Are Missionaries Good for the World?

“Is the Bible really true?” “Did Jesus actually rise from the dead?” “Does the Trinity make logical sense?” Those are the sorts of objections that critics used to level at Christianity. In increasingly “post-truth” contexts, however, the challenges of critics are changing. The central question is no longer, “Is Christianity true?” Now some wonder, “Is Christianity good?”

For missionaries and international church planters, the question carries with it the additional charge of cultural imperialism—the claim that Western Christians are guilty of imposing ethnocentric ideas and norms on international cultures, all while making their lives worse instead of better.

That critique is sharply expressed in the words of Kenyan activist Jomo Kenyatta: “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, we had the Bible but they had the land.”

But is Kenyatta’s experience typical? Is Christianity truly bad for the world? Are missionaries actually self-centered imperialists who do more harm than good?

A Statistical Reality Check

Without a doubt, there have been ethnocentric missionaries who obscured the goodness of the gospel for the world, regardless of their intentions. But such examples are far from the norm. In fact, the opposite is often the case.

At the end of a decade-long statistical analysis of the health and development of nations, sociologist Robert Woodberry (PhD, UNC-Chapel Hill) and his fifty-person research team published a shocking discovery: missionaries are actually the greatest catalyst in the development and stability of nations.

Yet not just any missionaries.

Woodberry’s observations only held true for “conversionary Protestants” (244). That is, missionaries (1) who preached the gospel with the intent of converting others and forming churches, (2) who encouraged everyone to read the Bible in the local language, and (3) who taught that salvation comes by grace through faith.

“Missionaries are the greatest catalyst in the development and stability of nations.”

In an interview published in Christianity Today, Woodberry summarized the positive effect of Protestant missionary work: “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.”

Far from being some kind of repressive imperialists, missionaries have historically been the most vital source of a nation’s social development. These findings yield two important conclusions about the work of Protestant missionaries.

Their Message Was Good for the World

Woodberry’s research is a welcome confirmation that the message Protestant missionaries believed and promoted was truly good for the world.

On this point, some Christians may object that we don’t need any extra-biblical confirmation to know that Christianity is good for the world. This concern is understandable, but we do well to remember how our Lord responded to Thomas’s doubts.

When asked for evidence of his resurrection, Jesus neither denied Thomas’s request nor demanded blind faith. Rather, Jesus invited Thomas to touch his nailed-pierced hands and spear-torn side. Only after presenting confirming evidence did Jesus say to him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (cf. John 20:24–28 ESV).

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.

Doug Ponder is a content editor for the International Mission Board. Find him on Twitter @DougPonder.