What can Western Christians learn from churches in the rest of the world? (II)
Could it be that we tend to look at persecuted Christians with a mix of concern and pity because mission for the modern church often begins from the centers of power?
25 SEPTEMBER 2023 · 09:57 CET
Read the first part of this article by Hwa Lee based on his presentation at the 2023 European Leadership Conference here.
4. Mission and the Western guilt complex
The late 1940s to the 1960s were the heyday of the anti-colonial movement. Beginning in the late 1960s the liberal wing of the church began calling for a moratorium on or a withdrawal of missionaries. Western missions were perceived to be a new form of imperialism and thus missionaries were told to “Go home!” so that the churches in the Majority World (MW) can find their own identities.
The whole idea of preaching the gospel and converting others to Christianity was attacked and derogated as religious imperialism. Furthermore, secular anthropologists often accused missionaries of destroying the cultures of indigenous peoples because the process of conversion also took the converts out of their former cultures . All this gave rise to a pervasive “Western guilt complex”  about the whole missionary movement, as well as over other matters.
Lamin Sanneh has demonstrated cogently that the accusation of missionaries being culture destroyers does not find support on the ground
Addressing this phenomenon head-on, the late African scholar and Yale professor Lamin Sanneh has demonstrated cogently that the accusation of missionaries being culture destroyers does not find support on the ground. In fact, by translating the Bible into indigenous languages, missionaries actually helped preserve many languages and cultures from extinction. In other words, without denying that mistakes have been made, in many parts of the MW, they were in fact the preservers of cultures, not the destroyers .
More recent studies have gone even further to vindicate the whole modern missionary enterprise as a major factor in bringing social and material advancement to many parts of the MW. This has been demonstrated by the social scientist Robert Woodberry in a piece of groundbreaking and prize-winning research published in the prestigious American Political Science Review . He shows that Protestant missionaries in the past hundred and more years made major contributions to socio-political and economic advances wherever they have labored. “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on the 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 nongovernment associations” .
In fact, missionaries contributed greatly to the spread of stable democracy around the world. He argues that they “were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely” . As one of Woodberry’s research supervisors said, “you couldn’t think of a more unbelievable and offensive story to tell a lot of secular academics” .
Thus, contrary to secularists and liberal Christians, the actual facts on the ground in the MW demonstrate that on the whole, despite genuine mistakes made, missions and the gospel contributed greatly to the preservation of indigenous cultures and the advance of human liberties, democracy, educational levels, and other means of social uplift. What then do we make of the Western guilt complex?
We cannot go into a detailed discussion here, but one vital point needs to be made. We have witnessed numerous conquests and imperial expansions throughout world history. Many of these were done in the name of religion. But I am not aware of a society that has self-critically developed a guilt complex as deep and extensive over past mistakes as today's West.
One can easily name various non-Western societies and nations that have practiced territorial expansions and oppressed others in the name of religion or national interests. In which of these do we find serious wrestling with guilt? I am not saying those from other cultural and religious traditions are not able to develop guilt complexes. I am saying that, outside Western culture shaped by Christian history, we do not see evidence of such a complex on a similar scale anywhere.
Outside Western culture shaped by Christian history, we do not see evidence of such a complex on a similar scale anywhere
The point is this: the very fact of Western guilt may be one of the most important evidences for the enduring validity of the gospel in the post-Christian West. For it shows that the gospel has the power to shape the conscience of a culture, even when its propositional claims have been forgotten or largely rejected by that culture. Seemingly, despite being abandoned by many Westerners, the gospel continues to simmer in an unquenchable manner in a society that once acknowledged Christ.
What do we conclude from this? That, yes, Western guilt should lead to repentance for presumptuous, insensitive, ethnocentric, and triumphalist missions. The wrong conclusion, however, is to suggest that we must forgo Western missions because such missions have lost integrity.
The guilt that troubles the Western conscience over past failures points to the moral power and enduring validity of the gospel. Without this burden of guilt, which the Spirit imparts, this world would be far more cruel, heartless, unjust, and oppressive than it is. Only when our hearts and our cultures have responded to the call of Christ and experienced the work of the Spirit can such a conscience develop on the sort of scale that we find in the West.
Thus, the Western guilt complex properly understood is also a profound call to humble confidence and boldness in mission .
5. Theological education and ministerial training
When it comes to theological education and the training of men and women for ministry, almost all the churches in the MW have copied the academic model used in the West. But increasingly it has been found wanting . Among the major issues raised are the following:
a. The content of much of the theological education is Western because the textbooks used are largely written in Western contexts, addressing Western questions. Clearly, textbooks written for the MW and addressing their questions and realities are needed. But differences in content cannot be cited as an example of the inadequacies of the Western model simply because of the differences in context. More important are the next three points.
b. Various aspects of the methodology follow a Western academic model. For example, to help the student develop his critical faculties, the average student is introduced to the historical critical study of the Bible. But the problem with this is that many students end up knowing more about the critical theories on the Bible than the Bible itself.
c. Too much is taken for granted concerning the practical side of pastoral ministry. The result is that trainees are often thrown into the deep end after three to four years of seminary studies and struggle in preaching, evangelism, church planting, disciple-making, and the like. Using the training of doctors in their clinical years as a model wherein theory and practice go hand in hand, what is missing in the existing Western model of theological education is a much greater integration between classroom learning and field education.
d. Perhaps, the really crucial question is whether the Western model is centered so much on the training of the mind that character formation and the life of prayer get neglected as a result. It is interesting that Francis Assisi (1181/2-1226), whilst not against learning, is reputed to have given permission for his monks to be taught theology so long as it did not “extinguish the habit of prayer” . How can we put in place a comprehensive and intentional formation process that helps transform trainees into the image of Christ?
The Western model is centered so much on the training of the mind that character formation and the life of prayer get neglected
The above are merely some of the more pertinent questions. Within Asian and other MW theological education circles, these and similar questions have been raised repeatedly.
6. How do we think of persecution?
From the perspective of the Western church, there are two issues related to religious persecution. First, coming from societies that are relatively free, we tend to look at Christians in persecution contexts with a mix of concern and condescension.
Second, we need to ask whether religious freedom as presently experienced in the West can be taken for granted. The experiences of the Confessing Church in Germany under Hitler and the churches in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before 1990 are relevant here.
Writing at the end of the 20th century, John White notes that the freedom experienced in the West then is unparalleled in world history. He goes on to suggest that the West has now gone past the period of greatest freedom. The freedom we have comes from the Reformation’s biblical view of humanity. “As the biblical influence wanes, it is likely that freedom will not continue. There are signs that the conditions necessary for tolerance and freedom are already being eroded. Democracy is a fragile flower of late bloom … likely to be withered by the scorching winds of impatient hate”  I believe that there is sufficient evidence just from the media alone to show that White’s words need to be taken as a prophetic warning to biblical Christians in the West.
A look at the Acts of the Apostles shows that persecution never stopped the proclamation and advance of the gospel
How do we respond? First, persecution for our faith should not take us by surprise because it is written all over in the New Testament and in church history. It is only because most of us have gotten used to a Christianity without the cross that we find any talk of Jesus’ call to costly discipleship a problem. Second, a simple look at the Acts of the Apostles shows that persecution never stopped the proclamation and advance of the gospel (4:13-31; 5:17-42).
Indeed, Stephen’s martyrdom and subsequent persecutions led to more extensive outreach through the scattering of the primitive church and greater boldness in witness (7:1- 8:40; 9:1 30; 11:19-26; 12:1-18; etc.). Could it be that we tend to look at persecuted Christians with a mix of concern and pity because mission for the modern church often begins from the centers of power? We, therefore, think that those associated with the center should not be persecuted and suffer. But because mission in the New Testament went from the margins to the center, persecution and suffering were simply accepted as an integral aspect of following Jesus. Hence persecution is approached in a very different spirit than that often found in today’s church.
The above raises crucial questions for us today. First, should Christians see persecution as setbacks for mission or opportunities for Kingdom advance? Remember that the Chinese church revival in the last few decades came out of state-sponsored persecution, that grassroots churches are growing in places like India and Nepal despite militant Hindu opposition, and that many churches in MENA, such as those in Iran, are growing in the face of open persecution and martyrdom.
Second, how do we pray for those under persecution? One Chinese leader, when asked about persecution some years ago replied: “Don’t pray that God will remove persecution which actually refines the church. But pray that God will give us stronger backs to bear it!”
Is there a real danger that spiritual disciplines are weakened, persecution is avoided and mission dies?
Third, in many Western societies wherein religious freedom is taken for granted or where the Christendom paradigm prevails, is there a real danger that the church can easily be lulled into an easy existence through which spiritual disciplines are weakened, persecution is avoided and mission dies? What about your church?
In conclusion, allow me to say that we in the MW have been richly blessed by the gospel that many from the West brought to us, often at great personal cost and sacrifice. My comments above are offered as pointers to what the Western church can learn from the MW churches and be blessed in a small way in return. I trust that through such exchanges the churches in the West and those in the MW can build genuine, strong, and equal partnerships for the continuing advance of the gospel.
Hwa Yung, Bishop Emeritus of the Methodist Church in Malaysia.
This article is based on a presentation given at the European Leadership Forum 2023 in Wisla, Poland. Re-published with permission of the Forum of Christian Leaders (FOCL).
17. For a neat introduction and response to the accusation that missionaries destroy cultures, see Don Richardson, “Do Missionaries Destroy Cultures?” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movements: A Reader, 4th Ed., eds. Ralph Winter & Steve Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 486-492.
18. For an introduction to the phenomenon of the “Western guilt complex,” see Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 157-177.
19. Lamin Sanneh, "Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex," The Christian Century (April 8, 1987), 331-334, also accessible here. https://www.religion-online.org/article/christian-missions-and-the-Western-guilt-complex/. For a more detailed treatment, see his Translating the Message—The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).
20. Robert D. Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 106 (2), (May 2012), 244-274.
21. Andrea Palpant Dilley, “The Surprising Discovery about Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” Christianity Today (Jan/Feb, 2014), 34-41.
22. Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” 244.
23. Christian Smith, quoted in Dilley, “The Surprising Discovery,” 37.
24. I have discussed this and related points further in “A Fresh Call for U.S. Missionaries,” Christianity Today (Nov 2011), 42-46.
25. As examples, see Manfred W. Kohl & A. N. Lal Senanayake, eds. Educating for Tomorrow: Theological Leadership for the Asian Context (Bangalore: SAIACS, 2002), and Allan Harkness, ed., Tending the Seedbeds: Educational Perspective on Theological Education in Asia (Quezon City: ATA, 2010).
26. Cited in Dennis Stock and Lawrence Cunningham, Saint Francis of Assisi (New York, Harper & Row, 1981), 33.
27. See David Burke, Richard Brown & Qaiser Julius, eds., TEE for the 21st Century: Tools to Equip and Empower God’s People for His Mission (Carlyle, Langham: 2021); and Hanna-Ruth van Wingerden, Tim Green & Graham Aylett, eds., TEE in Asia: Empowering Churches, Equipping Disciples (Carlyle, Langham: 2021).
28. John White, Magnificent Obsession: The Joy of Christian Commitment (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 97.