The topic of a recent cover story in Christianity Today is shaking up not only the world of missions, but also academia. The World the Missionaries Made is a report on the work of Robert Woodberry, a sociologist currently researching at the Political Science Department of the National University of Singapore. CT’s Executive Editor Andy Crouch calls it the CT cover story of which he is most proud. Its thesis and Woodberry’s work support a remarkable conclusion – that a generation of “conversionary protestant missionaries” laid a foundation for democracy around the world. In effect, missions in the 19th and 20th centuries may be one of the most significant factors, and certainly one of the most overlooked, in what CT calls “the health of nations” today:
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.
It’s an astounding claim, coming as it does after decades of suspicion and cynicism about the missionary enterprise. For all of the Tom Little stories, many of us, even those supportive of the work, were afraid that there were more Nate Prices running around mission stations than we wanted to admit.
Full disclosure: I am more than slightly a part of the missionary enterprise myself. I have a number of connections with Woodberry and his family, including time spent in the country of Pakistan, where I grew up and later served as pastor of an international church.
Three Observations seem to follow from the CT article and Woodberry’s research:
- Woodberry’s work holds up. These are real and believable conclusions, and we should not be embarrassed by these affirmations. I am not a statistician, as such evaluating the details of how he ended up where he did is beyond my capabilities. However, having been published in the American Political Science Review, the top scholarly journal in his field, he has passed muster within an academic field that is not known for its sympathies toward missions and missionaries. I agree that we need to be careful of triumphalism, but at the same time we ought not downplay a very real affirmation of the positive benefits of several generations of missionaries and the churches that supported them.
- The article is a dramatic confirmation of two things CT’s Crouch has been advocating in his own books. Neither Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2009) nor Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (InterVarsity Press, 2013) are about missions as such, but both books have important implications for how the church pursues its outreach efforts in the world. In the first, Crouch suggested that the best answer to the church – culture challenge is not to critique culture, not to copy culture, not even to condemn culture, but to create new culture that is more attractive than what is now available to humanity. In his second, published just a few months ago, Crouch tells us power is a gift to be used for good, specifically to help human beings flourish. (I think that is too limited a definition, but that discussion can wait for another post.) What we see in Woodberry’s work is confirmation that missionaries have been doing exactly what they should have been doing. They created culture — hospitals, schools, universities, publishing houses. In many cases they trained up entire generations of leaders for new nations. Even a country like Pakistan, antagonistic at best to the Christian faith, relies to this day on institutions like Forman College to train its new leaders. Further, these servants of God used their power just as Crouch says they should have done, to challenge injustice and evil even in their own governments and home countries. Culture-making and power-used-for-good, played out on the large screen of human history. It’s no wonder Crouch is pleased!
- Finally, and importantly, this culture-making and power-deployment was generally incidental to the main goals of the missionaries. They did not leave home and country to “make the world safe for democracy”. They went, they would have told us, simply to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and to love people into the kingdom. In fact, it is doubtful that they would have been as successful as Woodberry tells us they were if they had been aiming for these lesser things. The benefits to their host cultures and to the nations that would eventually be born were consequential to the main goal, which was to proclaim the name of Jesus.
This raises an important question: Is Woodberry’s work simply an affirming history lesson? Or is there a connection to our world today? I suggest that just as the missionaries of the past were culture makers and effected positive outcomes as a result of living out the gospel, so too today the church must take up the mantle and lead by example in the face of the global environmental crisis.
Is this contemporary challenge too much for the church? I don’t think so. This is how I described the church’s role as I see it in my book, Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation (InterVarsity Press, 2008):
The environmental crisis is “…a scientific problem, an economic problem, a political problem, a security problem, and a moral problem – and a matter of life and death for millions. But at its root, it is a spiritual problem.
The Church – properly understood and functioning in the full power of God – is the only institution or organization available to the human race that can address a problem with this many dimensions . . .” (page 83)
It is a challenge we can handle – if we will. Robert Woodberry has showed us that we’ve changed the world before. Can we do it again?
- Conversionary protestants are defined in Woodberry’s paper as follows: Conversionary Protestants (1) actively attempt to persuade others of their beliefs, (2) emphasize lay vernacular Bible reading, and (3) believe that grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments. It is these beliefs and practices, not conservative, evangelical or liberal theological orientation, that determines the socio-political effects he is tracing. ↩
- Tom Little is a missionary optometrist martyred recently in Afghanistan; Nate Price is the dysfunctional fictional missionary character at the center of the novel The Poisonwood Bible. Opposite ends of the spectrum . . . ↩
- Editor’s note: A big “Thank-you!” to Ed Brown for his earlier ESN Blog posts which focused upon Creation Care & the Lausanne Movement, giving significant attention to the Jamaica Call to Action. ↩