I think that sometimes Christians are given more credit than they deserve. For both good and bad. I have heard Christians take credit for everything that is good about Western culture. “Our societies have progressed beyond societies of the world because of our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Maybe, but I doubt it. In the time of Jesus the Roman Empire was the envy of the world in terms of organization, technology and progress, and they did it without being Christian first. Many like to say it was because of the official acceptance of Christianity that the Roman Empire fell. Maybe, but I doubt that too.
In our modern age Christian missionaries are often blamed for all manner of things stemming from the days of rampant colonialism where Christian missions was simply a part of the process of “civilizing the natives” and bringing them into modernity. Missionaries are commonly blamed for destroying cultures and changing customs. It is almost like people say, “Natives would still be just like we like them—living in harmony with nature without any of the trappings of Western technology—if it weren’t for missionaries going in and messing things up.”
First of all, that is a very narrow and incorrect view of how things are. I could write an entire book dealing with the misconceptions bound up in that one statement. Secondly, I think people are giving missionaries too much credit for “messing things up.”
There are at least three dynamics in our world that I believe are much more responsible for the changing of cultures than missionaries. I even think the influence of missionaries may be far down the list from these “top three.” But this isn’t based on scientific research—just my own experience over the years. What are those three dynamics? Politics, the people themselves and business. I might say technology, but I am going to include that into the others. New technologies wouldn’t be brought to the peoples of the world if it weren’t for government programs or businesses selling the new products.
Politics. Politics is big. We know that political borders don’t represent ethnic boundaries, but they are important nonetheless. Government, political administration and strife over these things (war) effect people tremendously. Cultures are mixed and changed. It has been this way ever since man began defining boundaries and ruling over one another.
The people themselves. Most people don’t realize this but when you see “natives” in t-shirts it often is not the pushing of outside culture in as much as it is the sucking of it in. People see things on the outside that they don’t have and they want it. Contrary to popular belief, most so-called “stone age” tribes do NOT consider themselves to be living a dream in harmony with nature but instead loathe their own poverty and way of life and desire ways to get out of it.
Business. Businesses make money when they sell their services and products. They are effective when they create consumers. This is what marketing is all about—letting you know why you NEED our product. And taken as a whole, this is a powerful force in our world. I honestly believe that international business has exerted more cultural influence on non-Western peoples than traditional missionaries ever have.
Coca-Cola spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year just to try to sell their product. Their goal isn’t to try to make people into better people, but to make people drink Coke. So, it might be an easy choice for them to send an implicit message that in order to be cool, fashionable, sexy, etc. you should drink Coke. To talk about the real physical benefits of drinking Coke—well there aren’t any. It is full of sugar and will make you fat if you drink a lot of it. So, they don’t go there. Instead they go to image. Along with a thousand other companies, they implicitly teach people that how you look—how “cool” you are—is important.
Christian missionaries, and Christian workers in our own culture, have always faced an uphill battle in combating the messages coming out of our TVs and magazines when they advertise for such businesses. Instead of teaching people that how they look is important we want to teach them that they are intrinsically valuable and loved by God. We scramble to pick up the pieces of broken people who can’t live up to the cultural “ideal” put forth in all of these images.
And it’s hardly a fair fight if we look at it in the world’s perspective. Churches fight this battle with minuscule budgets and without being coordinated and connected to any or few other churches. Big companies like Coca-Cola have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal and a very well-connected global network to get their message out. Perhaps only the Mormons come close to doing anything similar with their message. They have been doing BAM for a long time.
My point is this: Instead of always fighting the influence of non-Christian business in the world, we should use business to influence the world for God’s kingdom.
Non-Christian businesses would love to make the world full of consumers. They are successful in producing consumers when they make people dissatisfied with themselves and narcissistic. Narcissism (concern with our own image) is like a substance addiction that keeps us coming back and buying more drugs—it makes us perpetual consumers always needing to buy things that are really not good for us or, in the least, are unnecessary.
But why not make businesses work for Christ instead of against him? Why not start businesses that send out a good message—the right message? Why not have kingdom-minded Christians running international businesses around the world that do not lead people to narcissism but lead them to redemption? Why don’t we harness the ability to influence that exists in the business world and use that to expand God’s kingdom on earth?
I say let’s do it.