Like many, I read with much interest Andrea Palpant Dilley's article in Christianity Today, "The Surprising Discovery about those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries," which summarizes the research findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry on a potential correlation between evangelical missions and social transformation. His work particularly focuses on the 19th century in which missionaries were often accused of doing more civilizing that evangelizing. Certainly, the noted failures of this period have prompted more sensitive contextualization in the present day. It seems though that Woodberry's research has first challenged the rarely disputed claim that missionaries did much harm by promoting their own cultures; so this is fresh research.
I think what most grabbed my attention in the article was the clear social transformation that took place in many contexts where Protestant missionaries labored. Dilley summarizes:
"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."
Even more insightful is that the primary focus of these 19th century missionaries was not social transformation, but gospel proclamation--calling sinners to repent and find forgiveness and new life through Christ's accomplished saving work at the cross and through his resurrection. The article cites Calvin College professor Joel Carpenter who writes, "Few [missionaries] were in any systemic way social reformers." That said, while gospel proclamation seemed primary, missionaries also ministered in deed by instituting literacy programs, establishing schools and hospitals.
As I read Woodberry's observation of the outcome of 19th century missions, I'm reminded of my CIU colleague Bill Larkin's careful exegesis of Luke 4:18-19 (Larkin, 1998:158-69), which reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
The poor of Luke 4 (and Is. 61) are the spiritually poor and Jesus' primary task is proclaiming God's salvation. However, this passage does seem to extend other realms, too. Simply put, a spiritual conversion ought to bear fruit in the physical, political, and economic arenas. Larkin concludes, "Jesus the Christ is sent by the Father to proclaim the good news of release and to accomplish a holistic but spiritually focused salvation" (Larkin, 169).
In short, Woodberry's sociological study has caused us to rethink missions history and, of course, drive us back into Scripture to clarify our theology of mission.