cross-cultural

Many Altars but One Gospel

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Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship. Primitive altars are where sacrifices, sometimes animals or humans, were made to appease a deity or god. In the Old Testament, altars were part of the worship of Israel using prescribed sacrifices for specific reasons.

Altars can also be figurative. In most traditional churches, a table or cabinet serves as an altar where certain elements of the worship service are placed. More contemporary churches might consider the front platform area as an altar.

Physical altars or places to offer gifts or sacrifices are common in many cultures around the world. I'm more familiar with Thailand and the Philippines. I've traveled and ministered in Thailand many times. It has an abundance of altars in many places.

Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship

Land of many altars

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and Buddhism breeds and thrives on an animistic belief. One look around at all the spirit houses and altars or shrines erected throughout the nation makes this clear.

It is difficult to preach the Gospel in Thailand and see genuine conversions to following Christ—both culturally and spiritually. The truth can get lost in the various layers of culture and spirituality present in Thailand and in other nations.

Living in another culture different than your own helps you see things from a different perspective.  This is one of the values of true cross-cultural missions. In a sense, I had two home cultures—American and Filipino—while living in the Philippines for fifteen years.

Living in another culture than your own helps you see things from a different perspective

Although they are quite different from each other—one is western and the other eastern philosophically—a vast difference exists between both of those cultures and Thai culture, at least on the surface.

Is there really that much difference between how Christianity is practiced in America, Roman Catholicism in the Philippines, and Buddhism in Thailand? Perhaps not as much as you think.

Buddhism and altars

Buddhism with its thousands of gods is intertwined in its origin with Hinduism, an ancient religion with millions of gods or deities. How can there be so many gods?

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation. This 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.

Animism exists throughout the world today, even in unexpected places and ways.

It's common to see small altars of fruit, toys, incense, and other things offered in many places to many gods throughout Thailand. Ancestor worship is also mixed into many ancient religions with animistic belief systems.

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation

Roman Catholic shrines

Throughout the Philippines, it is common to see both Roman Catholic statues or images along with Chinese religious symbols, where ancestor worship is common. Shrines to Mary and to the infant Jesus are found in homes, businesses, as well as in churches.

Riding in a Filipino cab one day, I noticed the driver—a 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, we talked about Jesus. "He's my protector, I trust in Him," said my taxi driver. 

It made me realize how many Christians in America have a similar approach to covering all the bases. Of course, as evangelical Christians, we don't see it that way.

Many Christians in America have a covering-all-the-bases approach to their faith

American altars and shrines

People in animistic cultures have a difficult time with the typical western approach of sharing the Gospel in bits and pieces—"Jesus died for your sins" or "God so loved the world." It's difficult for them to disassociate these bits and pieces from what they already believe.

When bits of pieces of the truth spoken without their greater context come across as abstract truths. Abstract truths connected to testimonies of success and blessing as often occurs in evangelism, lack the scriptural frame of reference to be understood well.

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 fit their belief system and worldview of life.

Are American Christians much different than religious people in other places?

The church potluck

American Christians tend to pick and choose what does and does not appeal to them regarding the Gospel, and with doctrine and practice. It's as if the gospel and Christian beliefs are laid out on a table as with a church potluck.

Perhaps it doesn't seem this way, but consider how many different Christian churches exist. Often times, the only distinction between one church and another is the presentation or methodology of the church service itself.

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. What do you expect when you go to church?

American tend to pick and choose what they like and don't like about the Christian faith

Is your Christianity animistic?

For more than four decades, I've heard questions from prospective churchgoers like, "What do you have to offer that's better than the church down the street?"

Why are so many American Christians like this? Is it because we are so self-focused? Well, yes! 

We take the bits and pieces we hear of the gospel and Christianity and connect them to our own perceptions of blessing and success. In this way, our Christianity becomes more animistic than the gospel in the Bible.

Christians prefer bits and pieces of the gospel that connect to blessing and success

The western church promotes this with how we present the Gospel, Jesus, and various concepts of church-community. Consider the following questions—

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?

Over the next couple weeks, I'll continue to look at this issue of altars and the gospel. Next week, I hope to challenge you to answer whether you come to God's altar or God's throne?

The gospel and animism—

The following articles may provoke you to thought, even upset you. I hope so. They are written by missionaries—one in Thailand and one in Zimbabwe in Africa. You can post responses on this blog or on social media— but let them be edifying and gracious

Animism and the Prosperity Gospel

Why Your Gospel May Be More Animistic Than You Think

What Do You Not Understand About "Go"?

Final instructions tend to emphasize what's most important. Even in directions for how to put something together, a series of summarized instructions are given in bullet points.

When parents leave their children with a babysitter, nanny, or grandparents, they relay what's seen as essential information. Things like, "Here's their jammies, dinner, diapers...." Or it might be, "No playing ball in the house, make sure they go to bed by...," well, you get the idea.

What were Jesus' final instructions to His followers? They're summed up in a word—"Go!" But somewhere along the way, this seems to be lost in translation or just ignored.

Jesus' final instructions repeated 5 times

The final instructions and teaching of Jesus to His followers are summarized in what is called the Great Commission. It's found in each of the four gospels and in Acts. It's a mandate for action throughout the world for the benefit of all people. This requires the church to go!

Here are five places the Great Commission is found and a brief summary of its content—

  1. Matt 28:19-20– Go, make disciples... teaching them what Jesus commanded
  2. Mark 16:15– Go into all the world... proclaiming the gospel to all people
  3. Luke 24:45-49–Proclaim repentance and forgiveness (the gospel) to all nations
  4. John 20:21-21– Jesus sends the apostles as He was sent by the Father
  5. Acts 1:4-8– Receive power to be the Lord's witnesses to all the world
3guys_Indo
3guys_Indo

Three to Go!

These three young were sent off from their YWAM base family in Jacksonville, FL for a two-year mission in a small province of Indonesia. It was great to see their excitement and commitment, which was affirmed by those gathered to send them off.

I had the privilege of being a small part of equipping them for their mission. They learned and served together for two years, and were challenged by their base director and one of their teachers to go. And so, they did.

Never intended to be optional

A cursory reading of Acts reveals this mission to go was central to the church's existence and growth. It was understood to be an essential element, not an optional one. But somewhere along the way things changed.

Initially, the church did not venture out of Jerusalem. What changed that? Persecution. A great persecution broke out after the fiery Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:1). Then the church went out as the Lord intended.

This mission is seen throughout the Book of Acts with the first intentional sending out of missionaries recorded in Acts 13:1-3.

How did "Go" become optional?

Reading the letters to the seven churches in Revelation (Rev 2:1-3:22) we see a change. What happened? I see two general trends also present today—complacency and compromise.

Compromise can come in many ways, but syncretism and tolerance are common. Things get included or excluded with a detrimental effect. How do you deal with compromise? The truth of God's Word is most effective in preventing and correcting compromise.

Complacency is harder to change.

How does it settle in? First, we get comfortable. It's hard to be comfortable when persecuted. Comfort leads to an unconcerned attitude. Unconcerned is a synonym for complacent, and unconcerned quickly changes to unengaged.

Photo credit: Sergei Kutrovski
Photo credit: Sergei Kutrovski

How does "Go" become essential for you?

3 things to jump-start you into engagement—

  1. Awareness– you need to become aware of the need throughout the world. How? Learn about the state of the unreached and unengaged around the world. Learn through research in books, websites, and people interested in world missions. [see list of resources below]
  2. Acceptance– understand the need, and become willing and committed to be engaged. As you learn, contact cross-cultural missionaries and mission agencies. They'll be glad to share their passion for the nations of the world and the mission to Go!
  3. Action– move forward by faith to support, and send or be sent. Get involved with missions at a local level, be ready to go on a short-term mission, and engage people of other cultures with the gospel where you live.

Where to start?

Here are resources to get you started and engaged—


This post was edited and revised from an earlier post on my former website. It follows a couple previous and related posts below—

The World Has Changed

MOTROW

The World Has Changed

©kentoh | 123rf stock photos
©kentoh | 123rf stock photos

Saying the world has changed may seem an understatement, an obvious one. But Paul Borthwick is a world-renown teacher and consultant on world missions, and this statement is the recurring theme of his book.

He isn't referring to technology, nor culture per se. It's a declaration about global missions. And he ought to know, he has much experience to back it up.

While reading through one of his more recent books, Western Christians in Global Mission, I was both challenged and refreshed by his writing, research, and dialogue to western Christians involved in global missions.

As a cross-cultural missionary myself, I had a vested interest in reading this book and was not disappointed.

Western_Mission_cover
Western_Mission_cover

A Big question

I've recommended it to others and wrote a review on Amazon. But I wanted to make a recommendation here on my blog.

The subtitle alone challenges the reader with a question too often unconsidered—

What's the Role of the North American Church (in Global Mission)?

Having been a church planter in the US and trainer of church planters and leaders in SE Asia, this is a vital question to be answered. Mr. Borthwick does this well in several ways.

9 Great Changes and Challenges

He begins with broad views of the church in North America and the Majority World, and how they fit into the state of the world.

He sees Nine Great changes in the world that are Great Challenges for the Church worldwide (pages 33-60).

  • The Great Transition— the worldwide church is primarily non-white, non-Western, and non-wealthy
  • The Great Migration— there are vast movements of people from nation to nation
  • 2 Great Divides— an Economic Divide and a Theological Divide
  • 2 Great Walls— the first being a wall between the gospel "haves" and the gospel "have-nots," the second is the effect of environmental impacts on the poor.
  • The Great Commission— the church has not done a good job making disciples, either in North America or the Majority World (making converts is not the same as making disciples).
  • The Great Compassion— seeing beyond the need of salvation to see people in their need of many things for daily life (yet without causing a dependency).
  • The Great Salvation— a personal worldview that serves as a reminder and motivation for going out into the world with the gospel.
  • The Great Celebration— having a vision for the celebration in heaven of every tribe, tongue, and nation worshipping Jesus.

Two appraisals

The author goes on to give "An Appraisal of the North American Church." It is one I found to be both confirming and challenging. Then "An Appraisal of the Majority World Church."

This was both refreshing and disconcerting, and it confirmed my thoughts that the great need in the Majority World is the need for sound equipping of leaders.

A good portion of the book is dedicated to seeing how to move forward to meet these changes and challenges.

There are plenty of open-ended questions and penetrating insights given by Majority World leaders to foster discussion and consideration. The author adds stories of his own that give vivid insight into the learning curve presented in this book.

His extensive experience in many countries and continents with various leaders and people groups qualifies him to not only make statements but pose important questions. He gets into specifics and provides practical queries and guidance.

A new role

I found myself agreeing over and over again with the points made and the challenges posed. Paul Borthwick makes his case well and in a gracious way.

It lines up with my own observations from experience on the mission field for the past 25+ years, including 15 years as a resident missionary in the Philippines.

The continuing theme throughout the book is, "The world has changed." So has the church worldwide and the world mission movement.

America has a role, but it's not out in front taking charge, directing, and funding everything.

The American church's most valuable role is in a partnership alongside Majority World missionary leaders.

Recommended!

I don't just recommend this book, I believe it is a must read for anyone in North America who wants to keep in step with God's plan for His Great Commission, especially western culture missionaries.

If you're interested in global missions, I hope you'll take the time to read and thoughtfully consider all that's presented in this book.

The world has changed and it's waiting for us to catch up with it!


Next week I'll post a follow-up to this related to the Majority World or what I call MOTROW


This is an edited and revised post previously published a few years ago on another platform.

An Unknown God

unspalshcom_RLukeman

unspalshcom_RLukeman

Black and white—the epitome of contrast. This contrast may bring various things to mind for you, but what comes to mind for me is the dualistic dilemma we all face. It's a carry-over from the first humans who ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17; 3:1-13).

As a rule, we tend to divide most everything in life into either-or categories—good-bad, right-wrong, big-small, etc. But life isn't that neat and tidy. There's a lot of color within the color spectrum between black and white.

Black is the absence of light and color, whereas white is the presence of light and all colors. Aren't you glad life in this world isn't just black and white?

I'm thankful for all the vivid colors that exist and that life can't be categorized into either-or categories. Neither does God nor His story of redemption fit into neat categories.

A lesson learned

Many years ago I taught a workshop to a group of pastors and leaders in the southern region of the Philippines. I needed the assistance of an interpreter, as I taught them the basics of Inductive Bible Study (IBS).

I tried to emphasize the importance of the biblical text as it's written in black and white. But my interpreter added his own take on what I said with, "It's either black or white."

I learned two important things that day. First, I need to be clear how I say things if I want to be understood. Secondly, I need to have confidence in my interpreter and be sure he or she understands me. True communication results in a fruitful dialog.

Words and ways of connecting

Last week I alluded to ways of sharing the redemptive message of the gospel other than traditional or trendier ways.

My experience as a cross-cultural missionary helped me learn how to teach in a simple yet effective way. I first needed to learn about the people I hoped to teach. This required time, many observations, a lot of listening, prayer, and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

As I gained more insight, I looked for ways to personally connect with those I taught and relate what I taught in words and ways they could understand.

This is what I see the apostle Paul do when he encountered people in a situation different from his typical experiences sharing the gospel.

Reception and resistance

Acts chapter 17 begins with Paul and his ministry team's encounters in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Paul went to the Jewish synagogue as was is custom. He reasoned with them for three days concerning the purpose for the death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross and His resurrection.

But when the Jews became jealous of those who believed the gospel and began to follow Paul's teaching, things turned rowdy. So they moved on to a town called Berea. Again, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue to explain and prove the gospel from the Scriptures.

The Bereans were honorable men and serious students of the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-12) and received and believed the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. Once again, things turned badly when men from Thessalonica came to stir up trouble for Paul (Acts 17:13-15). So, Paul was sent off to Athens until the rest of his ministry team could join him.

Provoked and challenged

Arriving in Athens, Paul walked around the city and his spirit was disturbed and provoked by what he saw—a city full of idols. He went to the synagogue as usual but also preached in public at the marketplace.

The philosophers in the marketplace thought Paul was preaching about foreign gods because he spoke of the resurrection as he shared the gospel. Wanting to hear more from him they brought him to a place called Mars Hill where much debate took place (Acts 17:16-21).

The context of Paul's message to the Athenians helps us understand how and why he shares what he does (Acts 17:22-31). He speaks to them about the One whom they call "the Unknown God." Paul explains how this God is greater than any manmade image or religion.

A matter of perspective

The message Paul shares with the philosophers at Mars Hill serves as an example for communicating the gospel to people who are not familiar with Christianity or the Jewish Law, so it's well-suited for a postmodern, post-Christian mindset.

How Paul conveys the gospel at Mars Hill has come under fire by various Bible teachers because he doesn't present the gospel in a more typical direct evangelical approach. Some of my friends who are solid Bible teachers say Paul's message wasn't effective because the blood of Jesus and the crucifixion aren't mentioned.

But is this valid criticism? I think not, and nothing in the book of Acts or the NT epistles indicates that is was lacking validity. The problem comes from our own perspective of how it ought to be.

But that's exactly the issue—it's our perspective and doesn't take into account how others hear it. Or, in many cases, how they don't hear it because they have no frame of reference to understand a more direct modern evangelical presentation of the gospel.

Seeing a new perspective

I see 12 elements in Paul's message to the Athenians on Mars Hill where the redemptive message of the gospel is clearly expressed. Next week I'll go through those twelve points with cross-references to support each one.

Until next week, I encourage you to read through Paul's message at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) to see if you can identify these twelve points. Look at the context of the entire chapter (Acts 17). This should help provide the why to how Paul expresses his message.

The goal is not to pick Paul's message apart from a western evangelical perspective but to understand why and how he communicates the gospel the way he does.

Understanding this will provide greater insight for reaching people who don't have a Judean-Christian framework of understanding, whether in America or anywhere in the worldwith any unreached people group.


My interest in Paul's message at Mars Hill was originally stirred through the teaching of my friend Danny Lehman at a missions conference several years ago. He's a long-time and well-traveled missionary who speaks a lot about evangelism and has written quite a bit about it.

I highly recommend his book,  Beautiful Feet– Steps to a Lifestyle of Evangelism, if you're interested in learning how and why to share your faith with others.