One of my students showed me this video. I thought is was well done to show the boundaries of Christian witness over the centuries.
The following is an extended quote from the new book by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, “PERSPECTIVES OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH ON AFRICAN MISSIONS: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions In Africa.” Missionaries during the colonial era struggled with their role of utilizing the advantages of having colonial powers in charge in their mission field without becoming pawns of the colonizers. Some missionaries, however, did not struggle with this as they embraced both roles. There is a lot of disagreement in this area. However, Olayiwola expresses a common African perspective– and perspective is important.
According to Lamin Sanneh, “At its most self-conscious stage, mission coincided with western colonialism, and with that juncture students of the subject have gone on to make all kinds of judgments about the intrinsic bond between the two forces.”i He claimed further that, “In the nineteenth century this idea persisted under the slogan of “Christianity and 6percent,” by which it was understood that mundane interests prospered under a religious guise. Thus mission came to acquire the unsavory odor of collusion with the colonial power.”ii Michael Crowder believed that, “the functional relationship and unity, which existed between missionaries, traders and administrators in colonial Africa, was not accidental. Early missionaries in West Africa had a dual purpose to promote legitimate trade between African and Europeans and to convert Africans to their own religion.”iii
Since missionaries, the traders and even the colonial governors and administrators knew they were British, Spanish, and Portuguese residents in various part of Africa with a common interest to protect. Okon claimed that, “they cooperated and united as vital element in the attainment of their set goals. Missionaries in critical times of need, depended on traders for funds, and relied completely on administrators for physical security and protection.”iv Mbiti even claimed that, “A Gikuyu proverb says that, there is no Roman priest and a European- both are the same!”v Although, there is a no scholarly consensus on the role of the missionaries in the colonization of Africa, Okon insisted that, “the argument seems to favor the view that some missionaries cooperated essentially with colonial authorities in the exploitation and cultural subjugation of Africa.”vi
Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa contended that missionaries were agents of imperialism. He claimed that, “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light.”vii Okon claimed that, “Rodney accused missionaries of preaching humility and submission in the face of gross injustice, inhumanity and dehumanization. While British traders were exploiting their African customers, the missionaries preached peace, forgiveness and good neighborliness, which actually prevented genuine rebellion, self-preservation and determination. Missionaries worked towards the preservation of the status quo and upholding of the master-servant relationship between Africans and Europeans.”viii
Rodney lamented that, “The church’s role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism… the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrine of equality before God.”ix Okon claimed that, “If it is correct that missionary sermons suppressed genuine rebellion that could have ushered in freedom for the oppressed, and then the linkage of the missionaries with all the visible evils of colonialism may be justifiable.”x
i Lamin Sanneh, Translating The Message: The Missionary Impact On Culture. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 88. In Okon, 198.
ii Sanneh, (1989), 88. In Okon, 198.
iii Michael Crowder, The Story Of Nigeria. (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 111. In Okon, 198-199.
iv Okon, 199.
v Mbiti, 231. In Okon, 199.
vi Okon, 199.
vii Rodney, 277. In Okon, 199.
viii Okon, 199.
ix Rodney, 278. In Okon, 199.
x Okon, 200.
There has been an enduring belief that Christian missionaries, during the colonial era, often served as de facto operatives of the colonial powers. It is understandable why this belief would exist and persist. British missionaries, for example, would commonly serve in lands that were under the British flag. Commonly, but not always, being a British citizen in British colonial lands would be easier than being a British missionary serving in Spanish colonies, or regions that were not colonized. As such, missionaries may be rather pleased if their nation expands its colonial holdings since it provides potential new places to work.
But that is not the whole story. Often missionaries were seen as being a bit treasonous. That is, they were seen as undermining their home country. Again, this view is understandable. Missionaries were doing things for the benefit of the local people that, to the eyes of colonial powers could undermine their control over the people. Colonial nations and companies wanted the colonized to be compliant. That meant they sought to avoid education, or sociological stressors that could lead to angering traditionalists, or development revolutionaries.
Max Warren, in his book “Social History and Christian Mission” (SCM Press, 1967) speaks of some of this. He uses the example of the Serampore Trio (Careys, Wards, and Marshmans) in the Bengal region of India. For those familiar with the story. William Carey, a British citizen, was harassed by the East India Company during the early years of his stay. His desire to convert the natives to Christianity was seen as bad for business, and therefore bad for England. For a time he ministered in the Danish colony of Serampore to avoid arrest and deportation by his own country. Years later there was a change of heart and he was seen as an asset to British colonial leadership. Generally, however, this was a change in colonial leadership rather than change in Carey.
It wasn’t, however, just the colonial leaders who were concerned. Warren uses the case of Sydney Smith, the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Smith who wrote considerably to the Edinburgh Review, an influential journal, in the early 19th century. The following is quotes from Warren’s book (Chapter 3, excerpts from pages 60-63), who in turn quotes several times Smith’s writings:
After a number of caustic references, he (Smith) dismissed as folly the idea of sending missions to India because of
‘the danger of insurrection from the prosection of the scheme, the utter unfitness of the persons employed in it, and the complete hopelessness of the attempt while pursued under such circumstances as now exist.’
It is interesting to note his concern with the ‘danger of insurrection.’ This concern, widely shared as we shall see throughout the century, needs for its full understanding an awareness of the almost romantic attachment of the nineteenth century Englishman to the idea of ‘our Indian Empire.’ …. The passionate anger engendered by the Indian Mutiny showed our jealous fear of losing that empire. The ethical idealism of the Indian Civil Service showed our responsibility at its best. At all times India was felt to be vital to British interests. …. Sydney Smith, in this respect at any rate, gave expression to a suspicion which led countless political officers in Asia and Africa to view the missionary with a slightly jaundiced eye, and when (as most frequently happened) the missionary had got there first, to view him as a potential security risk. …
At least we may be very certain that down until 1947 and the subsequent celebrations of Independence, virtually every such political officer would fervently have endorsed Sydney Smith’s statement that
‘If we wish to teach the natives a better religion, we must take care to do it in a manner which will not inspire them with a passion for political change.‘
But he dropped to a rather lower level when he went on to say that missionaries
“would deliberately, piously, and conscientiously expose our whole Eastern empire to destruction for the sake of converting half-a-dozen Brahmins, who after stuffing themselves with rum and rice, and borrowing money from the missionaries would run away and cover the Gospel and its professors with every species of impious ridicule and abuse.’
We see there a continuing preoccupation with the empire. …
There we may leave Sydney Smith simply observing that in two respects he did, albeit with some unnecessary malice, help to form an image of the missionary as being, somewhat paradoxically, a stupid and presumptuous person, and at the same time a threat to the security of the Empire. These elements in the stereotype endured. In passing it may be noticed how very closely they coincide with the portrait of Christians painted by Celsus and other antagonists in the early centuries.
Again, this is simply a case study of a broader view that missionaries undermined the colonial power’s hold on colonial lands.
… And in some ways they may have been correct. The Serampore Trio did, arguably, have a role in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. They did take seriously the education of the Bengali, both men and women, and the case could be made that this work did breed new ideas that ultimately led to revolution.
So suppose Sydney Smith and others were correct and that Christian missionaries did promote attitudes and beliefs that would lead to insurrection, does that mean they were doing wrong? I believe not. Their call is to serve God, not empire. As British citizens, in the case of the Serampore Trio, it would be quite inappropriate, legally speaking, to lead a revolution against the British Empire. It would, however, be equally inappropriate to instill a passive acquiescence to the status quo (much like some of the Christian education of slaves in the US in the early 19th century that sought to ensure and justifyu the maintaining of the economic system of Black slavery. Christianity was expressed in terms of maintaining the status quo.
This is the challenge. A Christian is a citizen of heaven and of one’s nation. A Christian missionary has those citizenships, but also is a guest of a different government.
It is very tempting to confuse roles. And the confusion is often in the extremes. A missionary may try to avoid all politics and focus on the word of God. But doing so, can in fact be teaching people to disconnect from the world they are in. It is not surprising that many missionary receiving countries have Evangelical populations that have little involvement with social ills and provide no common voice against corruption. On the other hand, it is also not the calling of a missionary to be a revolutionary leader seeking to overthrow. It is further not the role of missionary to push his or her own political agenda on the people he serves. (This last point I see a fair bit as the weird and curious politics of popular American Evangelicalism often gets brought with the missionary to the mission field where it doesn’t really belong. Of course, the answer is not necessarily to be politically neutral either.)
I would still say that if one has to be unfaithful, be unfaithful to one’s country. One’s country is one’s place of birth, but God’s work is one’s calling.
I decided to publish my short book “Missions in Samaria.” It
seeks to address a simple question. Why does Jesus specifically mention Samaria in the Acts 1:8 version of the Great Commandment. The book looks at Samaria as both a historical place and a metaphor for places we may face today. At this time, I have only made available a Kindle version online. If you want to check that out, you can click here: Kindle Version. This book is about 10 pages longer, and modestly edited from an original version that I put online. That version is free on this website. You can click on the following post to access that free PDF: Post for Free PDF.
One of the chapters in my book, “Missions in Samaria.”
In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace, over a million residents, with a vibrant (Samaritan) faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might wonder what happened to the Samaritan faith. Did it lose the war in the battle of ideas/ideologies? Or perhaps they were lost to assimilation in conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion. And yes, over 2000 years there were many Samaritans who converted, often willingly and sometimes unwillingly, to Christianity or Islam.
The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not simply die so much as it was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed. This part is a bit sad, but we learn from both the good and the bad.
During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christian writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, both to non-Christians and to Christians who were not of the same form of Christianity as the emperor. This was so true that Coptic Christians in Egypt welcomed Islamic invaders in the 7th century to free themselves from the tyranny of the Christian rulers of Byzantium. The oppression often showed itself in violence. Samaritans experienced this oppression in terms of taxes, laws, and violence.
Despite the centrality of Christianity to Byzantium, there seems always to have been a certain savagery in the empire. The belief of the early church that Christianity and killing were fundamentally incompatible had long since been abandoned in Byzantium past as it had in Western Europe. The conversion of Rome to Christianity in the fourth century had led to a rapid reinterpretation of warfare as potentially undertaken in service to God; the Christian soldier could fight for his emperor safe in the belief that the emperor’s cause was that of God. <Endnote 7>
During the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491AD) tensions grew. According to one account, the emperor had required Samaritans to convert to Christianity. When they refused, they revolted and this led to a violent response killing tens of thousands of Samaritans. Some argue that the story is backward and that the revolts preceded the demand to convert. Either way, conversion was less connected with embracing the good news of Christ voluntarily, and more connected to risk of the sword and death.
During the time of Emperor Justinian during the next century an edict was established that virtually made being a Samaritan by faith, illegal. There were a series of revolts by the Samaritans that led to violent reprisals by the government. This resulted in the Samaritan population reducing from the hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. <Endnote 8>
The Islamic invasion gave some reprieve, but special taxes and periodic forced conversions and killings, especially during the Abbasid Caliphate and Ottoman Empire, took their toll. By the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Samaritanism reached its lowest point with just over 100 adherents. Since then, under the British mandate, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian Authority, Samaritanism has grown such that it has in 2020 over 800 adherents.
Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities, both of approximately equal size. One of these is on Mount Gerizim, while the other is in a suburb of Tel Aviv. There seems more of a tendency today to see Samaritanism as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor to that faith. In fact, their similarities to Judaism greatly outweigh their differences. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith in the God of Abraham.
Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to Samaritans with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.
This should serve as a warning to us. There is often a tendency in religion to focus on power. When the Samaritans appeared to have power, in the 4th to 2nd centuries BC and the 5th and 6th centuries AD, this was when they were attacked most viciously, by the Jews in the first case and by Christians in the second case. Their perseverance was not only a testament to the strength of their faith but also their relative weakness around larger and more aggressive faith groups. Their weakness made them less threatening to those around them.
Christians were called to love friend and enemy, not fear and attack. Why would Christians often choose violence over love? There are obvious answers— sin, selfishness, and tribalism. But these terms are abstract. Sometimes we must personalize it, and try seeing a situation from an uncomfortable position.
Consider some situations from Biblical lands. It is easy to cheer with the Israelites as they marched around the walls of Jericho as the walls begin to give way. It, however, takes a special effort to picture oneself as a father (or mother) in Jericho standing on the walls of the city looking out, fearful for himself and his family and friends, as his world (literally) crumbles around him. The same can be said today as many Christians seem to find it easy to side with the Israelis in the West Bank, while being shockingly unsympathetic of the plight of Muslim and Christian (and Samaritan) Palestinians.
The answer, is not to pick a side. When Joshua was alone (in Joshua chapter 5. read it now if you don’t remember), he saw a soldier dressed for battle. Joshua asked if this soldier was on his side or the enemy. The answer was neither. He was of the army of God. Joshua immediately responded bowing down and taking direction. The question is not whether God was on the side of Israel or the side of the Canaanites. Neither was it whether God was on the side of the Jews or the Samaritans, nor the Israelis or the Palestinians, nor the Christians or the Muslims. The question is are we on God’s side— or not. Jesus has told us that if we truly love Him, we keep His commandments. If we don’t keep His commandments, we are not on His side. Pretty simple, but it is hard to let go of the temptation to try to bargain with God to follow us rather than we follow Him.
This chapter is a bit sad because it looks like what Jesus and the early church did was destroyed. There is some truth to that, but not entirely. Many Samaritans chose to follow Jesus. Gradually they assimilated into the broader Body of Christ, losing their cultural identity. (This is not the book to decide if this lose of cultural distinctives is a good thing or not.) Additionally, there are examples that we can look back on for positive inspiration.
For example, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius forbade special taxes upon the impoverished Samaritans; the Christian Germanus helped the Samaritans continue their rite of circumcision after the authorities had forbidden it; the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem declared to the Ottoman Turks that the Samaritans, like Jews and Christians, were people of the Book and ought not be persecuted; and the American E.K. Warren built medical and educational facilities for the fragile community at the beginning of the twentieth century. <Endnote 9>
These first chapters described a complex history with a wide range of relations between Jew and Samaritan, and between Christian and Samaritan. But what does this mean to us today? Even though Samaritanism has grown almost 700% in the last 100 years, it is still unlikely that many of us will interact with a Samaritan in our lifetime. But since few of us are likely to live in a completely monocultural society, we have the blessing of the story of the many groups, including the Samaritans, that shared Palestine over the centuries. For the Samaritans, there were have painful times (2nd century BC and 5th and 6th centuries AD to name just a couple), there has been (relatively few) highpoints such as the 1st century. We can learn from the 1st century church. Still, our role is not to recreate the 1st century church, but create, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the 21st century church. So the following chapters will suggest some patterns and lessons.
This chapter is more historical. However, the book looks at Samaria as both a historical location where missions was effectively and ineffectively done, and a metaphor for a certain type of missions that we are able to do well or poorly every day.
I have not published the book yet… and maybe never will (we shall see). But if you want to read it, you can access it rhrough my previous post. https://munsonmissions.org/2020/04/04/missions-in-samaria-book/
One positive side of enhanced quarantine is the opportunity to make progress on something that one had definitely had on the ‘back burner.’ I decided to try to finish my book “Missions in Samaria” a few months early. When I say it is done, I mean that the first draft is done. It is only about 70 pages, but I am happy where it is— at least for now. My next book will be a collaboration with my wife on a pastoral counseling case workbook. It should be valuable, especially in the Asian context.
If you want to read the first draft of my book, “Missions in Samaria,” click on the link below.
Of course, if you are bored, you can also look at other books that I wrote or my wife and I wrote, they are listed in: My Books
I am working on a book, “Missions in Samaria.” It is based on an article I wrote before. It started with the birth of the Samaritan identity up through the book of Acts. Then I jumped to how one can think about Missions in terms of OUR Samarias today. In other words, what places are we called to share the gospel that may be close to us but we have the tendency to ignore ministering to, or even sabotage doing ministry?
But then I did some more research and found that an important chapter was lost in looking at Samaria. In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace and a vibrant faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might suspect that they lost the war in battle of ideas/ideologies. Or perhaps there was a mass conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion.
The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not die so much as was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed.
During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christan writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, and under Emperor Justinian, the faith was essentially made illegal. There were several uprisings that were crushed violently, killing hundreds of thousands of Samaritans. With the Islamic invasion, there was a bit of a temporary reprieve. However, that reprieve was far from complete with periodic forced conversions to Islam by the more “evangelistic” caliphs.
Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities and number in the hundreds. There seems more of a tendency today to see it as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor of that faith. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith.
Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to them with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.
This should serve as a warning to us.
So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.
China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.
What do these movements have in common? One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).
Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements. There Christianity is
- …a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
- … a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
- … a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)
So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.
- Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
- Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
- However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.
This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.
Consider Quote from Corbett and Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts:
As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreting the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.
It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not— as many asserted— to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor. <Corbett and Fikkert, page 45>
In the 1960s another shift reaction occurred but this time in Missions. During this time, theological liberalism was having a growing impact on Western Protestant missions due to the growth of belief in pluralism among Protestants, and a unique interpretation of Missio Dei. The former reduced the feeling that non-Christians needed an allegiance shift to Christ. The latter saw Missio Dei, the understanding that God is working on mission everywhere at all times on earth, as making the role of Missio Ecclessiae doubtful. In fact, from a mission perspective, if God is working in other cultures, for a missionary to come in an challenge the beliefs and practices of a people, could it not be a working against God? As such Missions is seen as a ministry of Presence rather than Proclamation.
In reaction to this, there seemed to be a narrowing of mission work among Evangelicals to proclamation and church-planting. Exacerbating this was a focus on what I would call Apocalypticism. That is, Christ is returning any moment, so what should we work on right this minute to be ready for this return? While this focus may seem reasonable, the result was that anything that might be considered a “long-term investment” in terms of ministry (such as poverty alleviation, cultural transformation, community development) were seen as too slow and not a priority. Further, Kingdom of God over the decades tended to be associated more and more with Heaven so problems on earth (ecological and social injustice) were seen as lacking value. We still find these problems. I was reading a recent mission CPM book that discouraged social ministry or even friendship evangelism as “slowing things down.”
I could go on. But let’s stop here a moment and think what’s been going on:
- Evangelical Missions has often been reactionary. Rather than centered on God’s word, it tended all too often to react against theological liberals, or pluralists, or liberationists, Catholics or others. (Often these other groups were seen as “the enemy.”) As such, Evanglicals often were guilty of what they charge others (of not treating the Bible as authoritative and basis for faith and practice).
- Relatedly, short-term marketing choices were often given formal “blessing” regardless of whether they were based on solid principles.
There has been success in Evangelical Missions over the last 6 to 7 decades, but there has been a cost. It has lost relevance in many sectors not because of opposition but intentionally pulling out of those sectors. Failures in social justice and poverty alleviation, and focusing on Heaven only, have resulted in reinforcing the charges of Marxists that religion is about serving as an opiate for the masses. Failures to transform (or even try to transform) societies and cultures has led many to see as a failure of Christ and Christianity, rather than simply a failure of Missions theology. Focusing on UPGs (and an abusive use of Matthew 24:11) led to poorly considered and invasive tactics.
This post is long enough. But we can clearly do better.
What makes history… history. One can look at it as repeating cycles of human drama. It can be seen as class struggle, social and/or technological progress, paradigm shifts, or clashes of civilizations or ideologies. But one popular one is the “Great Man” Theory. In the words of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”
I honestly don’t know the context of his quote so I can’t say whether I agree with his overall thesis. However, I know that there are many people, including a disturbingly large number of (commonly American) Christian leaders who have embraced the “Great Man” Theory of History, where history is essentially understood as driven by a few individuals that are rather… exceptional. It is hard not to see the ubermensch of Nietzsche or the “fountainhead” of Rand in this sort of thinking. It can be seen, on the face of it at least, to support a certain individualistic, libertarian ideal. However, if the historical trajectory of mankind was driven by a few exceptional individuals, that puts remaining billions as passive participants in the grand workings of a tiny tiny minority. In effect, the greatness of a few is predicated on huge flocks of sheeple.
And we see this in missions history. I have enjoyed using Ruth Tucker’s book in teaching Missions History (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) because it is so readable… and since we are designed to learn through narrative, life stories of a few often really help us learn faster. But I must admit that one negative aspect of a biographical approach to Missions History is that it gives a very false impression that the Church expanded through a very few.
When I was young, I came to believe that the great churchplanter of the first century was St. Paul. It made sense, since the book of Acts placed such a strong focus on him. But eventually, I started thinking:
- Did Paul plant the church of Jerusalem? No
- Did Paul plant the church of Antioch? No
- Did Paul plant the church of Alexandria? No
- Did Paul plant the church of Rome? No
- Did Paul plant the churches of North Africa, Italy, Babylon, and numerous other places where they sprang up in the decades following the entry into the church age? Generally No.
In fact, Paul was involved in a relatively small percentage of churchplants during his lifetime. This doesn’t lessen his impact. Frankly, his impact was more in the words he wrote than what he actually did. It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that Luke’s biographical approach to explaining early church history, while being ideal for the sake of memory, can mislead when read by people who are prone to idealize and idolize. This is true today as well. It is easy to place people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Cam Townsend, Lottie Moon, David Livingstone and many more on pedestals and see them as worldchangers, while the rest of us take up space.
In some ways, perhaps they were worldchangers. But I think in most cases, it wasn’t so much what they did but what they represented. People like William Carey and Lottie Moon (for example) did not radically transform the places they were. However, their words and actions inspired people to go, to send, and to support. In effect, it was in many ways the little people who changed things, by placing meaning to the activities of these two. If the many ignored these few, nothing of impact would have happened.
It is actually surprising, when looking at missions history how the most successful growth eras of the church happened at times when there were really no active (or at least famous) missionaries. One example would be in the first 3 centuries. Even though there were apostles (recognized churchplanters) active into the 2nd and even 3rd centuries, they rather quickly moved out of the limelight, and commonly did not appear to be prime movers in the growth of the church during this time. I will quote here Von Harnack here (I had used this long quote before… but it fits here quite well… you can read the longer version of this quote HERE.)
“The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage. How little we hear of the former and their results! How much we hear of the effects produced by the latter! Above all, every confessor and martyr was a missionary; he not merely confirmed the faith of those who were already won, but also enlisted new members by his testimony and his death.
… Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to “let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly.
… We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life which he found among Christians in general. How this life stood apart from that of pagans even in the ordinary round of the day, how it had to be or ought to be a constant declaration of the gospel—…. We may safely assume, too, that women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion (see below, Book IV. Chap. II.). But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”
“Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” by Adolph von Harnack. Volume 3, Chapter 1
The first few centuries was a time of huge growth of the church. That huge growth came from not-so-great men and women faithfully doing their little things that led to great things in the church. If one chooses to say that they acted on the inspiring behavior of a few… I am open to granting that this may have at least a small factor. However, again, it was the people who chose to be inspired rather than be disinterested. And really if one thinks about it, I really don’t think a slave in a house in Thessalonica (for example) lived an inspirational life of hope and love around others in the household because some pillar of the faith inspired emulation at some point in time. I believe this person did it first of all as an act of faithful reverence to the one who expressed love first giving true hope.
Many of the major missions movements and major times of church growth were not driven by towering characters. Few can name any Nestorian missionaries from the first millenium. Fewer still can name monks who shared their faith during the great movement eastward of the Russian Orthodox expansion a few centuries ago. Such ignorance may be because of our own prejudices, but then the fact that we have certain “superheroes” of the faith may just as clearly demonstrate prejudice. The growth of the church in China during the Maoist regime reminds us how mission professionals are not really needed for God to do great things.
Missions History does not need superstar Christians. In fact, it seems like sometimes the decline in the Christian church (such as in North Africa in the first Millenium, and Central Asia in the early part of the second) are, in part, a failure of the gospel message to truly bridge the gap of the professional to the common (or the elite to the illiterate).
I can’t speak to History in general, but I think it is pretty clear that in Missions History, we need less “Great Men.” Our bookstores and conferences are littered with them. We need far less of them and more “Not-so-great” men and women. They are the ones who will turn the world upside-down.
This is part of my haranguing in support of “Small” or “Weak.” It must be a weird thing with me. For some other posts in that line, you can look at:
The Power of Weakness — Part 1 (Parts 2 and 3 follow Part 1)