Altar or Throne?

Recently I was in So Thailand for some teaching ministry for a couple weeks. If you didn't know already, Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and Buddhism breeds and thrives on animistic belief. One look around at all the "spirit houses" and altars (shrines) erected throughout the nation makes this clear. It is difficult to preach the Gospel in Thailand and see genuine conversion.

Being in another culture different than your own helps you see things from a different perspective—one of the values of cross-cultural missions among other things. In a sense, I have two home cultures—American and Filipino. Although they are quite different from each other—one is western and the other eastern philosophically—there is a vast difference between both of them and Thai culture, which is Buddhist. Or is there?

Buddhism, which has thousands of gods, is intertwined in its history with Hinduism, an ancient religion with millions of gods (deities). How can there be so many gods? As with most ancient religions, there has been a proclivity for associating deity or god-likeness with creation, which is noted in the first chapter of Romans (Rom 1:25). It's termed animism—the worship of non-human things, as if they had souls or spirits. This is easy to see, as said already, with small altars of fruit, toys, incense and other things being offered in many places, to the many gods. Ancestor worship is also mixed into many ancient religions and animistic belief systems, especially in eastern Asia and in native-American cultures.

In the Philippines, it is common to see both Roman Catholic statues or images along with Chinese religious symbols, where ancestor worship is common. Riding in a cab my last Sunday in the Philippines, I noticed the driver (who is Roman Catholic) had a Chinese religious symbol hanging from his mirror, and a "Christian image" or two on his dashboard. As he drove me across town where I would be preaching at a church, we talked about Jesus. "He's my protector, I trust in Him," said my taxi driver. It made me realize how similar many Christians in America are with this approach of "covering all the bases." Of course, as Christians, we don't quite see it that way.

What got me thinking about all this was an article sent to me by my missionary friend in Thailand—"The Gospel in an Animistic Culture (3)," which is well worth the read. [] Using the typical western approach of sharing the Gospel in bits and pieces—"Jesus died for your sins" and "God so loved the world"—animistic cultures have a difficult time disassociating these bits and pieces from what they already believe in. People in such cultures can both accept and reject the Gospel readily. They pick and choose between what appeals to them and what doesn't seem to fit their belief system and worldview of life. Are American Christians much different?

It seems to be that American Christians pick and choose what does and does not appeal to them when it comes to the Gospel, in doctrine and practice. Perhaps it doesn't seem this way, but consider how many different Christian churches exist. Often times, the only distinction is the presentation or methodology of the church service. There's too much to get sidetracked on with this issue, but consider what draws you to a certain church or type of worship service. Over the past forty years, I've heard a lot of "what do you have to offer us" questions from prospective church attenders. Questions that are asking, "What do you have to offer that's better than the church down the street?"

Why is this? Is it because we as humans are so self-focused? Well, yes. But has the western church helped promote this with how we present the Gospel, Jesus, and whatever concept of church community is put forward? Before answering that last question, give the above article (link) a read. Then consider, what appeals to you about church, the Gospel (God's Story), and Jesus? What is it you like or dislike? What makes you comfortable or uneasy?

Oh yeah, the title—Altar or Throne—what's that all about? I guess you'll have to tune in next week since there was more to say about all this than I realized when starting to write this post.