply the way things were.  And then came Woodberry’s thorough, well-documented, peer-reviewed conclusion that these critics simply have it wrong.  They weren’t so bad after all.  Perhaps some fit the stereotype, but the general outcome of mission work, particularly in the Colonial Era, was a transformation in these cultures in such a way as to lay the foundation for a much better modern life than they would have had without them.

Consider a single example.  The West African nation of Ghana has a vibrant literary culture.  Literacy rates are high compared to its neighbors and many works are written by local authors.  In neighboring Togo this is not the case.  What’s the difference?  British missionaries in Ghana, unencumbered by the local colonial leaders, had a great system of schools and printing presses.  Togo was a French colony and the French colonial leaders severely restricted the activity of missionaries.

Indeed, one of the surest ways for a people group to rise out of poverty and exploitation is to increase literacy rates.  The ability to read has always been a doorway to freedom.  And in various European colonies where “conversionist” missionaries, who might today be identified as Evangelicals, were allowed a fairly free reign, the natives were taught to read the Bible, not in the tongue of the missionaries, but in their own language leading to increased rates of literacy and its attendant blessings.  I should also add that the missionaries didn’t stop there.  They loved the people among whom they ministered and served as effective advocates for them, empowering them to better themselves, all from the perspective of a Christian worldview.

Now, did these missionaries effect cultural changes in the places they worked?  Yes, they certainly did.  But, this is not the negative thing many modern multiculturalists would have us believe.  The fact is cultures are human-created phenomena.  As such they are neither neutral nor equal in moral standing.  Cultures which are devoid of the touch of the Gospel are very often objectively worse than those which have been transformed in some way by the Gospel’s power.  And, lest that observation be taken as a mark of cultural superiority, cultures which have been shaped by the Gospel but subsequently shed its influence for one reason or another worsen as our own culture is amply demonstrating.

None of this is to say, by the way, that Christianity as it exists in the United States (or the West generally) is the proper form of the movement.  The Gospel should absolutely be tailored to each individual culture that receives it.  But let us not pretend that cultures without the Gospel of Christ are equal to those with it.  Such a view ignores the cultural impact of sin.  Missionaries who have the longest impact understand this well.  They love their adopted cultures even as they work to transform or even eliminate those parts which are out of sync with the Gospel.

In the end we see that worldview–which forms the basis of a culture–matters.  Apart from Christ we don’t have access to a worldview that will lead to beneficial cultural outcomes.  In Christ we do.  Thus, the introduction of Christ to a culture will change it…for the good.  As Dr. Woodberry’s research shows, many formerly colonial nations which were the beneficiaries of a great deal of passionate mission work are testaments to this fact.  Prayerfully this will serve as an encouragement to those individuals God has called to effect hearts, minds, and even cultures with the Gospel to pursue their good work with all the vigor of the Spirit.

Jonathan Waits

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Jonathan is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA. He's the husband of one beautiful woman and the father of three active boys. A graduate of Denver Seminary, he loves connecting the dots between the Christian worldview and culture.

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