Why is the dominant language in the United States English rather than French or Spanish? Why is the dominant faith (at least historically) Protestantism of various stripes rather than Catholicism? All of these things can be interpreted as the evidence of God’s favor, as a “manifest destiny” or they can be viewed as accidents of history. I tend toward the latter in the sense that I don’t think the ultimate fate of the world and everyone in it would’ve been in the balance if the French had kept Louisiana, the Russians Alaska etc…
But what about the various traditions of Christianity. Surely dominance in number of adherents says something positive about the missionary enterprise of the various bodies? Is it true, because they are not well represented outside of their traditional homelands, that the Orthodox “suck at mission?” as one recent commenter put it? I would say no. It may be that the Orthodox (i.e. the Churches of descending from the Greek East and geographically located in Eastern Europe and Russia etc…) and the Oriental Orthodox (those Christian traditions centered in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Iraq etc…) have been less involved in world missions than other Christians, but this is not, at its heart, an issue of an innate inability to evangelize, nor is it evidence that Protestants and Catholics have been particularly better suited to the endeavor. Instead, it has been a matter of opportunity, and sometimes driven as much by feelings of competition or hatred of other Christian bodies as by sincere devotion to Christ.
Consider the fact that, during the medieval period, Christianity across the board, east and west, largely saw missions as the work of the Christian prince, and not as the work of the Church. Protestants up through the 18th and early 19th century were largely dubious about missionary activities. Evangelism for early Protestants largely consisted of convincing Catholics to jump ship. Indeed, there was significant growth in Christianity over all in the 16th century, but Protestantism was largely unaffected by it. As Alister McGrath says this in regards to Protestant interest in mission:
This early Protestant disinterest in mission was first noted by Gustav Warneck in the 1880’s. His historical research convinced him that there was a simple explanation. Although his observations have been qualified by subsequent scholarship, they have yet to be convincingly rebutted. Basing his conclusions on a careful analysis of the sources, Warneck identified three reasons for Protestantism’s lack of interest in missions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
- These early Protestants interpreted the “Great Commission”–the command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)–as a task given to the apostles of the first century, not to their successors in the post-apostolic church.
- They believed that the end of all things was close at hand, so that there was little point in embarking on such an ambitious undertaking.
- It was their theological conviction that God could be relied upon to convert peoples in his own good time.
Warneck’s third point is well illustrated by a famous incident involving William Carey (1761-1834), later to be one of the most important British missionaries to India. He began to frame the idea of a missionary calling after reading Captain Cook’s account of his voyages in the South Seas. Yet few shared his enthusiasm. In 1792 Carey proposed–to general astonichment, it seems–that a group of Baptist ministers in Northamptonshire discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among heathen nations.” An older minister rose and rebuked him: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” (P. 175-176)
The great explosion of missionary endeavors in the late 18th, 19th and 20th centuries can largely be attributed to a rediscovery of the importance of the Great Commission for individual Christians, who then set about forming missionary societies. At the same time, I don’t know that Protestant missionaries would’ve had the support from the general public and yes, from their governments, if national interests hadn’t come into play. Like it or not, Western Christians, even when they decided that individual Christians might have the responsibility to evangelize, still depended upon colonial expansion, and the military that went with it, to support and defend their missionary endeavors. This, of course, is not far away from the way in which the Russians evangelized the Georgians by building the Caucasus Line, a series of Monastery-Forts along the Caucasus mountains, housing monks and the military.
Why then might someone say that the Orthodox Churches performed poorly at mission work? I think the statement is fairly euro-centric… perhaps even Amero-centric (is that a word? I suppose it is now). The Orthodox actually did expand their missionary efforts around the same time that Protestants were coming out of their shell–indeed, as with competition with the Catholics spurring Protestant mission, competition with and emulation of Protestants and Catholics by the Russians in particular, spurred Orthodox missionary efforts. But, Russia never had the same level of sea-power as some of her western European counterparts, and so, they went across Asia and Siberia into Alaska.
The persecution of the Orthodox Churches was mentioned by a commenter on the original thread, to which one should add to that the persecution of the Oriental Orthodox. I believe that saying that the Orthodox “suck at mission” is to embrace historical accident as indicating something positive or negative about a particular tradition of Christianity. The Orthodox did evangelize, they simply did it differently. The history of this region of the world is one dominated by tyrannies that have made it surprising that the Christian faith actually survived at all, whether enduring suppression by the Mongols, by the Ottomans or by the Soviets. Also, to criticize the entire Orthodox Church for the plight of the serfs in Russia is a little anachronistic and overlooks the issues of history that are still plaguing democracy in Russia. (A great book to look at in terms of the effects of living under totalitarian regimes on civic responsibility is the book “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy”. Basic argument: societies without trade and civic involvement, such as that inspired by the Italian city-states, the Hanseatic league etc… have a very difficult time transitioning to democracy).
But, more than anything else, a look at some statistics might help us consider the relative success of missionary efforts, as well as the historical situation that made such success possible. The following chart from Wolfram Alpha shows a rough estimate of the number of Christians of various stripes around the world. the numbers may vary from some that you’ve seen, but they are close (the number of Catholics in particular is somewhat smaller than the 1.3 billion I’ve seen elsewhere):
Looking at the numbers above, would anyone say that Baptists, for instance, sitting at almost 40 million (some estimates go as high as 70) “suck at mission?” What about Methodists at around 30 mil? Anglicans at 70-something? Then why would someone say it about the Orthodox, with around 90 million Russian Orthodox (and anywhere from 160-300 million Orthodox all around?). I know some folks will read this and say “but they aren’t all *real* Christians.” Aside from the arrogance of such a remark, one could simply say that the ratio of commitment to self-identified membership is likely to be similar, and that cultural Christians are all over the place.
The fact that there are as many Orthodox as there are, especially given the political situation in those areas during the most rapid expansion of Christianity in world history (in the 19th and 20th centuries) is pretty amazing if you ask me.
Just something to think about… with slightly different turns in history, the chart above could look completely different.
Note: I couldn’t include this map in my comment below, so I’m adding it here. Refer to my response to Carson for context:
Number of Baptist Adherents globally: