Integral human development and Christian mission

Phil Klay’s celebrated 2020 novel Missionaries has, despite its title, almost no missionaries in it. Set in conflict-ridden Colombia, with flashbacks to Iraq and Afghanistan, it depicts the convoluted violence and havoc that can occur when well-meaning outsiders—including soldiers, journalists, and aid workers, many from the US—intervene in complex settings. The title, it seems, is meant to be subtly ironic, attributing to the many well-meaning expatriate arrivals in new places a missionary-like willingness to interfere in others’ affairs—interventions which sometimes lead to armed conflict and tragedy. The title presumes that Christian missionaries, prototypically speaking, exemplify this questionable intrusiveness and its potentially disastrous consequences.

Mission and development

Indeed, Christian missionaries have a dubious reputation among many engaged in studying and pursuing human development. Reminiscent of the longstanding disparagement that anthropologists have leveled at missionaries, certain proponents of human development pigeonhole missionaries as undermining local cultures through efforts at conversion. Besides eroding traditional lifestyles, missionaries are also viewed as pursuing the transformation of persons and communities in ways that also ignore or even diminish more objective registers of human well-being linked to development standards, all in the name of winning souls for Christ.

Of course, as the Klay novel’s title suggests, development workers’ efforts can face the same questions and challenges as missionary activity. Both missionaries and those pursuing development tend to engage others in an effort to improve their circumstances, in line with certain presumptions about human flourishing.

I will argue here that when Catholic missionary practice follows its best principles, and when integral human development takes seriously its integral nature, missionaries and those engaged in integral human development can assist each other, with numerous possibilities for mutual enrichment. Certainly, formal Catholic documents on mission and on human development repeatedly have said as much, linking integral human development and evangelization. I will briefly highlight advances in Catholic missionary thought that offer promise for the project of integral human development.

In their summary of missiology (as theological reflection on mission is called) Constants in Context (2004), Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder identify three large trends that summarize the best of its impulses today. First, Christian mission, though typically understood as seeking to Christianize non-Christians, is best seen, in the first place, as participation in God’s mission in the world more broadly. Second, Christian mission consists in sharing salvation through Jesus Christ. Third, Christian mission consists in pursuing the reign of God as Jesus himself embodied and proclaimed it. The first two of these trends have little relevance to contemporary development practices, which properly eschew requiring a faith-based motivation and certainly reject proselytism. Yet the third aspect of Christian mission highlighted by Bevans and Schroeder—its congruence with Christ’s own preaching and practice—creates important synergies with integral human development.

New for many missionaries is greater attention to the historical Jesus of the Gospels with the help of critical scholarship.

Modeling missionary activity after Christ is not a new focus for theologies and practices of mission, of course. Christian missionaries have long sought to emulate Christ, thinking of themselves as sent by the Redeemer to share the Good News, just as he was sent by the Father. Even when their work was focused on winning souls for Christ, following biblical mandates such as Matthew 28:16-20, missionaries also tended to immediate human needs by binding literal wounds, while teaching literacy and other skills in imitation of Christ as both healer and teacher.

Christian mission in practice has for centuries also included the creation of institutions for sustainable approaches to medical care and education, for example, along with sharing the Gospel with non-Christians—this last often seen as the essence of missionary activity. Mission-founded schools and hospitals, often highly respected, are found all over the world. The University of Notre Dame is one. What has been new for many missionaries is greater attention to the historical Jesus as discernible in the Gospels with the help of critical scholarship.

Biblical scholarship

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was wary of historical-critical biblical scholarship, seeing it as undermining the church’s authority and teaching magisterium by allowing scholarly interpretations not approved by the Church. Especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), however, Catholic biblical scholarship partakes fully in the critical academic study of the Bible, which has yielded new insights into Jesus’s activities. Missionaries have drawn inspiration from Jesus’s relationship to the reign of God, especially its social implications.

More and more scholars appreciate how Jesus, in announcing the reign of God, both met individual and sometimes very personal human needs, and simultaneously challenged larger social and religious structures, especially those that protected privileged religious and political elites while exploiting the marginalized. This insight in turn has linked Jesus to the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, and thus invited Christian discipleship to embrace the prophetic role that confronts injustice.

Through better understanding of Christ’s way of preaching and embodying the Reign of God, Christian mission has sought to model his compassionate care for all and also address the broad scope of the human condition—justice, self-determination, equality, and especially human dignity—rather than focusing narrowly on specific laws, rules, or doctrines.

Both missionary and development thought have evolved, reflecting on past narrowness and mistakes.

A landmark text for Catholic mission thought in this regard was Pope Paul VI’s 1975 missionary encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, in which Catholic missiology officially embraced human development as a central part of Christian mission. Since then, as Catholic social teaching has expanded the range of the social problems it addresses, the Catholic theology of mission has responded as well. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ linked concern for ecology to the plight of the poor amidst growing social inequality, thereby making care for creation a responsibility for all. Missionaries have long sought to protect environments where they served, and such care for creation has for some decades been part of many theological reflections on mission.

Both missionary and development thought have evolved, reflecting on past narrowness and mistakes. Critical scholarship in Christian mission analyzes past historical entanglements with colonialism and too-frequent disparagement of cultures, and today seeks to embrace a post-colonial missiology. This is easier, of course, since many of those who write in the field come from areas once evangelized by Europeans, with important missiological insights coming from Korea, Nigeria, and Brazil. Important contributors include Amos Yong, a Malaysian theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary; Reginald Nel, dean of faculty at Stellenbosch University in South Africa; and Lalsangkima Pachuau, originally from India and now at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.

In the field of development studies, the insistence on the word “integral” in “integral human development”—central to the Keough School—reflects such accumulating experience as well, a nod toward past approaches that ignored aspects of human experience that were difficult to quantify, thus easily overlooked, yet remain very important to consider nonetheless. And both areas of human endeavor will continue to learn from their mistakes.

In the light of the above it can be argued that those interested in integral human development ought not be instinctively suspicious of missionaries. Development theorists and scholars who reflect on mission have much to learn from, and teach, each other.


Rev. Paul Kollman, C.S.C. is associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. His scholarship focuses on African Christianity, mission history, and world Christianity, and he has taught and conducted research in Africa and in archives around the world. He is a faculty fellow of the Keough School’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies and Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.

Photo by Franco Folini is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.



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