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Missions: Missionary Activity


Many records and some suggestive studies of the foundations, motivations, dynamics, techniques, and sociocultural effects of missionary activity in specific locales exist. Most of them are written from the perspective of the missionaries or are based on the study of records, letters, or fund-raising reports they have left. Certain encounters between the major religious orientations in various parts of the world have also been documented, but few systematic, cross-cultural, and comparative studies of missions and missionary activities have been produced.

There is no lack of material dealing with the dissemination of and conversion to a specific religion from the standpoint of that religion's advocates, nor of the theological warrants or mandates given by a particular faith for its propagation. Cultural historians and social scientists have also studied the effects of religious change in specific periods, and psychologists have attempted to identify the psychodynamics of conversion. Still, systematic overviews of organized proselytism and the basic ideational, social, and institutional foundations on which it rests remain sparse.

In the nineteenth century, to be sure, certain evolutionary theories of the development of "high" cultures offered rather triumphalist accounts of the spread of "ethical religions" over territories where "animistic" or "polytheistic" faiths previously claimed the loyalties of the people. And in the early twentieth century certain theories of religio-cultural "diffusion" attempted to comprehend world historical development in ways that would also account for the spread of religions by analogy with the spread of artifacts such as the plow or the clock. Theories of political-economic and cultural imperialism have gained considerable prominence as a framework for interpreting missionary activity, a fact that will require comment here. None of these efforts, however, has resulted in a compelling account of the nature, character, and dynamics of missionary activities that bear cross-cultural scrutiny.

Near the end of the twentieth century, after the end of the cold war that occupied much of the world's attention, many became aware that governments, policies, and economic systems pass away, but that religions endure and seem to be able to renew themselves, even in areas where they were thought to be surpassed. The idea that modernization meant "progress" and inevitable secularization seems to have died a thousand deaths. In fact, the religions have undergone a substantial resurgence and have amazed and troubled no small number of social theorists, historians, and liberal religious scholars. The troubling part of this resurgence for many is that the world religions have reasserted themselves in conservative and fundamentalist forms. Some religions are local, tribal, or ethnic in character, and they often seek to recover eroding identity in the face of globalizing developments. More amazing is the fact that an enormous range of peoples have converted to Christianity and, to a somewhat lesser degree, to the other great world religions in the age that was assumed to be, according to enlightened orthodoxy, an age in which the religious illusions of the past were demystified by scientific fact. It turns out that the facts suggest that the religions in their conservative forms are engaging in vigorous missionary activity and converting the world. Why this is so is not altogether clear to observers and critics. Yet the evidence is rather clear. Evangelical, Pentecostal, fundamentalist, and heterodox (e.g., "Mormonism") forms of Christianity have been growing around the world at a record pace, as have the more militant forms of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Tribal religions, reemerging as ethnic identity religions, have erupted into fits of violence and "ethnic cleansing." The study of these dynamics continues, with many dynamics being obvious, though the are causes not.

Foundations and Motivations

Nonetheless it is possible to venture some generalizations about missionary activity that seem relevant for all the great missionizing religions. The first point is that they all seem to be impelled by a unique revelation or a great discovery about the nature of being and existence, the discovery of which prompts a momentous personal transformation and a revitalization of social and cultural purpose given by an awareness of transcendence that brings spiritual and moral renewal. This generates a salvific metaphysical-moral vision that is not only of intense personal meaning but also thought to be of universal import for humanity. This vision induces a passion that intellectually, morally, and emotionally is felt by those grasped by it from magical practices of local deities and cults, from familial, clan, caste, or ethnic loyalties, from feeble or dysfunctional political-economic conditions, and from "meaningless" or ineffective rites and rituals. The missionary impulse that grows from this source becomes "homeless," for it finds its true home in a realm that relativizes all that is understood to be natural or conventional, which it then tries either to escape or to transform. It further evokes a desire to bring about the universal acceptance and application of the vision, which it holds to be universally true in principle, even if it is not universally accepted.

Every missionizing religion thus is by definition transcultural; where it is not entirely transmundane, it is cosmopolitan. It endows its advocates with a transcendental, ecumenical, cross-cultural, and global perspective, and it understands humanity to be trapped in chaotic states of mental, spiritual, social, or physical oppression from which humanity must be delivered by accepting a new foundation of meaning and a new discipline. It thereby promises to liberate humanity from evil and falsehood and bind humans to the good and truealthough the precise definitions of the causes of the evil and the nature of the good, the marks of falsehood and the indicators of the true, and the means that are able to move humanity from one to the other are what divide these religions from each other.

A missionary is one who seizes or is seized by a universalistic vision and who feels a mandate, a commission, or a vocation to bring the vision and its benefits to "all." Thus missionary activity, both domestic and foreign, is the most intense in those moments when the metaphysical-moral vision of a religion is engendered or revitalized and held to be particularly pertinent in changing conditions. "Home" missions often take the form of new programs for youth, "purification" of religious and cultural practice, proselytism of marginal groups, protest against lax practices among the social elite (including the established clergy), and often moral or spiritual attempts to put domestic social, political, and economic policies on a new foundation. "Foreign" missions attempt to take the vision beyond the land of origin and thereby to lay the foundations for a new spiritual world order by transforming the souls and minds of individuals and the social habits of society. Missionary activity always alienates its converts from previous belief and practice to some degree, for it introduces a different way of organizing faith and life. Both domestic and foreign missionary activity is marked by intense intellectual activity, for the whole of reality has to be reconsidered from the new perspective. It also is the breeding ground of freedom, for in conversion a person finds that he or she can make an ultimate choice about, or be drawn by grace into, a new relationship to the truly divine. Such a person no longer has an identity determined by age, gender, class, custom, status, ethnicity, or the dictate of any lesser authorityparental or political, cultural or economic. Having been drawn into freedom, all other areas of life are subject to reevaluation and reconstruction.

One or another universalistic vision has provided the foundations and motivations for Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and that fading secular "civil religion," Communism, to name but four of the most obvious missionizing faiths. Certain strands and periods of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and "syncretistic" religions, such as Bahaʾi, Sikhism, and the Unification Church (Moonies) have a similar dynamic. A universalistic metaphysical-moral vision is less pronounced, however, in the beliefs of the primal religions, Daoism and Shintōism, and is less overt in Confucianism and most strands of Judaism and Zoroastrianism. However great their spiritual, moral, and intellectual achievements, these latter religions are constitutively tied to specific sociopolitical contexts and often to ethnic particularities. These religions may also claim to possess a universalistic messagethey may welcome converts, and aspects of their metaphysical-moral visions may be honored or adopted by other religions, but they spread more by the migrations of peoples or by the gradual incorporation of immediate neighbors than by organized missionary activities. They are, as some say, the "staying" religions, in contrast to the "going" religions.

Hinduism represents a special and exceedingly complex case, for while it is similar to nonmissionizing traditions in many respects, and while it seems to have spread essentially by a process called sanskritization (the gradual adoption of Vedic practices and Brahmanic authority by non-Aryan peoples on the Indian subcontinent), it has had periods of vigorous missionary activity. Indeed, active missions have not only been carried out by "evangelical" forms of Hinduism, such as the Ramakrishna Mission, the International Society for Krishna Coinsciousness (ISKCON), and the organizations supporting the teachings and charitable works of Sai Baba, but are being actively pursued in another way by the Hindutva movement. Represented in its political mode by a Hindu nationalist party that presently heads the Indian government, a series of related "safron" groups (made up of priests and "holy men") and lay militant activists are seeking to "convert" Dalit and tribal groups into their "original" status as part of the religious and cultural fabric of the "Indic" peoples and to "deconvert" former Hindus who have become Muslim, Christian, or neo-Buddhist. Their methods often include persuasion, aid in building local temples, and promised access to educational and medical opportunity, but they also sometimes use violence against mosques, churches, and stūpas; against minorities who resist their efforts; or against missionaries from such religions. Many see this movement as a threat not only to other faiths but to the democracy, socialism, and human rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution, principles that, since Gandhi, have been held by many as almost sacred.

Most initial efforts to spread the faith focus rather strictly on the message of salvation, presented in its simplist forms. This is partly a matter of conviction. It is often also a matter of necessityin authoritarian cultures, it is dangerous to begin pointing out all the social implications that a conversion might eventually entail. This is not to say that when missionizing religions expand they cease to have cultural, political, ethnic, or economic content and become purely transcendental, for that is seldom the case. Rather, missionaries often believe that they have a message based on a salvific metaphysical-moral vision, which is in fundamental respects separable from accidental sociohistorical trappings and thus able to be transplanted into new cultural settings. This is true even if the bearers of the message believe that at its core are implications for ethical changes in society that ought also to be spread for the well-being of humanity. Those living religions that claim the most universalistic visions and evidence the most extensive missionary zeal beyond the place of originBuddhism, Christianity, Islam, and indeed Communismhave never been able to extricate themselves fully from the social contexts in which they were developed nor from the unintended consequences that follow from the transplanting of the faith.

Key Dynamics of Missionary Activity

As a population is missionized, new patterns of educational, familial, cultural, political, and economic life are introduced, and the indigenous "tradition" is reshaped on new foundations. The tendency to identify the universalistic message with the newly established patterns of life within the converted group is widespread. The vision "for all" once again becomes a vision "for us," until such time as a new burst of piety and learning renews the awareness of the universalistic vision and revitalizes missionary efforts, demanding a purging of false tendencies to syncretism and closed localistic identity. Missionary religions are continually or episodically engaged in religious renewal and reformation from within. The great missionizing religions are in part to be contrasted with the occasionally proselytizing, primal, and localistic religions precisely by the enduring and recurring vitality of their universalizing, in contrast to the particularizing and syncretizing tendencies of the localistic religions. It is not surprising that missionary religions are those with authoritative scriptures and "orthodox" doctrines that serve as the standards for periodic renewal.

The great universalistic teachings of the missionizing religions are, however, always treasures borne in "earthen vessels," to paraphrase Paul, the model of all Christian missionaries. And the line between the treasure and the vessel is frequently extremely fine. Early Buddhist missionaries, to cite another example, were sent out presumably armed with nothing but the pure and unadulterated message of Gautama's great discovery of the secret of true enlightenment. Wittingly or not, however, they carried with them both the philosophical presuppositions of Indian religious thought, which were the terms in which and through which the Buddha found his truth, and the political, social, and cultural patterns of Indian society. Theravāda Buddhism, as it missionized in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, brought with it metaphysical-moral assumptions and sociopolitical principles that derived from Hindu traditions and which, in part, the Buddha had sought to overcome and transcend. In Mahāyāna Buddhism as well, careful scholars can speak of the "Indianization of China."

Later, when this stream of Buddhism became wedded to motifs from Confucian and Daoist sources, its movement into Korea and Japan carried powerful elements from Chinese traditions, elements that also became wedded to Korean shamanism and Japanese Shintōism. And it is well known that both Christianity and Islam carried Greco-Roman patterns of thought, medicine, and political theoryas well as Hebraic understandings of ethical monotheismwith them as they expanded in the medieval periods. Islam has also always borne a certain Arabic cultural stamp wherever it goes, and Communism bears everywhere the marks of Germanic philosophy, French revolutionary zeal, and British economic dynamics from the days of the industrial revolution. Along with the gospel, modern Christian missions transmit Western definitions of human rights, democracy, and scientific methods in the fields of education, medicine, management, agriculture, and corporate organization. These cursory examples serve to illustrate the point that, while missionary activity must always be understood first of all in terms of the universal metaphysical-moral vision that calls it into being and gives it its transcultural raison d'être, it is always laden with particular philosophical, social, and cultural elements.

Missions and Cultural Imperialism

The inevitable presence of intellectual and social assumptions and implications, even in the "purest" of faiths, has made missionary activity subject to the charge of cultural imperialism. But two factors differentiate missionary expansion from it. First, the truly religious missionary recognizes a distinction between the message and the accoutrements, the universalistic kernel and the incidental husk. However difficult it is to distinguish the two, the primary concern is with the former. Transformation of the latter is allowed in terms of and for the sake of the former. The imperialist understands the message only in terms of its sociocultural trappings in highly particularist ways. Imperialism obtains when, for example, Buddhism in Myanmar becomes identical with and a tool of the Burman peoples as opposed to those of the Chin, Kachin, or other Burmese peoples; when Christianity becomes "Aryanized" in the Nazi period or sanctifies apartheid as in South Africa; when Islam in, for instance, Malaysia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia is understood to be coterminous with the fate of the countries themselves; or when Communism is thought to be identical with "socialism in one country" and celebrated with a personality cult. These forms of cultural imperialism have had their vicious corollaries in many lands wherever a particular social group, political hegemony, or economic advantage is confused with a universalistic religious message and spread by coercive means to colonize peoples in the name of religion.

Second, missionary activity is rooted in the fundamental assumptions that, once people are exposed to "the truth" that has been proclaimed, they will choose this truth and that they ought to be free to encounter and choose even "foreign" truth. Missions presuppose that a truly universalistic vision is convincing to the mind, compelling to the will, and attractive to the heart. Missions thus require, or provoke, a situation in which freedom of thought, choice, and affection can create new communities of conviction to celebrate and exercise what the will, mind, and heart have come to hold dear. However much missionary activity has been carried out hand in hand with cultural arrogance, military power, and economic opportunism, there has been and remains in principle a sharp tension between missionary efforts and imperialistic imposition of religion by force or "mind control," a fact increasingly documented by missiologists examining the relative validity of the charge that missions are but the ideological instrument of colonial practice. Those incapable of imagining a fundamental transformation of thought, disposition, and loyalty by conversion to a new religious insight, however, always attribute the change to nefarious interests.

It is certainly true that every missionizing religion has had periods during which something like the classic Islamic pattern could be documented. H. A. R. Gibb wrote of Islam that, "while the faith itself was not spread by the sword, it was under the wing of Muslim dominance that its missionaries found most favorable conditions for their activities of conversion. This view of Islam was universally held by its adherents; the theologians found justification for it in the Koran, the jurists made it the basis of their expositions of Muslim law, and the mass of the people accepted it as a self-evident fact" (Gibb, 1932/1973, p. 56). Comparable patterns could be cited regarding periods of Buddhist expansion at the hands of pious war lords, Christian missions in Latin America, or Communist movements in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the Qurʾān and the authoritative teachings of every other missionizing religion agree that forced conversion is false and that truly universal religion must depend on the freely convinced mind, will, and heart of the convert (although Communists held that changing the social conditions themselves would bring about the fading of religion and the turning to the true ideology of humanity). Thus, wherever missions go and do not immediately preclude other missionary efforts by force, they open up new vistas for mind, will, and heart, and thus for new social practices to which people are invited to turn.

Reactions of Missionized People

Every missionary religion must be received as well as propagated. Where it is not received, missionary activity dies, and doubt about the universality of the originating vision sets in. Where it is received under coercion, and not in the mind, will, heart or the transformed customs of the people, the indigenous religion goes underground, eventually resurfacing as a revitalized rallying point to overthrow "foreign gods" or as a heterodox or heretical religion in contention with the one brought by missions. Where the missionary religion is received in the heart, will, and mind, newly converted people soon send out their own missionaries. But it is almost never received as given. It is filtered through the philosophical, sociopolitical, and historical perspectives of the recipients. The old traditions are almost never entirely abandoned. They are inevitably active in interpreting and modifying the new message, helping to at least partially purge it of missionary-borne incidental elements that can be seen as merely cultural biases or sociopolitical interests.

One of the most fascinating studies of the reception of a religion is that by Kenneth Ch'en (1973) of the way in which Buddhism was modified, acculturated, and indigenized in China. A message, such as that exported by Indian Buddhism, that called for the breaking of family ties and demanded that kings give honor to monks simply did not make sense in a culture where filial piety and homage to the emperor were absolutely central to both belief and social order. Ch'en demonstrates that, if one speaks of the "Indianization of China" with the spread of Buddhism, one must also speak of the "sinicization of Buddhism." In China, key Buddhist texts were given fresh interpretation; apologetic literature, new poems, and new regulations for the community of monks were promulgated that modified or transformed aspects of the Buddhist message so that it could fit into, and in some ways revitalize, both the indigenous folk religions and of the Confucianism and Daoism of that land. Comparable stories can be told of every missionizing religion: the Christianity of the Copts in Northeast Africa is not the same as that of the Kimbanguists of West Africa; the Islam of Morocco differs from that of Mindanao in significant ways; Communism in North Korea is distinct from that of Cuba. This is so in spite of the fact that each of these great traditions tends to press the local society and culture in a distinctive direction.

In this connection it must be noted that some religions engage in missionary activity precisely as a result of being invited, sought, or adopted with great eagerness. In several places where traditional systems have been displaced by exploitative cultural contact, war, crop failure, or the failure of a social system to survive its own internal strains, missionary groups bearing universalistic messages are readily embraced, for they offer new symbolic and cognitive models by which life and its perplexities may be interpreted. Often the appropriation of a new religion is accompanied by a quest for new technological, educational, and sociopolitical frameworks for organizing the common life. Missionaries often agree that such a quest is implied by the core of their metaphysical-moral vision. Certainly a comparable phenomenon has occurred in quite different locales, as John Garrett (1982) has shown in regard to the Pacific Islands and Frederick S. Downs (1983) has demonstrated concerning the Christianization of tribal peoples of Assam in the twentieth century. More ancient examples are the historic reception in the sixth and seventh centuries of Chinese Buddhism (and Confucianism) into Japan at the hands of the imperial court; the reception in the ninth to eleventh centuries of Eastern Orthodox Christianity into Russia, bringing with it Byzantine art, literature, and political theory; and the reception in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries of Islam (as mediated through India) in the Malay archipelago that was accompanied by aspects of mysticism and caste-related social patterns.

In almost no instance, however, is a new religion received without some resistance. This resistance is sometimes easily overcome. When the indigenous faith is a highly literate and complex religion, however, the resistance is usually prolonged and powerful. One of the dramatic examples of this resistance is that, while Buddhism originated in India and at one time had nearly swept the subcontinent, in the twenty-first century can be found there only in forms of neo-Buddhism newly reintroduced by Bhimo Rao Ambedkar and the Dalai Lama. This is because Hinduism reasserted itself by a ten-century-long process involving the adoption of some aspects of Buddhism (especially the revitalization of devotional practice in bhakti ), the bloody slaughter of Buddhist monks, extensive philosophical argumentation, and an effort that was more organized than that of Buddhism. But the neo-Buddhism being introduced is taken as protests against the Hindu caste system, recently celebrated by some Dalit (outcaste) Christians. Similarly, Confucianism reasserted itself in China during the "neo-Confucian" period of renewal in the ninth century by a similar processone that relegated the Buddhists and Daoists to an inferior status while borrowing some motifs from them. Islam encountered intellectual and military resistance when it threatened expansion into Europe from the time of Charlemagne through the Crusades. The Christianity that expanded into central Asia has been essentially stamped out, and what remains in western Asia is now weak and scattered because of Islamic resistance. Most Western Jews and Christians resist the Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist missions as well as the host of hybrid or syncretistic cults rooted in these, or in some heterodox Christian faith, found in most of the major cities of the West. Meanwhile, indigenized forms of Christianity from Africa, Latin America, and Asia are challenging the kinds of Christianity that have developed in the West.

One notable feature of the phenomenon of "mission" and "resistance" is that missions that do not succeed among the intellectual and political-economic elites of a new country but that do succeed among the people become fatefully drawn into perennial tensions between the rulers and the ruled. If conversion is successful among the masses but not among leadership, intense resistance results. If conversion occurs only among marginal groups, ethnic conflict is frequent, and minorities are suspected of being agents of foreign powers. If missions are successful among some sections of the leadership and among wide segments of the people, the stage is set for revolutionary change.

Types of Missionaries

In surveying mission and missionary activity, however, one must not only note the primacy of the metaphysical-moral visionits relationship to social and cultural patterns, its patterns of reception, and resistances to itone must also consider certain similarities of institutional form that are characteristic of missionary activity. What groups or classes of people undertake missionary activity, and how do they organize to do so?

On missionaries, merchants, and mercenaries

The earliest missionaries are, more often than not, traders or travelers with them. One does not have to accept the Marxist interpretation of the relationship between commercial exploitation and religion to observe that the spreading of a new religious insight repeatedly follows commercial traffic lanesand that this insight is frequently borne by merchants. Further, it must be noted that both commercial and missionary activities can only be conducted in conditions of relative peace and stability. When that is disrupted, soldiers are frequently brought in to establish it, and they are accompanied by new waves of chaplains, who become missionaries. Since traders and soldiers vary widely in their behavior, from the relatively congenial to the simply marauding, missionary activity has often been conducted within networks of shifting alliances, both economic and military, on the far end of trade routes. It is not possible to make any single generalization about these relationships, however, for missionaries have resisted exploitative trade as often as they have benefited from it, and they have fought imperial "pacification" as often as they have been protected by it.

The cross-cultural frequency of missionary activity by merchants, however, invites speculation as to why this general class has played so significant a role in missionizing. Perhaps it is because merchants are people who seek increased opportunity by taking the risk of leaving the settled and accepted patterns of life at home. The very act of engaging in trade on a cross-cultural basis, however crass the individual motivation might be, requires a somewhat more cosmopolitan perspective on the world than is frequently present in those societies where religion and morality run in channels circumscribed by fixed economic roles and duties for people of each specific ethnic, gender, age, and class status. In addition those societies that send merchants farthest and equip caravans or ships the most extensively for trade are usually the more highly developed economically, politically, militarily, and socially. It would not be strange for them to hold the view that their "superiority" in this respect is due, in substantial part at least, to the "superior" religious, spiritual, and ethical foundations of their faith. In an influential study, Edward Said (1995) has argued that this accounts for the various condescending projections on Eastern cultures by Western merchants, soldiers, and missionaries.

Professional missionaries

New religions are seldom, if ever, however, fully developed in a new location by the sometimes quite unholy alliance of missionaries, merchants, and soldiers, or by general processes of cultural diffusion that accompany them. The introduction of a religion through commercial channels (the character and quality of which influence reception or resistance) has everywhere been succeeded by the arrival of professional missionaries. For most religions throughout most of history, the professional missionary has been monastic, that is, organized into ascetic, trained, and disciplined religious orders intentionally "homeless" for the sake of the metaphysical-moral vision held to be universally true.

Missionary monks and nuns attempt to spread their religious convictions by public proclamation and commentary on sacred texts at both popular and learned levels; by teaching hymns, chants, and prayers; by establishing new centers of worship where the truth they know can be celebrated; and by servicethat is, by medical, educational, pastoral care, social relief, and advocacy. Needless to say all missionary religions have relied on "wondrous," magical, or technological demonstrations of "spiritual" power from time to time. The stories well known in the West about saintly missionary monks, such as Patrick (387493), Columba (c. 521597), Boniface (d. 755), Ramón Lull (12321316), and Francis Xavier (15061552), are paralleled in the lore of Buddhism, in the formation of the matha s as a Hindu reaction to the challenge posed by Buddhism, and in the roles played by the "schools" of jurists and even more by the ūfī orders of Islam.

To carry out their tasks, missionaries have four requirements. First, they must have a dedication, a commitmenta piety, if you willlinked to learning. Missionaries must be able to articulate the faith and to interpret it in intellectual and cultural terms that are foreign to them. They must be able to understand and put into perspective whatever they encounter in the course of their work. It is no accident that several sciences, including modern comparative linguistics and anthropology, to a large extent have their roots in missionary activity. Everywhere professional missionaries are given to literary activitythey have published apologetics, tracts, propaganda, and commentaries, and they are responsible for the composition and dissemination of poetry, song, and history.

Second, missionary professionals require a reliable institutional foundation, a polity, to sustain them. Missionary orders and societies are surely among the world's first transnational, nonprofit corporations. These polities, however, are ever subject to incorporation into the existing polities of the host countries. Thus the Buddhist sagha, spread under the protectorate of kings, is ever tempted to become simply an instrument of state. Some converted Christian communities in India are always in peril of becoming more a subcaste than a church, and the arīqah s of Islam tend to become simply trade guilds or sanctified tribal brotherhoods.

Third, missions require funding. Economic support may derive from state funds, charitable bequests, the establishment of plantations, handicraft manufacturing centers, agricultural communes, and religious taxes. The economic ties of a missionary enterprise with its country of origin or with the elites of the host country are the source of enormous distrust of missionary activity.

And fourth, missionaries must have a clear policy, one that coordinates strategies and tactics and prevents divergent teachings from confusing potential converts. These policies must cover such matters as how much of the indigenous culture to allow and what to disallow, how to deal with marriage practices, "pagan" festivals, various "fraternities" that are marginally stamped with traditional religious practices, and the like.

Indigenous missionaries

While most professional missionaries are sent to a foreign land, they can measure their success by whether or not they are replaced by indigenous lay or clerical missiological leaders. The mark of successful reception is that the newly converted themselves become motivated to spread the message to which they have been converted, both to others in their own land and to other lands, and to develop institutional and financial support systems for their own missionaries. It was largely Chinese Buddhists who missionized not only many parts of China but Korea and Japan after Indian and Tibetan Buddhists established monasteries in China and trained Chinese novices. It was Malay Muslims who missionized Indonesia and Mindanao after Arabic traders and missionaries brought the faith to the region. And it is Chinese, Indian, and Korean Christians who are spreading the faith in South and East Asia after most Western missionaries only come as short-term visitors or to provide support for specific projects. And in Africa and Latin America, local leadership has become the spearhead of massive growth. The direct knowledge of the language, culture, common worldviews, lifestyles, felt needs, and life's difficulties allows the message to become more directly pertinent and more thoroughly embedded in the life of the people. It also alters the contours of the faith and renders fresh theological perspectives, as seen in Christian history by the names of major branches of the Christian faith: Greek Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, German Lutheranism, Dutch Calvinism, the Anglican Church, and American Evangelicalism. Sometimes the organizations that once sent missionaries abroad find that the work is better done by believers who live there and that they must attend to the fact that the faith at home has become cool, routine, and so deeply enculturated that it needs renewal. They turn to the reevangelization of their home cultures or to fresh views of the global mission.

Modern Practices

Modern missionary efforts have been pursued not so much by monastic orders (although these orders continue to missionize around the world) as by nonmonastic missionary "societies." This situation is prompted primarily by the rather unique developments of "free-church" Protestant polities, economic support systems, and policies. While the established churches in Europe had been sending out monastic missionaries for centuries and the Moravians anticipated later developments, the formation of the London Missionary Society in 1795 inaugurated a new form of paraecclesial organization that continues in the twenty-first century and is emulated by non-Christian missionaries. Missionary societies, of which there are hundreds, raise funds by freewill contributions and form nonmonastic "voluntary associations" staffed by a combination of nonparochial clergy, lay professionals, and volunteers not only to save souls from "paganism" but to sweep away superstition and oppression; to offer agricultural, technical, medical, and educational assistance; and to engender a desire for democratic institutions, human dignity, self-sufficiency, and social liberation. Some modern theorists indeed suggest that these efforts at social service and social change are the very core of missionizing and theological renewal.

A notable example of the side effects of this pattern can be illustrated by reference to the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). The association was formed in England in 1844 as a part of a "home mission" voluntary association for youth flocking to the cities to get jobs in factories, and it attempted to provide a wholesome place where young men could find physical, mental, social, and spiritual benefit on a biblical foundation. The movement spread to North America and to most of the countries around the world where missions were active. It was often the agent of evangelization and the womb of efforts at social change by young men who came under its influence. Other religions responded by forming counterorganizations on a comparable basis. One can find not only the YMCA but the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Young Men's Buddhist Association, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, and the Young Men's Muslim Association, as well as youth hostels for Hindus scattered throughout much of Asia and in many parts of Africa and South America. Comparable developments could be documented regarding schools, colleges, presses, hospitals, orphanages, institutions for the handicapped, human rights advocacy groups, organizations for battered women, or substance abuse centers, all organized outside of traditional political, familial, and clerical control. Examples of such independent organizations exist in all the world religions. This not only introduces new principles of organization in more closed societies, it suggests the possibilities of converting traditions without converting whole populations. The proliferation of communities of a faith-based, voluntary-associational type is one of the most remarkable and explosive social effects of missionary activity in the twentieth century, one not fully documented on a comparative basis.

Increasingly, the great missionizing religions are confronting not only the primal or folk religions, where missionary activity has been most pronounced, and not only the social needs in various contexts, where missionary activity has been remarkable, but one another. Thus far missionary efforts with regard to the other great missionary religions have been only marginally successful. This is in part because of severe restrictions on missionary activities in especially Islamic and Marxist lands and in parts of India, where induced conversion has been criminalized, but also because the world religions that have shaped complex civilization rarely had to confront one another directly and tend to do so only in intercivilizational clashes. In a globalizing age, however, when economic, political, educational, scientific, medical, technological, and cultural traditions shaped by these religions are interacting with great intensity and frequency, encounter is unavoidable. Although some theorists have argued that these religions are moving toward a great synthesis of world faiths (an essentially Hindu argument), others have attempted to find analogous meanings in shared symbolic patterns present in all religions as manifestations of the development of the species (an evolutionary argument), and still others have sought the common ethical teachings that can prevent mutual assassination (a natural-law argument). Still the way these religions will continue to deal with one another is not at all certain. None of the great faiths can be satisfied with a complete relativism, but some can recognize diversity. It is contrary to a deep faith and to missionary activity to hold that what is ultimately true about the divine and the realities of this world is only true for some in specific cultures, times, or places, even if all agree that people perceive the true state of affairs in somewhat different ways due to the influece of context, time, and space. Few think the world will soon, or ever, be converted to one faith only.

In the face of this development, a new set of writings about "theologies of religions" has begun to emerge. It is, in brief, an attempt to identify what the religions hold in common, where they differ, and in some measure how they have, can, or could mutually enrich and correct one another without loosing integrity. It is the likely case that dedicated evangelists for one or another faith will confront the questions sooner or later, and it is surely the case that these questions are the most lively ones to be faced intellectually.

See Also

Religious Communities.


An-Naʾim, Abdullahi Ahmed. Toward an Islamic Reformation. Syracuse, N.Y., 1990. A study of the Islamic tradition in its legal and political dimensions and a call for its revision, in accord with neglected themes, toward human rights and democracy.

Athyal, J. M. Relevant Patterns of Witness: People as Agents of Mission. Teruvalla, India, 2000. A documentation of popular and grassroots Christian concerns and mission movements among minority, tribal, and Dalit (formerly "untouchable") peoples of India.

Barrett, David B., George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson. World Christian Encyclopedia. 2d ed. Oxford, 2001. An exhaustive and authoritative statistical documentation of the modern spread of Christianity in comparison and contrast to other religions.

Berger, Peter L., ed. The Desecularization of the World. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999. Key sociological essays that challenge the nineteenth-century assumption, repeated often, that secularization inevitably accompanies modernization.

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1991. The widely acclaimed "new classic" that traces the changing theories of missiology and proposes a postcolonial, post-Christendom understanding of the missio dei.

Bulliet, Richard W. Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period. Cambridge, Mass., 1979. A major study of the expansion of Islam by conquest and by persuasion in the centuries of its most rapid growth, widest reach, and highest cultural development.

Ch'en, Kenneth K. S. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, N.J., 1973. A landmark study of the reception of a foreign religion by China and the alterations the adoptive cultural and religious tradition brought about on the classical tradition.

Christensen, Torben, and William R. Hutchison, eds. Missionary Ideologies in the Imperialist Era, 18801920. Århus, Denmark, 1983. The interaction of missiological theories, cultural expansion, "civilizing" intentions, and imperial designs in the colonialization of the world by, especially, European powers.

Clarke, Sathianathan. Dalits and Christianity. Delhi, India, 1998. Ways the Dalit (outcaste) communities of South Asia that have converted to Christianity have used themes from this faith to find dignity and preserve their culture.

Downs, Frederick S. Christianity in North East India. Delhi, India, 1983. An authoritative documentation of the adoption of evangelical (mostly Baptist) Christianity by the tribal peoples of that "Assamese" corner of India.

Dunn, Edmond J. Missionary Theology: Foundations in Development. Lanham, Md., 1980. The development of reformist Roman Catholic missional theory at the hands of radical priests and nuns in the context of, especially, Latin American anticolonial movements.

Foreman, C. W. "A History of Foreign Mission Theory in America." In American Missions in Bicentennial Perspective, edited by R. Pierce Beaver, pp. 69140. South Pasadena, Calif., 1977. An overview of American theologies and programs of missions by major church bodies and the most important "independent" missionary organizations.

Garrett, John. To Live among the Stars. Suva, Fiji, 1982. The stories of missions to the South Sea Islands and how different peoples responded to various efforts according to the "fit" of their tradition with the polity of the missionaries.

Gibb, H. A. R. Whither Islam (1932). New York, 1973. A prescient analysis of the tendencies and directions of Islamic development in the twentieth century by one of the major missionary scholars of the period.

Guder, Darrell L., ed. Missional Church. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998. A fresh attempt to identify the missionary mandate of the churches in a postcolonial era in which Christians are often more respectful of other traditions than in times past.

Harvard Tercentenary Conference of Arts and Sciences. Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought, and Art. Cambridge, Mass., 1937. An older, still-valuable study of how cultures and religions maintain their distinctive qualities while adopting from other traditions and finding ways to reduce conflict.

Hefner, Robert W., ed. Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation. Berkeley, Calif., 1993. A substantive descriptive analysis of peoples who have been evangelized into the Christian faith and who often are grateful and want the missions to continue.

Heim, S. Mark. Salvations. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1995. A groundbreaking interpretation of the world religions that sees them as sharing much but having distinctive views of what humanity needs to be saved from and for.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York, 1996. The much-debated thesis that civilizations are founded on religious "tectonic cultural plates" that may include a number of societies but tend to violence when they clash.

Jeganathan, W. S. M. Mission Paradigms in the New Millennium. Delhi, India, 2000. An attempt to critically analyze the major alternative approaches to missions for the twenty-first century, with particular attention to their social effectiveness.

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York, 2002. A treatment of new "conservative" movements, Protestant and Catholic, that are rapidly developing in Africa and South America and may displace Euro-American traditions.

Kim, Yon-tʾaek. Protestant Church Growth in Korea. Toronto, Canada, 1998. An analysis of the growth of Korean Christianity, among the most rapidly growing missionary movements in the world, with many social effects in South Korea and abroad.

Kopf, David. British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Berkeley, Calif., 1969. A classic study of the relationship of the British raj and the missionary movement, with careful attention to the effects they had on changing the character of Hinduism.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of the Expansion of Christianity. 7 vols. New York, 19371945. An extensive historical treatment of the growth of Christianity and its encounter with other religions and cultures.

Macy, Joanna. Dharma and Development. West Hartford, Conn., 1983. A study of the social development and community organization efforts undertaken by Theravāda Buddhist monks and their devotees in Sri Lanka.

Martin, David. Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish. Oxford, U.K., 2002. A summary of Pentecostal expansion around the world, with attention to vibrant movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia and the rebound effect in the West.

Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby, eds. The Fundamentalism Project. 7 vols. Chicago, 19911995. An extensive study of the resurgence of fundamentalist movements in most of the world religions, with attention to the motives and probable consequences.

Mattam, J., and P. Arockiadoss. Hindutva: An Indian Christian Response. Bangalore, India, 2002. A study of the militantly "evangelizing" form of Hindu nationalism that has grown since independence and taken control of the government in India.

Neville, Robert Cummings, ed. The Human Condition. New York, 2001.

Neville, Robert Cummings, ed. Religious Truth. New York, 2001.

Neville, Robert Cummings, ed. Ultimate Realities. New York, 2001. These three Neville works constitute a process philosophical analysis of the common features of the great religious traditions and spiritual perspectives that seeks to identify convergences and areas for dialogue.

Pachuau, Lalsangkima, ed. Ecumenical Missiology. Bangalore, India, 2002. A fresh summary of the developments in ecumenical thought as it bears on prospects for a revitalized program for missions, with special reference to ethnic conflicts.

Queen, Christopher S., and Sallie B. King. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany, N.Y., 1996. A study of "activist" Buddhism as it adopts missionizing and "social witness" techniques from other traditions and adapts them to Asian settings.

Rambo, L. R. "Current Research on Religious Conversion." Religious Studies Review 8, no. 2 (1982): 146158. A key summary and evaluation of research conducted in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

Reed, James. The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 19111915. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. An argument that American policy toward East Asia has been shaped by the experience of missionaries (and their children) in the region, giving policy a moralistic flavor.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York, 1994. A sharp critique of the views Westerners have projected on the East due to the interlock of colonial, imperial, and missiological interests that have justified oppressive policies.

Sanneh, Lamin O. West African Christianity. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1983. A study of the ways Christianity came to Africa, learned from its new environment, exploited the people, and simultaneously offered the resources for cultural renewal.

Song, C.-S. The Compassionate God. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1982. One of several key examples of how indigenization and cultural synthesis enters into the process of theological construction as religions move into new contexts.

Srinivas, M. N. Caste in Modern India. Bombay, India, 1962. A classic study of how a "nonmissiological" religion expands by the incorporation of primal communities and redefines their social rights, duties, and statuses.

Stackhouse, Max L. Creeds, Societies, and Human Rights. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1984. A comparative analysis of how differing worldviews and religious orientations support or inhibit the development of human rights, pluralistic society, and democratic polity.

Stackhouse, Max L., with Peter J. Paris, eds. God and Globalization. 4 vols. Harrisburg, Pa., 20002005. A compendium of essays by an international team of scholars on how religions and ethics have shaped the dynamics and structures of globalization and are being shaped by them.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. London, 1973. An analysis of the ways this heterodox movement in Islam has been among the major forces spreading the Muslim faith, especially among "brotherhoods" of traders.

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Edinburgh, U.K., 1996. A study of the process by which converts to a tradition seldom leave their older traditions behind entirely but bring them into the new faith and generate new syntheses.

Max L. Stackhouse (1987 and 2005)

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