Missions: How to Change the World by Focusing on Christ

In 2012, sociologist Robert Woodberry published the astonishing fruit of a decade of research into the effect of missionaries on the health of nations. The January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today tells the story of what he found in an article called “The World the Missionaries Made.”

There is a lesson implicit in these findings that I would like to draw out for the sake of the eternal fruitfulness of missions as well as her power to transform cultures.

Titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” Woodberry’s article in the American Political Science Review defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries … turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations” (36). This was a discovery that he says landed on him like an “atomic bomb” (38).

A Sweeping Claim

To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this sweeping claim:

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 (39).

He concedes that “there were and are racist missionaries … and missionaries who do self-centered things.” But adds: “If that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes” (40).

An Atomic Nuance

Then comes the all-important observation which, inexplicably, Woodberry calls a “nuance” to his conclusion. I would call it a thunderbolt. He observed, “There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary Protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked” (40). Now that’s an atomic bomb.

I could not find in the Christianity Today article or Woodberry’s original article an explicit definition of “conversionary Protestant.” But these missionaries are contrasted with Roman Catholics and missionaries from state churches. I take it, then, that “conversionary Protestant” missionaries are those who believe that to be saved from sin and judgment one must convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ.

Thus, Woodberry points out that, even though missionaries have often opposed unjust and destructive practices like opium addiction and slavery and land confiscation, nevertheless “most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists … [but] came to colonial reform through the back door.” That is, “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended” (41).

A Significant Implication

What is the implication of saying that, as a result of “conversionary” missionary focus, social reforms came “through the back door” and were “somewhat unintended”?

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.

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John Piper
John Piper is the Pastor for Preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. John is the author of more than 30 books and more than 25 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at DesiringGod.org. © Desiring God.

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