For fifty years we have been criticizing Christian missions. Why? “Because,” our major criticism goes, “Christian missions interferes with and Westernizes non-Western cultures.” But that is not really the right answer.

In its first century, Christianity, with strong rootage in Judaism, went eastward, and in Syrian trappings affected the culture of Persians and Indians who became Christian. It went westward and took on Greco-Roman trappings and for centuries interfered with the cultures of Europe; it “Greco-Romanized” them at the same time that it injected them with Oriental and Judaic concepts.

No criticism for that, however. An amalgam gradually took place between the introduced Christianity and the culture it brought from the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. That amalgam became “Christendom.”

It is the modern missionary movement—beginning with the Roman Catholic “Counter-Reformation” and continued in “The Protestant Missionary Enterprise”—that we criticize. What is behind these fifty years of self-criticism in mission?

Many of the ablest missionaries in the earlier years of the modern missionary movement were people who thoroughly “indigenized.” They adopted the culture of the people to whom they went and sought to apply the Gospel in that cultural context. Matteo Ricci, Robert de Nobili, Robert Morrison, and John Williams were foremost but typical. Even David Livingstone, who hoped to open Africa to European commerce as an antidote to slavery, would not practice his Western medicine among tribal people without consulting and acting on the approval of the African witch doctors, whom he treated as colleagues.

Later, when converts needed fellowship and continuity, missionaries did tend to organize them in patterns of the churches they had known in their homeland, just as the early Jewish Christian missionaries in the Greco-Roman world organized the first congregations on the pattern of the synagogues they had known. After early modern missionaries had established the first works of medical, educational, and economic assistance, generations of new missionaries with special skills were sent to carry them forward. These later missionaries were expected, by the very nature of their skills, to bring to non-Western peoples the advantages of medical, educational, agricultural, and industrial know-how from the West.

As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, mission leaders began to get nervous about the extent of this Westernization and about the relation of missionaries to Western imperialism. This would have surprised non-Western Christians of that period, for they benefited by the Westernized institutions that were planted among them. It would also have surprised the Western imperialists, who generally tried to keep the missionaries and their movement at arm’s length.

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In the meantime, quite regardless of the missionary presence, Western imperialism, commercial interests, and technological processes continued to infiltrate the East at an increasing rate. On the other hand, missionary scholars were studying with deepening appreciation the religions of the people to whom they went. They were translating many of their scriptures and were awakening not only the Western world but also the non-Western world itself to the religious heritage of the East.

The World Missionary Conference held in 1910 in Edinburgh, though frankly Western in its composition, called attention to the fact that there was a church around the world, and not just a church in the West and a mission field elsewhere. Before the First World War, mainline denominational mission boards were already asserting the need for “devolution.” They called for a winding down of Western leadership and a strengthening of non-Western leadership.

Between the two world wars, missionary candidates who presented themselves for service in the non-Western world were told to “indigenize.” It was catechetically drilled into them that they should be prepared to serve under national leaders abroad and to find ways to interpret the Gospel through local cultural forms.

By the end of the Second World War, in which the Western world suffered a moral defeat, the self-laceration that marks modern Western civilization had set in. It was affecting the missionary movement from the West. Young missionaries went abroad convinced that the previous generations of missionaries had made the horrendous mistake of “Westernizing” the Church abroad and of sadly interfering with the cultural foundations of people everywhere.

Actually, the new missionaries did little more than the old missionaries to change the life-style of the Christians they served or to reduce the Westernization of their institution. To the extent that some dared to try to do so, they were usually opposed by national Christians for whom indigenization meant compromise with a religious culture they had turned from and therefore a loss of Christian identity.

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Some anthropologists (who owe a great deal to the pioneering cultural studies of earlier missionaries such as the Abbé J. A. Dubois in late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century India) have picked the missionary as a favorite whipping boy. Missionaries are chastised for having undermined non-Western cultures and for having alienated peoples from their past. This was partially true. It is still true that any person in any culture anywhere who embraces the Christian Gospel thereby accepts patterns of life that stand in opposition to many of the practices of his own culture, whether in the East or in the West. It is a fact, however, that if missionaries had never gone from the Western world, commercial, political, and technological pressures would have changed and Westernized the cultural milieu of the non-Western world. It is also a fact that missionaries have often sought to withstand these pressures and to protect the people to whom they had gone from undesirable culture-changing forces.

The tides of culture have always been on the move, the more aggressive ones influencing and changing the more passive forms. And this has happened not only with Christianity in its early penetration in to Europe but with other religious forces, forces less apologetic than modern Christianity. It is instructive to look at the Indian missionaries who carried Budhhism into China. Many of them, like many missionaries of the early days of the modern Christian missionary movement, sought indigenous ways of presenting their message, and they made translations of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. It is well known that China modified Mahayana Buddhism into Chinese forms. Nevertheless, not only Sanskrit terminology but also many forms and influences of Indian Buddhism have remained fixed forms in the Buddhism of China, Korea, and Japan until this day. Even though Hindu cultural imperialism was pushed back from southeast Asia many centuries ago, Hindu religious terminology, Hindu practices and festivals, and even small pockets of Hindu religion still remain throughout southeast Asia as part of the life of the people.

Mission were to candidates accepted interpret the Gospel the ‘notion’ that they through local culture.

Muslims, in their sweep out of Arabia into Europe, into Africa, and into Asia, made no effort at all to indigenize as they converted great masses to their faith. Most Westerners, for example, when they think of India think of the architectural forms brought out of Arabia by Arabian Islamic imperialism through Persia into India. To this day, Indians who are Muslims, descendants of Hindu converts to Islam, attend prayer at mosques whose basic architectural form comes from Arabia. They still bury their dead and build mausoleums in distinct contradiction to the Hindu cultural heritage of their environment. Their dress is distinct from that of their Hindu neighbors, but similar to that of Muslims to the west of them. They maintain in their speech a vocabulary modified greatly by the use of Arabic and Persian terms. And yet with all their Arabized, Persianized, religious culture, they are truly Indians and have been accepted as such for centuries.

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The most successful missionary movements from the East to the West have been those that have not consciously attempted to indigenize. The missionaries of Islam have brought to the West the patterns of mosque and worship that are Arabic in form. Western Muslims are encouraged to read the Koran in Arabic, the one true language of Islam. Many individual Hindu missionaries have garbled their message with Western terms but as a consequence have been able to influence and affect only a few intellectuals of the West. The most successful Hindu movement in the modern West has brought over the worship of Krishna in the forms of the famous Caitanya revivalist movement of India of several centuries ago. The converts sing hymns in Hindu, they adopt Indian clothing, the men shave their heads as do Hindu orthodox persons in India, the illustrations for their literature published in the West are in the style that has been popular for several centuries in India depicting scenes that are indigenous not to America or Europe but to the tropical Indian world.

Nevertheless, unlike many Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim missionaries of the past, Christians should be concerned about indigenization. They should look for a worldwide Christianity of which it could be said, as the second-century letter-writer to Diognetus said, that Christians everywhere follow the custom of the society in which they live while at the same time they become the “soul” that holds the world together—citizens but aliens, like but unlike their non-Christian neighbors.

But indigenization is not authentic if it is feigned by foreign missionaries or if it is adopted by national Christians as an expression of nationalism. Indigenization that is authentic grows spontaneously among Christians who belong to their own society while at the same time they conciously and obviously belong to a worldwide community of faith. It is authentic only when the people who practice the indigenous form of Christianity are “in Christ.”

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Our critique of Christian mission must come from the vantage point of the faith and love we have received and by the biblical articulation of that faith and love. We need to look more carefully at the current of criticism of past missionary methods flowing both inside and outside the Church. Our eager acceptance of that criticism, our attempts to adapt mission to contemporary humanist movements, our readiness to withdraw from the missionary activity of winning disciples to Jesus Christ, may not be motivated by faith and love. It is arrogance to assume that Christianity belongs to the West. It is indifference to posit that non-Christian religions are necessary for the culture of the non-Western (and rapidly secularizing) world. The root reason for continuing criticism and withdrawal is found in the contemporary loss of confidence in Western civilization, with which we wrongly identify Christianity.

An aggressive missionary movement was, unfortunately, associated with an aggressive Western civilization. What the Peloponnesian Wars did to the glory that was Greece the world wars of this century have done to the glories that were the West. A disintegrating civilization has lost its creativity, has lost faith in itself, and turns in frustrated anger at its own heritage.

It is time for Christians from both East and West to discover together their unity in Christ and the universality of God’s love, without dependence either on the contemporary West or on the nationalism of the East. Christianity at its best is not something to represent or to be woven into any human culture. It is rather to influence and transform human culture everywhere.


If springtime is our hope, then you are gone:

Brown asters rattle in the cold black frost;

The beech tree crackles as the wind blows on

Its hollow trunk; it dies; and l am lost

In grieving if the total life of you

Becomes a mulch for probing roots in gray

Wet hours; birth has no meaning for me through

A bitter April, feeding on decay.

Yet even now in winter stark and pure

I cannot grasp that life could pass, denied

An instinct strong as hunger: to endure.

If springtime is our promise, you have died …

The evanescent hope of April ends;

Man needs a Savior when the cold descends.


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