Proof That It Works

January 8, 2018

By Maria Fontaine

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A while back I heard about an excellent academic study that I think can be useful in strengthening our convictions to be God’s messenger, no matter where Jesus asks us to be. The evidence presented in this study by sociologist Robert Woodberry1 can help us formulate a factual, convincing description of the positive influence of Christianity.

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 study2 and an article in Christianity Today3 about it, parts of which I will include 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.”

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. The missionaries 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 is 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.”

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. Jesus’ unconditional love for us gives us the strength and grace to sacrifice for the good of others. That stands as 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.

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

We are a part of the historically powerful good that Christians have to offer. The influence of our 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.

Originally published April 2015. Adapted and republished January 2018.
Read by Irene Quiti Vera.

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 nonresident 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.

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

3 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.)

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