I’ve heard atheists complain that the work Christian missionaries do to bring the message of Christ to people in poverty-stricken countries is a waste of resources that could have been used to help the poor in materially tangible ways.
However, even if atheists were correct that Christianity is false, the truth is that merely providing people with material goods won’t change an economy in the long run because there are intangible goods that need to be in place in order for those material goods to take root and grow into a flourishing economy.
An article by Charles White Robby Butler in Mission Frontiers illustrates how immaterial values can build material wealth:
When John Wesley was born in 1703, four million out of Britain’s five million people lived in absolute poverty—unless they found enough food for that day, they would begin to starve to death.
When John Wesley launched a Church Planting Movement in this context, he not only changed the eternal destinies of an estimated one million people who came to Christ through his ministry, he changed their economic status as well. Not only did the Methodists he led get saved, they got out of poverty and became a powerful influence in discipling their nation….
The Methodists made such an impact on their nation that in 1962 historian Élie Halévy theorized that the Wesleyan revival created England’s middle class and saved England from the kind of bloody revolution that crippled France.
How did the conversion of a million people to Christ change England’s economy?
The resulting spiritual change affected their daily lives in four main ways, each of which improved the social and economic status of the new believers:
- First, they abandoned sinful habits which had previously ruined their lives.
- Second, they began a new life of holiness which led to health and wealth.
- Third, by going to the Methodist meetings they learned to read, which gave them upward mobility.
- And fourth, they developed a new view on money, which enabled them to profit from the technological innovations of their age.
Butler goes on to explore in more detail how each of these areas of people's lives changed as they became followers of Christ who took their role as His disciples seriously.
I do not post this to say that either God’s or our purpose in becoming a Christian is to gain “health and wealth,” nor to concede that spreading the truth about Christ is a lesser goal than spreading material wealth. Rather, it’s to point out that more than anything else, it’s the values of a nation that affect the economy. Where virtues like honesty, frugality, and diligence are valued, and the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and property rights are respected, people are free to create, trade, and prosper.
And here, in the story of 18th century England, is an example of how the values of Christianity brought a vast number of people out of material poverty as a happy byproduct of their souls being brought of spiritual poverty. So not even the atheist whose first concern is helping the poor materially should dismiss spiritual missionary work as a waste.
If you’re interested in thinking more about how values, economics, and Christianity fit together, I recommend the Acton Institute’s four Foundational Lectures that are now available for free on their website.
(HT: Acton Institute)