Proof That It Works—Part 1

April 18, 2015

by Maria Fontaine

A while back I heard about an excellent academic study that I think can be very useful to each of us in strengthening our convictions to be God’s messenger, no matter where Jesus asks us to be. The evidence that is presented in this study by sociologist Robert Woodberry1 can be a great help in aiding us in formulating a factual, convincing, and irrefutable description of the positive influence of Christianity. Here’s something that an article in Christianity Today said regarding this study:

When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, a (19th-century missionary named John) Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

A “quiet, persistent sociologist” named Robert Woodberry has made a convincing scientific argument that the annals of Western Protestant missions “include many John Mackenzies.”

In order to give you a clearer picture of what was presented in Woodberry’s study, I asked one of my co-workers to summarize the article and Woodberry’s study, parts of which I will incorporate into my presentation here.

Woodberry and his team spent 14 years amassing the data for his research, which supported the sweeping claim 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 non-governmental associations.

Woodberry concluded that the positive effect of missionaries on democracy came from those who are called “conversionary Protestants.” He defined conversionary Protestants (CPs) as those who “(1) actively attempt to persuade others of their beliefs, (2) emphasize lay vernacular Bible reading, and (3) believe that grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments. CPs are not necessarily orthodox or conservative.” I think those three points sound a lot like TFI’s approach!

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. As it turned out, being independent from governmental control made a big difference in the effectiveness of missionaries. Woodberry found that missionaries who were not funded by government sources had more support from ordinary people. He discovered that those missionaries were the ones who did the most to campaign against abuses and to be the leaders in helping the common people to protect their lands, to end the opium trade, to fight abuse by landlords, to play key roles in the abolition movement, and more. They did this out of their love for people, because they cared about them and saw that they had been wronged, and wanted to help make things right.

These missionaries also fought for mass literacy and education, knowing that if everyone was equal in God’s eyes, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language, and therefore they would need to know how to read. In making it possible for people to learn to read the Bible, at the same time they were giving people the ability to rise out of poverty and to establish democratic movements.

Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, said of this study:

“Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

Another professor said,

“[The study is] incredibly sophisticated and well grounded.”

Dr. Robin Grier, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, said of this work:

“I’m not religious. … I never felt really comfortable with the idea of [mission work]; it seemed cringe-worthy. Then I read Bob’s work. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. [These missionaries] left a long legacy. It changed my views and caused me to rethink.”

The Christianity Today article goes on to say:

“Over a dozen studies have confirmed Woodberry’s findings. The growing body of research is beginning to change the way scholars, aid workers, and economists think about democracy and development.”

This is clear and convincing proof of the power of missionaries to bring positive benefits to cultures and individuals, and to have a powerful and consistent impact for good on the world.

As Christians we are called to be ambassadors of truth, love, wisdom, and freedom. Because of Jesus’ unconditional love for us, we are ready to sacrifice for the good of others. That stands as irrefutable proof for many people that what we tell them about God’s love is true. It changes lives and flies in the face of so many of the ills humanity struggles with, such as wars, violence, greed, quest for power, and exploitation. Our loving actions and words point to a better path.

What an idealistic, insightful, and commendable task! That’s why in so many places where missionaries have served, they are deeply respected by the local people. Christian missionary work has had tremendous benefits in nation after nation, and has been a powerful force in the lives of millions.

Life experience gained as a missionary can be a valuable part of a person’s résumé. It’s something that you can be proud of, because it indicates high levels of dedication, moral character, dependability, caring for others, self-discipline, honesty, and determination in reaching your goals. These are some of the most desirable characteristics for virtually any job.

Being a missionary requires dedication and determination. You have to be willing to stand up for what you believe in order to accomplish your purpose, whether you’re on some far-flung mission field or in your home country.

Your faith and the truth and love of Jesus are powerful qualities if you put them into action. Look at the twelve disciples. When they were following Jesus around, observing what He did and said, they didn’t stand out that much. But when they began to stand up and use each opportunity to be proud of the faith, training, and dedication that motivated them, even the learned leaders of their day, some of whom hated them, had to marvel.

Like the disciples, you will probably face opposition. But knowing the truth about how Jesus has changed you and what you have to offer can set you free. So use the facts, the evidence of the impact that Jesus working through you can have, to demonstrate what you as a Christian are part of. Some will value strong faith in the Lord and some will not, but its impact on the world will speak for itself. The more you allow His Spirit to shine through you, the more lives you’ll be able to touch and change for the better, wherever you are.

You are a part of the historically powerful good that Christians have to offer. The influence of your efforts will continue to change this world and carry on the wonderful legacy of truth, freedom, and purpose that Jesus has given us, and that we will rejoice for when He returns.

The Christianity Today article about Robert Woodberry is titled “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” by Andrea Palpant Dilley, and is available here. (It is also available via Google News, when you search for it there.)

Woodberry’s original study, from 2012, which is the basis of this article, can be found here.

1 Robert Woodberry is an associate professor of Political Science and director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. He is also a non-resident scholar at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project (RFP); he was a part of RFP’s Christianity and Freedom Project. Woodberry is a sociologist specializing in the impact of religion on political development and economic change.