Darrow Miller and Friends

Missionaries: What Good are They?

missionaries fostered democracryWhat happens when missionaries show up? What do missionaries really accomplish?

More than they generally get credit for. That’s the conclusion of some PhD research by Robert Woodberry on the impact of Protestant missionaries.

Most people would likely credit missionaries for achieving broader knowledge of the gospel, more Bibles in more languages, church growth, stronger families. Of course. And much more. Woodberry’s findings transcend these conventional results. His work shows that in areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past, the following are more likely to be true today:

  • Higher economic development
  • Generally better health
  • Lower infant mortality
  • Lower levels of corruption
  • Higher literacy levels
  • Higher educational attainment (especially for women)
  • Higher levels of membership in nongovernmental associations

Woodberry’s research demonstrates what Jesus himself declared, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” John 10:10. The data—the actual numbers—show that Protestant missionaries create a climate for the development of democracy. Few missionaries would be surprised, maybe. Many would fail even to be impressed with these numbers. “Where’s the news in that?” they might ask. But for secularists, numbers are reality. As my colleague, Dwight Vogt, points out, “statistical analysis is the only source of truth for the secular social scientist.”

Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem

Dwight also pointed out a connection to an unlikely story of a few years ago. Matthew Parris, a UK-based journalist and professing atheist, wrote about his observation of the connection between missionaries and development in Africa. Parris’s unforgettable title? As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. The article’s subtitle takes it further:  Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem – the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset. Go here to access the article.

Readers of this blog will be interested in two further observations from Woodberry. The actions of Protestant missionaries that created the conditions for democratization included “servant love” for one’s neighbor and a “Biblical worldview (vision).” DNA friends will recognize these themes as central to our beliefs and woven all through our material. Here are two quick examples: Servanthood: The Vocation of Every Christian and The METAPHYSICAL CAPITAL of a Judeo-Christian Worldview.

As to the first, love for our neighbor, Woodberry quotes Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. “Few [missionaries] were in any systemic way social reformers. I think they were first and foremost people who loved other people. They [cared] about other people, saw that they’d been wronged, and [wanted] to make it right.”

So simple. So profound.

From there he goes on to the second, the impact of a Biblical worldview, AKA a “Protestant vision.”

While missionaries came to colonial reform through the backdoor, mass literacy and mass education were more deliberate projects—the consequence of a Protestant vision that knocked down old hierarchies in the name of “the priesthood of all believers.” If all souls were equal before God, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language. They would also need to know how to read. [So] they focused on teaching people to read. [our emphasis]

Kudos to Woodberry!

Go here to read the article in Christianity Today

–          Gary Brumbelow

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Gary is the Disciple Nations Alliance editorial manager. He manages Darrow Miller and Friends and serves as editor and co-writer on various book projects. For eight years Gary served as a cross-cultural church planting missionary among First Nations people of Canada. His career also includes 14 years as executive director of InterAct Ministries, an Oregon-based church-planting organization in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Gary is a graduate of Grace University, earned an MA from Wheaton College and a Graduate Studies Diploma from Western Seminary. He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, Valerie. They have two married sons and twelve grandchildren. In addition to his work with the DNA, Gary serves as the pastor of Troutdale Community Church.

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