A missionary is someone sent on a religious mission, one that typically involves propagating their religion or conducting charitable work in a culture or country different from their own. Throughout history Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim missionaries carried their religions throughout the world. Today, the global diffusion of Buddhism and Islam is mainly due to international migration and formal missionary efforts are rare. The missionary activities of Christians, however, remain a prominent feature of globalization.
The efforts of European and North American missionaries to propagate their faith contributed to the growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Beginning in the 1500s, Catholicism spread as conquistadors and missionaries arrived in North and South America and as missionaries ventured to India, China, and Japan. In the late 1700s, when the missionary impulse began to take root among Protestants, 86 percent of Christians lived in Europe or North America. Throughout the nineteenth century, evangelical missionaries laid the foundation for the global growth of Christianity. By the close of the twentieth century, 58 percent of the world’s approximately 2 billion Christians lived in the non-Western world.
During the twentieth century, the size and composition of the Christian missionary enterprise changed dramatically (Johnson and Ross 2009). In the early 1900s Europe and North America dispatched 97 percent of the world’s 62 000 foreign missionaries, with a significant number (26 800) assigned to Asian countries. World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and regional conflicts disrupted Western missionary efforts. For example, China’s Communist revolution, and the sphere of political influence that resulted, curtailed the flow of missionaries to East Asia. As Western powers abandoned their colonial projects in the mid twentieth century, Christian leaders in former colonies called for the suspension of missionary activities. These developments raised doubts about the legitimacy of the missionary enterprise among mainline (liberal) denominations in the West, which led to a decline in missionaries and toward emphasizing social and economic justice as a more palatable strategy for their global efforts. Independent, nondenominational, and evangelical (conservative) Christians, however, were undaunted and remained committed to propagating their faith and conducting charitable work in other countries.
By 2010, Christian missionaries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America comprised 33 percent of the approximately 400 000 full-time missionaries deployed worldwide. Today, Brazil and South Korea (34 000 and 20 000 respectively) are the leading non-Western missionary sending countries. Likewise, many of the countries that were traditionally on the receiving end of missionaries, now send them to Europe and North America. For instance, missionaries from the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Pentecostal church founded in 1952 in Nigeria, aspire to establish congregations within five minutes’ drive or walk of every person on the planet. Although this lofty goal may be out of reach, their churches throughout Africa and in several European and American cities indicate some measure of success.
While this demographic shift in the global missionary force is important, Western missionaries will continue to play a significant role in the global diffusion of Christianity for the foreseeable future (Wuthnow 2009). Simply put, the affluence of Western countries creates a competitive advantage in the missionary enterprise. American Christians, for example, are able to send the most missionaries and contribute more money to foreign outreach than any other country, in part because of the wealth and popularity of Christianity in the United States. Experience has taught Western missionaries, however, that working with organizations indigenous to their mission field is a more effective way to achieve their goals. Therefore many missionary organizations based in Europe and North America maintain partnerships with organizations in the non-Western world and many employ an international staff.
Typically, missionaries are sent by denominational or independent (nondenominational) organizations called mission agencies. These organizations recruit, train, and support people for foreign missionary service. Mission agencies range in size from small organizations resembling family businesses to large religious international nongovernmental organizations with budgets in excess of $100 million patterned after multinational corporations. In 2009, for example, the 40 000-member staff of US-based World Vision claims to have served approximately 100 million people in 100 countries with a budget of over $1.2 billion. The annual budget of International Mission Board of the Southern Baptists, arguably the largest of the missionary-minded denominations in the United States, was $317 million in 2010. Many of these organizations participate in international networks, conferences, and associations such as the World Council of Churches and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (or Lausanne Movement) that foster strategic partnerships.
The legacy of the Christian missionary enterprise is contested. Missionaries were often entangled in the affairs of Western colonial outposts in ways that implicated them in the West’s imperial ambitions. Others associate missionary work with the destruction of indigenous cultures. Conversely, when missionaries operated independently from governing powers, they have been shown to moderate the negative effects of colonialism (Woodberry 2006). In these cases missionaries were integral to the development of social institutions that are foundational to democratic rule and free-market economies. Protestant missionaries’ belief that the Bible could be effectively translated into any language, for instance, meant that missionaries introduced the printing press, produced vernacular literature, promoted literacy, and established schools and colleges. Western missionaries also started hospitals and university programs to train local medical professionals; and these building blocks of civil society had positive social effects.
However one assesses missionaries, they continue to play an important role in the globalization of religion. As they introduce Christianity in new places or attempt to renew Christianity in places where it is perceived to be in decline, they mediate a global religion in a local context. On the receiving end, some reject the missionaries and resist their message. Others embrace Christianity and incorporate it into their everyday lives in ways that result in hybrid cultural forms. And as Christianity takes root, some of these congregations may send their own missionaries one day.
SEE ALSO: Buddhism; Christianity; Colonialism; International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs); Religions, Global; Religion, World.
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