The following is a lightly edited transcript.
During the modern missionary movement of the last three hundred years, the 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 the greatest social welfare. This is a fact that should be noted now and again — like now — but not focused on because a focus backfires.
“Gospel preaching missionaries with a passion for rescuing people from eternal suffering have changed the world.”
Robert Woodberry, a professor at Baylor, published this thesis as a sociologist and teacher of religion there: “The work of missionaries turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.” Now here’s the bombshell: “The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to conversionary Protestants.” That’s his term — 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.”
Now, to be more specific, Woodberry’s research makes this claim:
Areas where conversionist 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.
Of course, being the scholar that he is, Woodberry admits: “There were and are racist missionaries and missionaries who do self-centered things.” Then he adds this: “If that were the average effect, we would expect that the places where the missionaries had influence to be worse than the places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action, and we find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes.”
Then he concludes: “Most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists but came to colonial reform through the back door. All these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”
Here’s the lesson I’m drawing from that research and from my own understanding of Scripture: The way for missionaries to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the gospel conversion of individuals from false religions and eternal damnation into the worship of the crucified Christ.
Or to put it another way: Missionaries will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus. You can smell it in pastors and workers and missionaries who would be happy if it happened in a century or who are driven by it.
I’m saying the driven ones won’t happen. There’s a reason. There are several reasons. One reason for that is that conversion to Christ, by the Spirit, through faith, accomplishes two things:
- Rescue from the wrath of God and into the worship of Christ.
- Practical moral transformation of life.
Neither of those effects is authentic without the other, and it’s the heartfelt worship of Christ that animates the transformation.
“Missionaries will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.”
Greg Beale, who was on the platform here today, writes in one of his books: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.” Therefore, those who pour their energy into restoration with no root in reverence, fail.
Gospel preaching missionaries with a passion to rescue people from eternal suffering have changed the world. That’s statistically true because that was not their focus. Which is why I said we should take note of this political effect now and again — like now — but not make it a focus because as a focus, it backfires.
Read, watch, or listen to the full message: