In a similar way, we should be glad that we have evidence of the gospel’s goodness for the world. Indeed, the society-improving effects of the gospel are just the sort of outcome that God’s Word tells us to expect. Make the tree good, and then its fruit will be good (Matt. 12:33). Thus the same message that rescues sinners also renews the world (Romans 8:19–24).
Their Focus Was Making Disciples
It is highly significant that the positive results of missionary work were limited to “conversionary Protestants.”
As John Piper observed of Woodberry’s findings, “[T]he missionaries who focused least on political transformation and most on personal conversion through the preaching of the gospel have brought about the greatest democratic reforms and social welfare.”
In other words, most missionaries were not deliberate social reformers. That was not their chief aim. The society-benefitting effects of their work, therefore, were essentially byproducts of their mission to make disciples.
“Making disciples is still the most effective way to improve the world.”
To be sure, gospel-driven social action is absolutely necessary (1 John 3:18). We are saved, in part, for good works (Titus 2:14). Furthermore, preaching good news without doing good works is hollow hypocrisy that reaches no one. However, focusing on good works as the primary way to achieve societal change is both theologically misguided and statistically discredited.
Working for societal transformation is vitally important and biblically commanded (Gen. 1:28; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 29:7; Jas. 1:27; Rev. 21:5). But the best way to achieve that goal is emphasizing evangelism and church planting—not exclusively, but primarily, “as of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3 ESV).
This conclusion runs counter to the prevailing narrative today, even among some Christians. Yet the statistical data strongly confirms the point, and it is vital that we heed it. Making disciples is still the most effective way to improve the world.
This article originally appeared here.