Thursday, January 30, 2014

What good comes from Christian missions?

Back in 2003, as we were preparing to leave our home in the United States behind and move to Mozambique, our conversations with strangers often took on a familiar pattern.

“Oh, you’re moving to Africa?” they’d ask, “Have you read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver?”

“Yes, we have,” Rachel and I would say through clenched teeth.  “It’s a good read… but, it’s also a pretty extreme example of what a bad missionary looks like.  We hope to work in a way that will really serve and bless the Makua people.”

Now, we understood why people would bring up that novel.  They’re thinking, “Oh you’re going to do X… well, I’ve read a book about X.”  But, in our minds that’s kind of like saying, “Oh, you want to work in government… have you read this book about Richard Nixon?”

And that’s why it seemed so natural to me that Andrea Dilley’s recent article on the long-term impact of Christian missions also begins with The Poisonwood Bible.   Dilley summarizes and digests a fascinating study by Robert D. Woodberry in the American Political Science Review called, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”  Both the Christianity Today article and the primary source are worth reading.

Dilley’s main finding was this: “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

She goes on to say that, “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.”  So, Woodberry's results suggest “that 50 years' worth of research on the rise of democracy had overlooked the most important factor.”


Now, Woodberry is very careful in his research to not equate correlation with causality.  Just because A and B are found in the same place, that doesn’t mean that A caused B.  His article is an interesting combination of statistical and historical analysis.  But he makes a great case for the foundational role of missions in forming a better society.

One important nuance to his study, though, was that, “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 the areas where they worked.”  It seems that the independence that those 19th Century Protestant missionaries had from state control allowed them to be critical of colonialism (a surprise divergence from the perception more commonly held today).  Woodberry finds that these missions were “crucial catalyst(s) initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary association, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely” (Woodberry 2012, 244).

Dilley shares a handful of (mostly) forgotten examples.  There’s the Harris family, Baptists who documented and publicized the injustices of the rubber industry in the Congo.  Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican who critiqued the policies of Apartheid and help turn global opinion against it.  There’s James Long, who was jailed for standing up for the rights of the people he served.  And there are countless others.

I don’t think that any of those missionaries, as they boarded ships headed for foreign fields, had any idea of the scope of their impact.  There was no way for them to know that their work would have blessed the people and their countries in this way.

In Scripture, the story of Abraham in Genesis 12 is the primary text for understanding God’s vision for the mission of his people.  God tells Abraham that he has been blessed to be a blessing and then through that one faithful, old man God would bless all the peoples of the world.  That divine promise of blessing continues to be lived out through Father Abraham’s children up until today.

So, basically… according to all that historical and statistical analysis… with some exceptions… those 19th century missionaries rocked!

Collectively they took on gigantic tasks like mass education, printing, health care and more and their work had a lasting impact.  Besides their impact on the other side of eternity, we should also recognize that they were some of the first people to champion for what we now consider to be ‘basic human rights’ and their influence shaped the nations they served way beyond their own lifetimes.

Now, that being said, the world looks pretty different now than it did then.  These days almost all governments and non-governmental organizations have at least nominally adopted those 19th century missionary emphases of education and advocacy into their own platforms.  So, here’s my question:

What are the issues that missionaries are (or should be) responding to today that could have that same kind of long term impact here on earth?

Let me humbly offer a few guesses/suggestions for how missions today can be a blessing to host countries in ways that will bear fruit in the next century.  (Admittedly, none of these are ideas are new to me, they’re similar to ones thrown around in conversations about the next frontier of missions…  Though, maybe now we should recognize that that new frontier is already here!)

  1. Be advocates for the local church.  Missionaries serving in both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ countries must do a better job of working in partnership with existing church structures.  The age of colonialism is over, so it is essential to remember one's status as as a guest and make sure that local believers are full participants in setting the agenda both inside and outside the church.   
  2. Serve as connectors for the global Church.  In our hyper-connected world, long-term missionaries can provide a real personal connection between buyers and sellers, friends and enemies, Christians and Muslims, etc. who share this global community.
  3. Work towards making disciple-making-disciples of Jesus.  Honestly, there’s no way to know what kind of issues your host country will face in the next century.  Those 19th Century missionaries didn’t know they would be laying the groundwork for liberal democracy, they kept their heads down and worked hard to make a difference for the Kingdom in the areas of education, health, etc.  If we make real disciples of Jesus that’s like planting an orchard that could nourish our host country long after our time here is over.
  4. Promote a biblical stewardship of creation.  Engage the arenas of sustainable agriculture that will help the host country feed its people well.  Figure out a way to effectively address issues like deforestation - something on the horizon for our region.
  5. Respectfully speak truth to those in power.  Learn how to tell the truth in ways that will be heard like our predecessors did. Recognize the failings of democracy – that form of government may owe something to our missionary fore-bearers but that doesn’t mean its present form is serving people all that well.  Is it just me, or does it seem like the world has more ‘democratically’ elected dictators than the non-elected despotic kind?  I have been wrestling with how to put myself in a position to be a guest whose telling the truth could actually gain a hearing. 
Jesus liked to tell parables about the Kingdom of God that talked about how small, inconsequential things would end up having a substantial impact.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed,” he tells us, “though it is the smallest of seeds, it grows to become a tree large enough to house flocks of birds who will land there to find rest. (Matthew 13)

My hope is that our work here in Cabo Delgado will have a long term impact.  The blessing that our team passes on may not end up being as dramatic as our 19th Century colleagues... but then again, God only knows… maybe it will be.

Grace and Peace,

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