Missionaries Changed the World Once – Can they do it again?

The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries by Andrea Palpant Dilley on the cover of Christianity Today (January/Feburary 2014).

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”[1] 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.[2]

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:

  1. 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.

    Forman Christian College: A Chartered University in Lahore, Pakistan, is an example of the kind of institution “conversionary protestant missionaries” left behind. After 150 years, still training the leaders of this Islamic nation.

  2. 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!
  3. 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.[3]

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?

Deforestation in Kenya is a massive problem that seems intractable – but might be the kind of challenge the church can tackle. Thank-you to Care of Creation Inc. for providing this picture.


  1. 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. ↩
  2. 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 . . .  ↩
  3. 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. ↩
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Ed Brown

Rev. Edward R. Brown (Ed) is the Director and CEO of Care of Creation, and has recently been named the Lausanne Senior Associate for Creation Care for the Lausanne Movement. He directs the work of Care of Creation in the US, Kenya and Tanzania, and as Lausanne Senior Associate is responsible for all of the Lausanne Movement’s creation care activities. He speaks throughout the US and internationally on the topic of Creation Care, and has been a seminar presenter at four previous Urbanas. Ed is the author of two books: Our Father's World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation, published by InterVarsity Press in 2008, and When Heaven and Nature Sing: Exploring God’s Goals for His People and His World, just released by Doorlight Publications in December, 2012. Our Father’s World was praised by biologist and environmentalist E. O. Wilson as “beautiful and inspiring, ” and author Howard Snyder says When Heaven and Nature Sing “is packed full of wisdom—wisdom that is both biblically based and ecologically sound.” Ed received the Bachelor of Arts degree from Gordon College and the Master of Divinity from Gordon Conwell Seminary (Pastoral Studies). He served as Chief Operating Officer for Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, and has worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and as a pastor both in the US and overseas. He and Susanna, his wife, both grew up as children of missionaries in the country of Pakistan, and carry a love for that country and for overseas ministry with them. They live in Madison WI and have four grown children: Melanie, Tim, Katrina and Amy. Organizational background: Care of Creation Inc. is an environmental missions organization. It was founded in 2005, “to pursue a God-centered response to environmental challenges that brings glory to the Creator, advances the cause of Christ, and leads to a transformation of the people and the land that sustains them.” Care of Creation seeks to “mobilize the church” in various countries to focus on creation-care as an important part of ministry. Overseas projects include education, tree-planting and agricultural programs. The organization currently has projects on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania and plans to expand to other countries in East Africa in the near future.

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  • jeffrey.greenberg@wheaton.edu'
    Jeff Greenberg, Wheaton College Geology and Environmental Science commented on January 30, 2014 Reply

    Ed is an excellent person for this response. I would like to add that many “missionaries” today are very different in our labeling than the golden days of cultural influence. Today, it is not or shouldn’t be our desire to form other people into our culture unless it means bringing the universal foundations of Christ to the nations. Ed’s advocacy is via Creation care as a universal virtue and goal. This ties our mission to the needs of everyone and everything on earth. My own calling-vocation is in training mostly Christian college students to take skills and their zeal into the disadvantaged world in service. These missionaries may literally deliver “a cup of cool water” in Christ’s name. This capacity goes one step further than Creation care, combining environmental service with humanitarian action. Geoscience from our student practitioners brings knowledge and wisdom concerning water resources, sanitation, soils management and conservation, natural disaster preparedness, mineral and energy resource policy and practice, land-use planning, etc. New initiatives are moving the Church in the right direction. We need to get the good word out.

  • arthurgeoffrey@gmail.com'
    Arthur Davis commented on January 30, 2014 Reply

    Hi Ed, I’m a “professional missionary” working in Tanzania. Thanks for extending the conversation about Woodberry’s research and these issues.

    I was taken aback by the triumphalism of the CT article and the affirmation it seemed to get in my Australian circles — so I’ve already written some reflections on that. It’s as if we never actually appreciated the positives of missionary history amidst its complexities — or did the stereotype really have us fooled?

    Anyway, can I press you further on your third observation, Ed? Woodberry’s research, as far as I can see, has nothing to tell us about the success of the conversionary Protestants’ main goal. I mean, the conversionary Protestants primarily sought spiritual renewal, and yet their conversionary goal was, according to Woodberry’s research, the very thing that helped catalyse democracy — but what of the conversionary goal itself? The CPs proclaimed Jesus, but what they left behind, as far as Woodberry’s research is concerned, is democracy. Woodberry has written elsewhere about ‘spiritual capital’, but that seems to be beyond the scope of this particular study, in which the transformation in question is all in material terms (surely no fault of the study itself, given its statistical design). In what way does Woodberry’s research tell the story of successful culture-making if it doesn’t actually cover spiritual change (whatever that means)?

    You also raise the question, Ed, of the present-day role of “conversionary Protestants” in places where (say) democracy is already established. Do you see creation care as today’s pressing need when once democratic freedom was more urgent?

    Keen to hear your thoughts. Cheers!

    • ed@careofcreation.org'
      Ed Brown commented on January 31, 2014 Reply

      Arthur, thanks for the close read and comments. I had actually seen your post as I was reviewing the comments on the CT page itself.

      With regard to the whether this generation of missionaries achieved their ‘conversionary goal’ (ie. did people actually get saved…) I can make a couple of observations: First, I don’t think we can or should expect Woodberry’s work to address that question. He is sailing pretty close to the wind as it is in seeking to prove a secular thesis – that a religious movement produced measurable and arguably positive political and sociological results. I suspect he would want to say that the question of whether people turned to faith or not was not part of his assignment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A scholar can’t be faulted for not proving something he didn’t set out to prove.

      Having said that, I think the answer to your question is almost self-evident. Look at the difference in the geographical spread of Christianity in the last 200 years. Countries with almost no visible church before the missionaries arrived are now mission-sending countries. And even if not, it is hard to find a country now without some kind of home-grown witness of its own, and even in places where feelings towards missions and missionaries are (legitimately) ambivalent (there were and are still Nate Prices amongst us) most Christians will still acknowledge that it was due to missionaries that they or their parents or their grandparents came to faith.

      The conversionary project (what an awful label!) is certainly not complete, but I think one would have to say it was at least as successful as the democracy aspect, and perhaps more so.


      [Where are you located in Tanzania?]

  • arthurgeoffrey@gmail.com'
    Arthur Davis commented on February 1, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for your reply, Ed

    The “CPs” certainly left a Christian presence behind, so if conversion means (say) profession of faith, this points to widespread success of a sort. And I don’t want to make light of that; the world Christian movement truly is more than a Western export and, as you say, these are now sending churches themselves.

    But here in Dodoma we’ve heard a number of local Christian leaders express both thankfulness for the initial influence of the missionaries, along with frustration at the inadequacies they simultaneously bequeathed. For example, the dualism inherent in Western Protestantism has created various issues for Tanzanian Christianity that it must now resolve itself.

    What I’m circling around here is how we can define conversion more expansively. Woodberry’s study is only the latest indication that CPs had a modernising influence (in addition to presumably some sort of transmission of Christianity). But you’d no doubt agree that the spiritual tapestry we’re after is more than simply “modernisation + profession of Christianity”.

    One avenue for this, inclusive of creation care too, is “transformation” with respect to mission as transformation. It’s a conversation in which people have genuinely pushed beyond definitional debates about integral/holistic mission into theo-practical creativity. I’m also inclined to see it as the real leading edge of the global “culture-making” conversation — although as an Australian I’m little more than an onlooker, and a recent one at that! I wonder how familiar it is to y’all stateside?


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