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Non-Imperialistic Christian Mission

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

by Revd Andrew Kirk

One of the themes catching headlines world-wide during the summer of 2020, due to anger unleashed because of police brutality against a black man in Minneapolis, is that of the history of imperialism. Imperialism, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica is “state policy, practice or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas.”

In human history there have been numerous examples of nations subjecting and exploiting other communities, often with unimaginable brutality. Starting with the history of Israel in the Bible a succession of empires in the Middle East arose and fell: Assyria, Babylon, Persia. These were followed by the conquests of Alexander and most notably Rome, whose empire reached its widest extent under Trajan (d. 117 AD).

In the modern era, from the 15th century onwards, Spain, Portugal, England, France and the Netherlands built empires in the Americas, India and the East Indies. The decades between the middle of the 19th century and WWI witnessed intense imperialistic policies. From then to the end of WWII, Italy under the Fascist Party, Germany under Naziism, the Soviet Union under Communism, Japan in its attack on China in 1931 inaugurated a new imperialistic period.

Historically imperialism does not have a racial or ethnic profile, unless all skin-colours are included. One can add to the list above the Mogul empire in SE Asia, the Aztecs and the Incas in Central and South America, the Zulu and Matabele kingdoms in Southern Africa and the Songhai empire in West Africa.

Empires were created for a number of different reasons: financial gain; access to cheap materials, goods and labour (often through slavery); struggle for survival; search for power and privilege; 'civilising' ambitions; belief in racial superiority. Each imperialistic operation has had its own particular motivations.


Following WWII, subjected nations gradually gained political independence from colonial powers. However, the former colonies continued to be dependent economically, through bilateral and multi-lateral loans, trade agreements and transnational corporations. The operations of international capitalism kept the former colonies subservient. When peoples attempted to overthrow elite governments aligned to global financial markets (such as Cuba in 1958, Chile in 1971 and SE Asian countries in the 1960s and 1970s ) the USA, the Soviet Union or China used their economic and military power to install regimes favourable to their ideologies and national interests.

Christian Mission

The word is also used in the secular world. An organisation's 'mission statement' explains its purpose for existing. Likewise, the church's mission is quite simply the reason it was called into existence: to be part of God's mission, beginning wherever it is located. God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are at all times and in all places fulfilling their will. The missio Dei is the missio Trinitatis. Sending and being sent are integral to God's nature; God's love is centrifugal, always tending outwards from its centre.

Mission is at the heart of the Church's life. It is not just one aspect of its existence, but defines it. If it ceases to be missionary, it has not just failed one of its tasks, it has ceased being Church. The Church's self-understanding follows its call to share and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ to the “to the ends of the earth and end of time” (Acts 1:8). How else could it be both Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic?

Christian Mission and Imperialism

At its beginning, the Church did not conduct its mission imperialistically, for it was not allied to or used by an imperial power. On the contrary, it was persecuted by the imperial power of the moment. Its message was centred on Jesus' atonement, his blood being shed in an act of crucifixion ordered by the imperial power. The Church, during its first three hundred years, was politically powerless.

The Church expanded most decisively Westwards from Jerusalem. Church history has tended to be written mainly from this perspective. However, it also spread Eastwards and Southwards (to Persia, India and Ethiopia).

The Roman Empire adopted the Christian Faith as its official religion under Constantine. From then on the Church became more politically aligned with the structures of power. Its outreach to bring pagan peoples into the fold through baptism possessed a coercive edge.

From the time of the so-called 'Age of Discovery' at the end of the 15th century onwards, the Church's mission was largely co-extensive with the expansion of European powers. The Spanish conquest of Central America and the Inca Empire and the Portuguese colonisation of parts of Eastern South America produced a superficial Christianisation of the subjugated populations through mass baptisms. There were, however, those who strongly rejected this expression of mission, the most notable being Montesino and Bartolome de las Casas. They energetically defended the rights of the 'Indios' (indigenous peoples) to accept or reject the Christian message without any external pressure. (See footnote).

In the same period, Spanish missionaries to China and Japan, who did not follow a military intervention by an imperial power, adopted a different approach to mission.

During the nineteenth century, cross-cultural mission expanded as the European nations extended their influence and control over nations in Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands. Protestant missionary activity began at the end of the eighteenth century. It originated in part from a sense of superiority, both secular and religious. It coincided with the technical achievements of modern science, the beginning of progress towards universal suffrage, the implementation of human rights, democratic accountability of political systems. Above all, the pre-eminence of the Christian faith over all other religions spurred it on.

The colonial impetus afforded the occasion for the spread of the Christian message into what were considered pagan cultures. Missionaries were afforded some protection from hostile resistance to their evangelising efforts. They were given unlimited opportunities to set up educational establishments that would perpetuate Western values in a 'civilising' process. At the same time, foreign missionaries also resisted some of the worst practices imposed by the colonial powers on subject peoples.

The most severe critique of the modern missionary advance was its attempt to dismantle many indigenous cultural practices, imposing Western style church architecture, liturgies, music, clothing, ceremonies, the nurture of children and other traditions. Since WWII, the ex-colonies have re-gained control of their cultures. In mission circles, since the 1960s, there has been much debate about the inculturation and contextualisation of the Christian faith in non-Western societies.

Within the last half-century, cross-cultural mission has been transformed: no longer is it principally from 'the West to the rest,' but from 'everywhere to everywhere.' The churches of the global South have created their own missionary activities to other parts of the world, including the West ('reverse-mission').

One substantial issue still remains largely unresolved, that of mutuality in relationships between older and younger churches. How can an authentic practice of sharing resources and gifts between churches worldwide be handled in a mutually accountable way? The problem still exists as the result of the long process of dependence, initiated and maintained by an imbalance of power, particularly in economic terms, between the West and the rest. Western churches have a deeply ingrained proneness to export what, perhaps unconsciously, they continue to believe are the best ways to be involved in God's mission (e.g. in communicating the Gospel to Muslims). They are less comfortable in importing wisdom and learning from younger Christian communities. Here, at least, there is still a hang-over from an imperialist mentality and colonial customs.


Revd. Andrew Kirk is a retired Anglican minister. He has been involved on a part-time basis with graduate institutes in Eastern and Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, both teaching and supervising doctoral students. He has degrees in theology (missiology) from the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Nijmegen. He was a founder/member of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (1970), associate director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (1982-1990), theologian missioner of the Church Mission Society (1982-1990), dean and head of the Department of Mission, Selly Oak Colleges (1990-1999), and senior lecturer for the Department of Theology, University of Birmingham (1999-2002).

Footnote: See J. Andrew Kirk, The Church and Mission:Understanding the Relevance of Mission (Milton Keynes:Paternoster 2014, chapter 5, 'The 'New' World: Church and Mission in Sixteenth-Century Latin America.'



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