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Do Christian Missionaries Promote Colonialism?

June 26, 2024 |  By Rebecca Olsen

Some people have ethical concerns about Christian missions. One of the major apprehensions is whether Christian missionaries promote colonialism or otherwise force Western culture on people around the world. Below, we explain the validity of this concern, and how contemporary missions is different.

Definition of Colonialism

Before we dive further into the complicated topic of missions and colonialism, we need to define our terms. The definition of a missionary and mission work is already in our blog, so we just need to define colonialism.

Colonialism is a noun that describes a policy or practice of one country taking over another one politically. These political takeovers often look like a cultural takeover as one country imposes its culture on another. Colonists use settlers to occupy the other country, and then exploit it. The exploitation is often for the financial or economical gain of the first country.

We’ve seen colonialism throughout history, especially from European powers taking over African, Asian, and American areas. Many of these European powers identified as some form of Christianity, primarily Catholic or Protestant, so Christian missionaries went with the colonists to new places.

Historic Ties Between Christian Missionaries and Colonialism

The fact that missionaries accompanied colonists to new places that the colonists were exploiting is the reason many people see Christian missions and colonialism as closely tied. Missions and colonialism tie closer together when we consider that some colonial powers used Christianity as a front for deeper, even more, exploitative practices such as stealing natural resources and producing slaves.

One example of this is the Belgian colonization of the Congo River basin in West-Central Africa. While King Leopold II of Belgium originally claimed he wanted to bring Christianity and better commerce to the area, the people he deployed actually focused on ivory, rubber, and slaves, which only benefitted Belgium. The forced labor needed for ivory and rubber production led to tens of thousands of native deaths, many from slave rebellions. Some historians link hundreds of thousands of deaths to Belgium’s colonization because so many native people perished in desolate areas as they fled enslavement.

Belgium maintained control of several parts of West-Central Africa until the early 1900s, and policies affecting people, especially mixed-race people, stayed in place until the 1960s. There are still people alive today who remember Belgian officials kidnapping them as children, telling them the state was now their parent, and forcing them to live in poor conditions at Christian compounds. Officials did this to “civilize” the mixed-race children. Many of them haven’t seen their family since.

Contemporary Missions

Some of the missionaries who accompanied colonists or later assisted at Christian places wanted no part of a political takeover or financial exploitation. They were true Christians who cared for the new people they were meeting and wanted to share the salvation of Jesus with them. Contemporary missions work, especially in the last twenty years, emulates these individuals and tries to live out the Great Commission with great love that emulates Jesus.

Missionaries often show this love through humanitarian aid, such as building wells, in addition to offering Christian salvation and discipleship. Some of these missionaries are foreigners, but there are more native Christians now because of previous mission work. Native Christians are answering God’s call on their life to serve as missionaries in their own or nearby communities.

Native Christian Missionaries

If we truly want to see the Great Commission fulfilled and reach all people groups, we must partner with native Christian missionaries. These missionaries have come to a saving relationship with Jesus but already live in the mission field. They share the same culture and speak the same language, making it easier for them to share about Jesus with their communities. Many of them already know the physical needs of the area, such as the need for food assistance, so they know how to show God’s love in practical ways as well.

Partnering with native missionaries in this way helps missionary work move forward from a past where Christian missionaries sometimes promoted colonialism and caused pain. When we love and support native missionaries and their communities, we get to participate in an early form of Revelation 7:9 (NIV), “After this, I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

One way you can personally contribute to the great multitude of diverse believers someday is to pray for unreached people groups. There are thousands of these groups around the world, and you can download our Pray for the Unreached prayer guide to help you pray for them. Our prayer guide also provides background information so you can better understand important facts about these groups and how native missionaries are reaching them.

Download the Pray for the Unreached prayer guide now.