Mark Vowels, CGO director
This month we are considering missions mistakes that should not be repeated. Our first area of focus is on colonialism. To say that colonialism represents a missions mistake requires some explanation.
Colonialism is the political and cultural domination of one nation by another, generally accomplished for the sake of exploiting the resources of the subjugated country. Not all colonialism should be viewed with absolute negativity. As an American, I am glad that England colonized “the New World,” though I would not excuse the historically shameful treatment of America’s indigenous population.
Let’s be clear about the relationship between missionary expansion and political colonization in the 15th through 19th centuries. Geographically, the Gospel spread throughout the world more during that period than in the fourteen previous centuries combined. Although political colonization had many negative aspects, it was clearly used by God to take the message of salvation to the peoples of the world in an unprecedented way. For that, we should rejoice.
Many of the heroes of our favorite missionary biographies operated in their respective fields as a result of political colonization. I’m thinking of William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Mary Slessor, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, David Livingstone, and a host of others. All were able to go as missionaries to their destinations because of the advance of the colonial powers into Asia and Africa. So this post is not intended to decry the many evils of the colonial era without celebrating the advancements made for the Cross during that epoch. Almost every missionary today stands on the shoulders of his colonialist predecessors.
The mistake of the colonial era missionaries was not that they went forth as part of a colonialist expansion, nor may we criticize them unfairly for their colonialist attitudes since every person in every era is essentially a product of his or her own time. Nonetheless, their mistake was in presuming that the dominant, or sending, country’s culture was superior to the exploited, or receiving, country’s culture.
The nearly universal assumption during this period was that since the target people were not Christians they would need to embrace both the Gospel’s message (received from the colonial powers) and the Gospel’s culture (which was presumably that of the colonial powers). Surely, it was reasoned, since the Gospel had already affected the culture in the missionary’s homeland, it would be beneficial to the recipients of the Gospel to adopt the missionary’s home culture as part of being a disciple of Jesus.
The missionaries of that generation risked a great deal and sacrificed enormously to travel to regions infested with diseases and dangers. But they were almost always guilty of ethnocentrism and paternalism. We will discuss those more next week in our second post on missions mistakes.
The problem with colonialist missionaries was their thought that in order to follow Christ a convert needed to become British, or German, or Dutch, or American, or something other than what he was born. The presumption was that it was not enough to accept the missionaries’ Jesus, the natives must also accept the missionaries’ lifestyle. To be a true Jesus follower, the new converts needed to learn to dress, eat, play, read, worship and serve according to the model provided by the missionaries from the superior land.
We are past the period in history when political colonialism was wedded with missionary expansion. Nonetheless, colonialist attitudes often persist. And this is where mistakes are made, and where we need to be ever wary.
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.