Mission work is a biblical teaching in the Bible. Jesus commands all people to share the gospel and make disciples of all nations. Matthew 28:18-20 reads,
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Christians can justify biblical missions on the basis of the Word of God. However, colonialism cannot be justified by Christians. A definition of colonialism can be the following, “Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another” (“Colonialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
It is “the imposition of religious, cultural, economic, and linguistic practices over Native peoples” (Jo Luehmann, “Missionary Work and Colonialism,”). Colonialism was extremely common throughout history and was often misused by Christian missionaries. It is worth mentioning that colonialism is not the same as true biblical mission work.
What Was Colonialism?
Colonialism was improperly used by many Christian missionaries throughout history. This was not the case for all Christian missionaries; however, there were many who linked sharing the gospel with colonialism efforts.
Colonialism pushed the missionaries’ culture onto the native’s culture. Most modern missionaries do not do this today because all missionaries are extensively trained in cross-cultural communication and contextualization. God created all nations and different cultures as the artwork of His Hand.
Missionaries should not attempt to “fix” different cultures as their culture is not broken. True biblical missionaries today are focused on helping the lost come to know Jesus as well as providing any resources the people may need, such as medicine, food, or housing.
There were many different missionary groups throughout history, which all had an impact on colonialism. Missionaries got a bad reputation due to the past work of missionaries among different cultures.
The missionaries in former centuries were more focused on pushing their religion and culture onto the native people rather than sharing Christ with them. As noted earlier, this was not the case for all missionaries.
However, there were missionaries from England who imposed their Western culture and Christianity upon native inhabitants of other locations such as Africa, India, and North America (Craig Greenfield, “Is Missionary Work Colonialism?”).
What Were the Dangers of Colonialism?
The colonization done among Native Americans is a problematic point for missionaries today. When Christopher Columbus left in 1492, the goal bestowed upon him by the king and queen was to learn about the people group of India and convert them to Christianity (Jo Luehmann, “Missionary Work and Colonialism,”).
Columbus thought he was headed to India; however, he accidentally came upon what we call today the United States of America. Upon landing in America, Columbus and his men forced their own Western culture and beliefs upon the Native Americans. In addition to forcing their own culture and beliefs onto the Native Americans, Columbus and his men used Christianity as a way to enslave and murder them (Luehmann).
As one can see, what Columbus and his men did was by no means true mission work. Columbus and his men as well as other people throughout time have misused Christianity for their own intent. Colonization is not the same as mission work; however, these two things have been tied together throughout time.
What Is True Mission Work?
True mission work is radically different from colonization. Biblical mission work is going out to the lost throughout the world. The lost are the people who do not know Jesus and have not placed faith in His death, burial, and resurrection.
Mission work is commanded by Jesus for all Christians to partake in; however, many Christians are called to become full-time missionaries. If a Christian believes they are called to be a missionary, God will reveal this through His Word, other believers, and an internal yearning to go out to the nations to tell the gospel.
At the heart of missions is the gospel. All mission work needs to be rooted in telling others about Jesus, His sacrifice on the cross, His death, and His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Missionaries normally provide health care, food, and shelter for the people as well; however, true missions always include the gospel message. Without the gospel message, it is only social work.
Christians who participate in mission work should never try to force Christianity upon another person nor should they force their own culture upon another person. God wants all people to freely accept Him, not under compulsion.
1 Timothy 2:4 tells us God wants “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God wants people to accept Him and place faith in Him, but He does not want it forced upon them. Forced Christianity is not true Christianity.
If a person is forced to believe in Jesus outwardly, they have not truly believed in Him internally. Rather than forcing beliefs upon native people groups, missionaries should always share the gospel kindly, respectfully, and lovingly. Christians are to share the gospel message, but it is not their job to make the person believe or manipulate their response.
Missionaries today are trained extensively about different cultures before they arrive at their location. Contextualization and cross-cultural communication are vitally important for mission work. Contextualization helps believers share the gospel message in a way that is understandable and meaningful to the natives without compromising the gospel.
Cross-cultural communication helps train missionaries to be knowledgeable about different communication patterns, nonverbal communication, and verbal communication. Between contextualization and cross-cultural communication training, missionaries will not force their own culture onto the natives, nor will they force their culture upon the natives.
Western missionaries in the past have been found guilty of imposing their own Western culture upon the natives. Missionaries are not sent to “civilize” natives, but rather, to share the gospel message. Imposing Western culture onto natives is not the goal of mission work and should not occur.
Sadly, there is still colonialism going on today; however, if more Christians become educated about colonialism, it will help cease this cycle from reoccurring. Missionaries have a great role to play in God’s plan, but this role does not include forcing people to become Christians nor does it include forcing other cultures to conform to Western culture and society.
When Jesus calls Christians to go and tell the gospel to all people in Matthew 28:18-20, He never tells Christians that they must force the lost to conform to the culture of the missionary.
The Challenge of Future Mission Work
It is becoming more common for people to associate mission work with colonialism. Therefore, Christians need to be aware of this challenge and approach it carefully. Missionaries need to focus on sharing the gospel and being caring towards others.
It is also vitally important that missionaries do not impose their Western culture onto others nor should missionaries force unbelievers to become believers. Unlike colonizer missionaries in the past, true biblical missionaries should never enslave or hurt others for “the cause of Christ.”
Christian missionaries are commissioned by Christ to take the gospel to all nations. Missionaries are not called to enculturate unbelievers, convert unbelievers by force, or hurt unbelievers for not accepting Christ.
True believers would never try to harm another individual. Thus, Christians can justify biblical mission work; however, Christians cannot justify colonialism or unbiblical mission work.
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Vivian Bricker loves Jesus, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master's degree in Christian Ministry with a deep academic emphasis in theology. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, reading, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, she is embarking on other adventures.