Since the time of the Apostle Paul, trade routes have always been highways for missions, taking missionaries from the Old World to the New, and from the West to the East.
Church of the West: World Changers With Mixed Reviews
Before the U.S. emerged as the pre-eminent superpower after WWII, Europe had been dominating the world for 500 years. Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England and France were the major powers that explored, traded, and colonized many parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
During those 500 years, missions and trade were associated with colonial expansion, resulting in criticism from historians and anthropologists.
Catholic and Protestant missionaries relied on the traders’ ships to reach distant shores, and gained access to foreign lands through privileges won by their governments, often by military force. However, even as governments and trading companies pursued their imperialistic and mercenary agendas, missionaries fought tirelessly to improve the lives and well-being of the people.
The Encyclopedia of European Social History puts it this way: “Traders carried European technologies of warfare and production as well as goods, while missionaries often advocated European social organization, education, as well as religious beliefs. All had the power to profoundly alter traditional patterns of non-European society.”
While trade and missions were change agents, many changes were forced upon the developing countries by colonial powers, and missions has sadly been implicated as cultural imperialism, especially when some missionaries failed to differentiate between the essence of the gospel and the cultural mores of the West.
Missions' Redemptive Impact in Colonial Times
As missionaries wanted to give people the Word of God in their own languages, they catalyzed literacy movements, mass education and printing. They founded many schools and some of Asia’s first universities. Committed to loving their neighbor, missionaries also established hospitals, improved the conditions of women and children, cared for orphans, promoted voluntary organizations and social reform to fight barbaric practices.
1993 was the 200th anniversary of the arrival of William Carey, father of modern missions in India. The Indian government issued a commemorative stamp to honor his contributions to its country.
In China, missionaries are remembered for introducing western medicine, starting many of the country’s best universities, and the publication of Review of The Times (万国公报)that had tremendous influence on the country’s reform movement and eventual founding of the modern republic.
Rigorous scholarly research, especially in recent years, has presented compelling evidence that credits many positive influences of western civilization in developing countries to missionaries as the direct expression of their faith and values.
Church of the East: World Changers Without the Onus of Colonialism
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, Acts 2:9- 11 recorded the presence of “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome,; Cretans and Arabs.”
Many arrived via Roman roads by way of Alexandria and Antioch, or via the shipping corridors of the Mediterranean. Others came via the Eastern trade routes that connected the Holy Land to Mesopotamia, Persia, even India and China.
Believers at the first Pentecost brought the Good News back to their homelands. Out of these regions grew the Church of the East, whose fascinating expansion had much to do with trade, but no ties whatsoever to colonialism. Its expansion holds precious lessons for modern missions to the 10/40 Window, especially in light of China’s One Belt One Road initiative.
Church of the East: Amazing Growth
The missionary enterprise of the Church of the East was a bold, visionary venture of peace, not by force of armies or gunboats, but by caravans carrying traders and clerics on camelback. The Church of the East has been described as the most missionary church that the world has ever seen. Though brand- ed as theological heretics, Nestorian Christians, the most mission-minded among them, led the way.
The gospel advanced along the trade routes by land and sea from Jerusalem to Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia, and Turkestan (present day Central Asia), reaching as far as China, Mongolia, Korea and Ja- pan, South India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand.
By A.D.1000, Nestorian Christianity boasted 12 million believers in 250 dioceses. By the 13th century, there were 72 metropolitan patriarchs and 200 bishops in China and the surrounding areas, representing 24% of all Christians in the world at the time, and over 6% of the population of Asia.
However, by the 14th and 15th centuries, the Church of the East was weakened by internal corruption and theological syncretism. The rise of militant Islam brought about its final demise. Small enclaves of believers have survived to this day, but are now under persecution by Islamic extremists.
Nonetheless, Nestorian missionary endeavors in the 1st millennium embody insights and strategies that we can learn from. It was guided by a missional Christology and supported by missionary training schools. Trade and missions worked in tandem as laymen and clergy built Christian communities along trade routes. These missional communities were financially self-supporting, and contributed to the welfare and economic development of their host countries.