Missionary teaching African children to read, 1964
For the last several generations, missionaries have gotten a lot of bad press. They’re called cultural imperialists or tools of colonial oppression, and in the pages of books such as The Poisonwood Bible, or, for an earlier generation, James Michener’s Hawaii, they’re presented as paternalistic, ignorant enemies of glorious indigenous cultures.
Even many supporters of so-called “native missionaries” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America suggest that Western missionaries should just “stay home” and “let the nationals do it.” But a funny thing happened on the way to missionary irrelevance: Ground-breaking, peer-reviewed research reveals that the presence of Protestant missionaries is the greatest predictor of whether a nation develops into a stable representative democracy with robust levels of literacy, political freedom, and women’s rights.
Yes, you heard that right, and you can read all about it in the painstaking work of Robert Woodberry, whose work on the global spread of democracy has turned scholarship on its head. Woodberry discovered that you can trace a direct link between the presence of 19th century Protestant missionaries and a country’s economic and social development.
Why, for instance, does a seminary in the West African nation of Togo have almost no books for its students, while in neighboring Ghana the schools are full of reading material, including much that is written locally? As summarized by in a Christianity Today article by author Andrea Palpant Dilley (see below), “British missionaries in Ghana had established a whole system of schools and printing presses. But France, the colonial power in Togo, severely restricted missionaries.”
This contrast is replicated across the world, from Botswana to India. Woodberry’s conclusion is sweeping:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
And these aren’t just any missionaries, but the ones labeled as “conversionist”—that is, those who call others to faith in Jesus Christ—in other words, the very ones who have been decried for so long as cultural imperialists. Loving Jesus and the people to whom they were sent, they fought injustice, stood with the local people, planted seeds of political freedom and economic growth around the world.
A key part of this was teaching local people to read so they could read the Bible. As Dana Robert of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University says, “If you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty. Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can’t have democratic movements.”
Protestant missionaries may have gone to “the field” to point people to heaven, but it turns out that they did a pretty good job being salt and light for the here and now too. As Woodberry says, “I feel confident saying none of those movements would have happened without non-state missionaries mobilizing them.”
This truth about missionaries is not what many academics were expecting, of course. “I’m not religious,” says Robin Grier, professor of economics and international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma. “I never felt really comfortable with the idea of [mission work]; it seemed cringe-worthy. Then I read Bob’s work. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. They left a long legacy. It changed my views and caused me to rethink.”
The work of Robert Woodberry is changing a lot of minds. It’s also a powerful reminder that when a people’s worldview changes toward the Kingdom of God, so does their life, for the better. Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child. Well, to change a culture, maybe all it takes is a missionary.
Based on: Christianity Today, January 8, 2014, The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries, by Andrea Palpant Dilley.
If the Gospel is just the way of understanding religion which is meaningful for me, which helps me and comforts just me, then I have no right to interfere with others who have their own versions of reality, their own ways to such peace and security as men can hope for. But the Gospel is the TRUTH, and therefore, it is true for all people. It is the unveiling of the face of Him who made all things, from whom every person comes, and to whom every person goes. It is the revealing of the meaning of human history, of the origin and destiny of all people. Jesus is not only my Savior, He is the Lord of all things, the cause and cornerstone of the universe. If I believe that, then to bear witness to that is the very stuff of existence. If I think I can keep it to myself, then I do not in any real sense believe it. Foreign missions are not an extra; they are the acid test of whether or not the Church believes the Gospel.
–Lesslie Newbingen, Is Christ Divided?, 1961
A missionary is a person who leaves their family for a while, so others can be with their families forever.
Matthew 28:16-20 — Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
O almighty God, we ask You to guide and bless all who have gone forth to preach the gospel. Endow them with the gifts of generosity and concern. Send your Holy Spirit on them, that He may strengthen them in weakness, comfort them in trials and direct their efforts. May He open the hearts of their hearers to receive Your message. Let Your revelation enlighten all minds for the salvation of souls, and let Your love heal every heart and body for the happiness of each person. May all people consciously acknowledge You and serve You by living the teachings of Your Son. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.