Articles & Resources

Just Communities: Christians and Education - Part 2

Aug 21, 2019 | By Matt Humble

Education in the History of Missions

Some years ago, Christianity Today reported on a sociological study, led by Robert Woodberry, that examined the correlation between missionary work during colonization and thriving liberal democracy today (1). Because of the atrocities associated with colonization, the study was controversial (2). At the same time, what unfolded in the study was quite remarkable. Christian missionaries in colonized countries, convinced of the value and dignity of all human beings, made undeniable changes that shaped the future of those countries: they helped create written forms of the native languages and were the first people to import printing presses; their schools would educate the future leaders of these countries; they addressed human rights issues and brought the attention to the atrocities that took place in colonization. These weren’t social-gospel Christians (not a pejorative we approve of) that were unconcerned with gospel proclamation; instead, they were word-and-deed Christians rooted in a deep understanding of what it meant to be made in the image of God.

These countries were undeniably changed. Woodberry points out:

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.

While internationally they confronted the injustice of colonization it is many forms, domestically, Christians drove social change in England, establishing rights for the most vulnerable and bringing an end to the slave trade (something that we will look at in more depth in our next article in this series). To do this, it took proximity to the problem and a willingness to confront the injustice of their own country’s actions. The question we are left with is, what changed?

At some point, Christianity went from boldly confronting injustice and disparities under the banner of the good news of Jesus Christ to something much safer, judging the ills of society from afar and proclaiming at a distance “we have the keys of eternity.” How would our lives look differently if we held to the same robust view of what it means to be made in the image of God as the early Christian missionaries? If we proclaimed the value and dignity given to every person simply because of who God is and what it means to be made in His image (Deuteronomy 10:12–22; Psalm 146:5–10)?

God longs to see the end of the curse of sin on his creation (Amos 5:14–15; Revelation 21:1–6), and he has called us to begin this work now and continue until the day he returns to make all things new (Jeremiah 29:4–14; Luke 4:16–21; Matthew 6:10; Matthew 25:31–46). God has not abandoned this world while we wait for the new one. He has given us the tools to begin to see the foreshadowing of his justice and righteousness today (Acts 8:4–8; Romans 6:22). These early missionaries understood that; they knew that God wanted something better today to point to his perfect tomorrow.

Today, education is a logical realm to lift up fellow image-bearers. Why don’t ideas that seemed obvious to our missionary forbears move us to action? It seems no coincidence that one of the most important factors in a healthy and prosperous society, literacy, is the same thing needed to hear from God himself through his written Word! The disparities that exist in education today are staggering, giving us the same opportunities as long ago: to share the value and worth of every image-bearer; to end the cycle of brokenness that sin has put on our community; to offer hope for both today and eternity. To do this, we have to be ready to proclaim the gospel in both word (truth) and deed (1 John 3:17), just as these missionaries did.

It is our hope that every person, especially every family, would pray with open hands and ask God how he is calling them to declare the value and worth of all image-bearers and invest in their neighbors’ as a means to know him and hear from him through his Word. Would you prayerfully consider:

  • Being a mentor through Go.
  • Mentor volunteering at a local school.
  • Working in education (e.g., teacher, administrator, social worker).
  • Engaging in local school policy.

Regardless, all of us should be engaged in praying for the kids and educators working in our community.

(1) Dilley, Andrea Palpant. "The World the Missionaries Made." Christianity Today, January/February 2014, pp. 34–41.

(2) We want to be clear that we are not including all missionary work under the same umbrella. We felt it was important to include these quotes from Woodberry addressing the issue of racism and colonialism.

“We don’t have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries, we don’t have to deny there were and are missionaries who do self-centered things. But if that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact.”

“One stereotype about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism. But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.”