From the companion series of the Oxford History of the British Empire, Norman Etherington edited a volume entitled, Missions and Empire. This volume traces the religious, political, colonial, and economic interaction between the British Empire and Western missionaries.
Some secular historians criticize Western missions for employing cultural imperialism. Widespread historical evidence does not actually support such a critique, though certainly imperialistic exceptions of coercion occurred. The fascinating truth is that the gospel spread predominantly by the indigenous evangelists and church-planters. The Western missionaries established a beachhead, but the locals confronted and challenged their culture with the gospel. This volume argues that,
“The most important late twentieth-century scholarly insight into the growth of Christianity in the British Empire was that European missionaries accomplished very little in the way of conversion. The greatest difficulty faced by those who have tried to argue that Christian missions were a form of cultural imperialism has been the overwhelming evidence that the agents of conversion were local people, not foreign missionaries” (7).
Secondly, it is interesting that once the gospel took off like wildfire, the local evangelists and pastors craved deep Bible teaching. The Western missionaries saw their jobs transitioning from translation to training. Training leaders to pastor the rapidly-spreading churches was the great need. Missionaries had to distance themselves from direct evangelization in order to train and teach the theologically-hungry indigenous pastors. The volume demonstrates that,
“Missions founded schools for their evangelical purposes: to train local people as ministers and missionaries; to spread literacy so the Bible could be read; and to form the minds of children when adults proved indifferent or hostile to the Christian message” (11).
It’s encouraging today to see God raising up more Western missionaries who have the heart and education to teach Christian leaders who otherwise would never have the opportunity to study God’s word. May God continue to feed his global sheepfold and cause his pure gospel to spread rapidly and triumph in areas where the Western missionary cannot live anymore.