Christianity Mainly for Export
God's Legionaries

"Go into the world and preach the gospel to all creatures. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mk. 16.15-16), Jesus told his followers after he had died and risen from the dead. Christian scholars now know this biblical passage to be an interpolation but this fact has in no way cooled off their zeal for proselytizing. It seems proselytizing needs little biblical inspiration but embodies ecclesiastical aggrandizement and follows its own vested interests, political and economic. At the beginning of this decade, there were 249,000 missionaries in the soul-saving business.

Having been earlier in the missionary field, the Catholic Church still continues to dominate it, but the Protestants too are coming up fast. Of the total missionary force, their share is already 85,000 missionaries. Not long ago, Europe was the mainstay of the Protestant missionary activities but now America leads the field. In 1983184, North America (USA and Canada) supported 67,000 overseas personnel. The Mission Handbook1, sponsored by the World Vision International, an American evangelical agency, second largest in the field of missionary activity with an annual budget of 84 million dollars, provides useful data on the subject. The book bears no comparison to David B. Barrett's World Christian Encyclopaedia (1982) in comprehensiveness but in its own way and in its restricted field it is a good supplement. It contains financial statements which the Encyclopaedia neglects, perhaps on purpose.

Protestant Missions

The first Protestant missions "were state enterprises," as the Encyclopaedia Americana says. First the Dutch and then successively the Danish and the British Governments sent out missionaries. Then came William Carey, a Baptist missionary from England supported by local church-bodies, to India. He gave a new impulse to missionary work. In the language of the Handbook, the modem Protestant missionary movement began "as a gleam in the eye of a shoe-maker (meaning Carey) as he contemplated the implications of Great Britain's role as a global power, and (as he) hitchhiked, as it were, on the back of international mercantilism". Carey stressed the role of private church-bodies of imperial mother countries in sending out and maintaining missionaries to their colonies.

This method of "corporate enterprise" was increasingly adopted by the evangelists of the Western countries and the number of Protestant missionaries rose fast, America outpacing them all. In 1968, North America's 411 agencies supported 35,8000 missionaries; in 1984, 764 agencies sent out 67,000 personnel, an increase of 86% in agencies and about the same in men. In 1985, North America was spending 1.3 billion dollars on its missionary operations.

On a first glance, the American role seems creditable but the zealots still find it below the mark. They point out that while the USA sends out only one missionary for its each 4,800 citizens, the ratio for Switzerland is 112,400, for France 112,300, for Netherlands 111,300, for Spain 111,260, for Belgium 1/1,54, and above all 1/328 for Ireland, a country poor in worldly wealth but rich in missionary zeal, a veritable example for richer Western national to follow.


Some may regard the method of multiple labour by many countries and denominations as inefficient and wasteful but not so the mission strategists. They point out that the method gives Christianity many faces which helps to confuse unfriendly elements. As Barrett puts it, it makes it "far more difficult for hostile regimes to comprehend the phenomenon of Christianity in order to control it, suppress it, or eradicate it".

"Tentmaking" Missionaries

The number of career missionaries is supplemented by "tentmaking" missionaries. They are professionals or officials of their Governments. They are not missionaries in the strict sense but they are interested in the mission work. A study of 1,000 such men revealed that "almost half had led some one to Christ, and 20% were instrumental in planting a church".

Their role in countries where there are certain restriction on the missionary activities can be important. The number in these "restricted" countries is "veiled in secrecy, and should perhaps remain that way," the Handbook says.

The missionaries see in this "network" an enormous but yet largely untapped potential. Barrett, a totalist, urges that the missions should capitalize on the 300 million Christians that travel abroad on business or pleasure.


Christianity is losing its hold in Western countries but they still keep it for export to the Third World. It was their veritable third arm and it continues to play the same instrumental role to-day.

Demographically, the centre of gravity of Christianity has shifted to the Third World, though America and Europe still continue to be the paymasters. Latin America lost its home and religion long ago and it is now 97% Christian. Marxism is making serious inroads but it is equally hostile to its old culture and religions.

Africa is now 45% Christian. In certain countries like Uganda, the conversion rate is so high that "it has been difficult to keep records up-to-date". In Nigeria, 3,000 missionaries are at work. Both by natural increase and conversion 6.2 million Africans are being added annually to the Christian fold.

In the North, Islam competes and already one-thirds of the people are Muslims. But in both cases, the indigenous peoples and cultures and religions are at the receiving end.

In Asia too, the missions have made serious inroads. Philippines is 92% Christian; Korea 32 per cent. In India 6,000 missionaries are labouring, of them 3,500 are Catholic and the rest Protestant.

American Protestant missionaries working in India have already created 22,000 local churches located in 90 people- groups - a way of their own in which mission strategists divide Indian people. At present, 154 American Church-agencies are participating in "Indian" work; they support 614 missionaries, a drop from 1,433 in 1979. This "lowering of the profile" is due to political reasons. But it has in no way affected mission operations. Local surrogates are found who though they lack the prestige of white skin yet enjoy two advantages: they are cheaper to recruit and they give an indigenous look to what has hitherto been an essentially white undertaking.

Now many missions are giving up their religious facade and adopting what they call "liberation theology" - a philosophy of direct political action. They float dubious organisations calling themselves Civil Right Groups, Action Groups, Forums and act through local political forces and ideologies of divisive significance. They see their chance in an India of subverted nationalism. New forces of fundamentalist beliefs, separatist loyalties and foreign finances, but mouthing libertarian slogans, are coming up and forming a new axis. Happenings in the North-West are links in the same chain.

Mission Difficulties

Though the missionaries come from wealthy countries, they have their own difficulties, particularly back home. They do not enjoy the old prestige and they work in an atmosphere of increasing scepticism. Missionaries from America have their own peculiar difficulties. In that country, there are no Tithes, no Concordats, no Governmental Appropriations for the support of the clergy; therefore they have to raise their own money. Different denominations have to compete with each other for attracting clients and the "religious" have to advertise their creeds, ideas and programmes in a truly market spirit. In order to raise money for their missionary work abroad, the evangelists have to paint lurid pictures of the depravity of heathen countries. For example, the Texas-based Gospel for Asia group, while emphasizing the need of redeeming the Hindus, recently wrote: "The Indian sub-continent, with one billion people, is a living example of what happens when Satan rules the entire culture… India is one vast purgatory in which millions of people… are literally living a cosmic lie! Could Satan have devised a more perfect system for causing misery?".

In the same vein, the Dayspring International, a Virginia-based evangelical organisation, on a televised programme in January 1985, described India as land of "division, despair and death". It quoted Mother Teresa, holding that India was "in dire need of Jesus". In a country of images and brand-names, Mother Teresa is shown in many television programmes appealing for donations for evangelical work in India.

These televised and advertised appeals themselves cost a good deal of money. Many times, it consumes 25% of the money raised and that is considered normal in evangelical circles. But it has to be done and funds have to be raised for, as the Handbook says, "it costs money to stay in business," even if the business is evangelical. People are asked to make wise investment in God's work after the fashion of Luke's steward who cheats his master to win his debtors for his own future benefit (Lk. 16.1-8). The investors in God's work are promised that every heathen child "rescued will be there in heaven to welcome you," to quote Spiro Zodhiates, president of the mammoth American Gospel Ministry, in its newsletter of January, 1983.

Career Missionaries

Thanks to such pep-talks, money is easy to come but missionaries are still difficult to recruit. Therefore, the organisers of the show have taken to large-scale advertising. They put up billboards, advertise on TVs and in newspapers inviting young men to sign up.

They are paid handsome salaries. In 1985, each US missionary was costing 26,561 dollars yearly. Their terms of service entitle them to a year of furlough; they are entitled to pensions and retirement benefits. They are accompanied by their spouses. Some young missionaries have also been accompanied by their girl-friends. They teach that Jesus is love.

In the past, too, missionary work offered a career and many joined the mission to improve their economic and social status, but faith was not neglected and it was a requirement in a recruit. Now, however, it is hoped that the missionaries would acquire faith as they pursue their career. And in many cases they really do, and quite a muscular and charity-proof one too.

The whole concept of missionary work is changing. It is no longer a vocation requiring life-long commitment. "Such a definition is no longer true," the Handbook says. Mission work is a career like any other career such as medicine, business, army or trade. "As a result, individuals move in and out of such a career with a surprising degree of ease." There are also many dropouts. We are told that "up to half of all new missionaries do not last beyond their first term". Every such dropout costs the missionary exchequer an extra ten thousand dollars.

A related phenomenon is sharp increase of short-term missionaries. In 1973, they were 10% of the total missionary force; in 1979, 32%; in 1985, 42%, or roughly 28,000 out of a total of 67,000.

"Service" Missions

There is a tendency to justify missionary activities on the ground that some of the missions run hospitals and schools. Mahatma Gandhi thought dimly of these services and often declared that these are not disinterested. The Handbook describes the interconnection between "services" and proselytising in the following words: "Through the effort of such service missionaries, the efforts of others involved in direct evangelism are made more effective and efficient."

Third World Missionaries

Not long ago, all missionaries were white. Now a beginning has been made to recruit others in the lower hierarchy of the mission. In 1980, out of a total of 249,000 missionaries, 32,500 were from the Third World. Their number is still small but it is bound to increase. For they cost considerably less and it also gives to missionary work a "Third World look". It is also a good strategy. Let Asians convert Asians - to put it in the language, somewhat modified, of Mr. Dulles.

India is becoming a good recruiting ground for overseas Christian work. In 1973, the Catholic Church had 3,420 Indian Roman Catholic on their roll; but they included 2,000 nuns which caused a great scandal at one time but was soon forgotten.

India also receives missionaries from the Third World and even from Communist countries like Yugoslavia and Poland. Recently, missionaries came even from Communist China. The other day, a "Japanese" Catholic theologian also visited this author but was unlucky in him.

"Native" Missionaries

A related phenomenon is the growth of "native" or local missionaries. The Catholic Church also uses local missionaries, mostly from Kerala, for work in other parts of India. Discussing the Protestant missionary work in countries like India and Malaysia, the Handbook notes that "indigenous missionary movements have become strong". Speaking specifically of India, it says, "Today, the most fruitful ministries are carried by more than 100,000 pastors, evangelists and preachers." Full time Indian missionaries from organised societies increased from 420 in 1973 to 2,941 in 83 societies in 1983. These missionaries have seen remarkable growth in northern India, in places such as Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim. In Western India, Christian workers estimate that two new worship groups are formed every week through indigenous missionary effort. The Indian Evangelist Team has set a goal of 2,000 new churches by the year 2000. In Tamil Nadu, the India Church Growth Mission hopes to plant 1,000 churches in "unreached villages".

Insufficient Results

In spite of many gains in many parts of the world, missions are not always optimistic. Their effort is vast but the results are below expectations. In the last hundred years, there have been "at least fifty major clarion calls… to evangelize the world by a certain date", Barrett, the compulsive quantifier, tells us. But they all failed and those who gave the call "have gone to be with the Lord without seeing the completion of world evangelization".

Meanwhile, the very meaning of the word "evangelization" is uncertain. Its definition changes with the opportunity offered. According to one definition, least demanding, a people are evangelized when they "have heard of Christianity, Christ and the Church"; according to a second definition when they "have heard the gospel with understanding"; according to a third definition when those who have heard with understanding also act and become converts and "a nucleus of disciples has been formed in them"; according to the fourth definition when the converts themselves become evangelizers. Thus evangelization sets up an expanding task, and its true goal is nothing short of world-conversion.

"Resistant" People

Jesus saw the multitudes and said to his disciples: "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few" (Matt. 9.37). But the situation has turned out to be different. The labourers or missionaries are many but the harvest is small.

Christian divines had believed that once the Bible was taken to the people and they were told of Jesus Christ, they would flock and gather under the banner of Christianity. But now they are disappointed. Thanks to televangelism, Bible Societies and hotgospellers, there are not many "unreached peoples" left, yet world-conversion is not in sight. On the other hand, puzzlingly, the Christian divines are meeting "resistant peoples", people "who have heard of Christ and his gospel but who as a result of that hearing show little or no inclination to become Christians".

What causes this resistance? The missionary thinkers have come to the conclusion that major resistance comes from people who have their own religion and culture or people like the Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims who belong to "major culture-religions". They find they have better chance among people whom they call "animists". John Stott, in a Foreword to Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture (1980), clarifies the point by observing that when Adoniram Judson died in 1850, he left 7,000 converts from animistic Karens, but a mere one hundred Burman converts from Buddhism. "Why was this?… How are we to explain the pitifully small 'dent' which has been made, for instance, on the 600 million Hindus of India or the 700 million Moslems of the Islamic block?," John Stott asks. His answer is contained in his question itself.


We may not agree with his answer but the animists and the heathens themselves have some questions to ask. How long will they be able to withstand the powerful, financially well-oiled onslaught of the missionaries? Are they to have no safeguards? Would the world conscience continue to sleep? Thanks to the powerful missionary lobby in the United Nations, its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that every individual has a right to embrace the religion or belief of his choice. But is there to be no similar charter that declares that countries, cultures and peoples of tolerant philosophies and religions who believe in Live and Let Live, too, have a right of protection against aggressive, systematic proselytising? Are its well-drilled legionaries, organised round a fanatic and totalitarian idea, to have a free field? Should not the Missionary Apparatus be wound up in the interest of justice and fair play?



1 Mission Handbook: North American Ministries Overseas, edited by Samuel Wilson and John Siewert, Monrovia, California, U.S.A., 1986, reviewed by Ram Swarup in The Times of India dated 13 and 14 March, 1988.


Back to Contents Page    Back to VOI Books    Back to Home