Across Cultures

Altar or Throne?

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Last week I started looking at what may seem an anomaly but is more typical than we'd like to accept. By we, I mean Christian believers who hold the Bible as authoritative in matters of faith.

Over many years, a cultural shift took place within the church in America. It impacted both beliefs and practices. This shift has been addressed by many, and in one instance given a term—moralistic therapeutic deism.

This cultural shift impacts the church in a powerful way because what people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live.

Professed beliefs don't always line up with what's held in the heart. You've likely heard the expression, "do as I say, not as I do," but the reality is that actions speak louder than words.

What people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live

A disconnect

Perhaps the question to answer is—Why is there a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives? What people say they believe and what they do and say in their daily lives are often incongruent. They may talk like Christians but they live like agnostics and atheists.

It's similar to what cross-cultural missionaries contend with when sharing the gospel within another culture than their own. Beliefs are often traditional, even cultural, but don't seem to have much impact on daily life.

An article I read by Dr. Philemon Yong said this about how westerners present the Gospel and why it can lead to an animistic belief—

"The gospel comes not as a story that has a beginning, middle and end. The parts, though true, are not always connected. Worse yet, the content of the beliefs is never defined, and the relation of the gospel to specific cultural practices is often left untouched, leaving the hearer to decide for himself what it means for him to now follow Jesus."

Along with articles noted in a previous post, it's not hard to see similarities to how the gospel is often presented in the US with similar results.

Is there a disconnect between what you believe and how you live?

What gospel have you heard?

How have you heard the gospel shared with you? How do you share it with others? Was it something like—"Jesus died for your sins!"—or—"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!"?

Phrases and statements like these are certainly true, but they are just fragments of the whole truth of God's redemption. I've posted about this on many occasions (see links below) and wrote a book prompted by this concern.

When we reduce the gospel to a phrase focused on what's needed to get into heaven, we minimize the work of Christ's redemptive work on the cross. We also ignore the gospel Jesus preached (Matt 4:17; 5:1–7:28; Luke 4:18-19; 9:1-2).

Do we preach the gospel Jesus preached or a minimized version?

Why this matters

In western culture, thinking is more linear—a line of thought in a logical and systematic thought process. Piecing separate bits of information together to understand a larger truth comes more naturally for well-educated people in a western culture.

Non-western cultures, as in Asian, Mideastern, or African nations, think more globally or holistically. The parts are seen in the whole but not extracted or extrapolated apart from the whole. The details of the whole aren't separated out to consider but seen as part of the whole.

This fits with how eastern cultures put less importance on individuality, which is typically emphasized in western cultures. Non-western cultures elevate the value of a group, family, community, or national identity over individual interests.

People who are non-analytical thinkers don't piece things together the same way as analytical and linear thinkers. Consequently, the less analytical thinker hold bits and pieces of truth that can also be associated with other information or beliefs.

Global thinkers don't piece things together as analytical and linear thinkers do

Altar or throne?

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? Perhaps you wonder if there's much of a difference. There is!

Altars are erected as places of offerings, often sacrificial offerings. Thrones are places of authority. Things offered on altars typically cost a person something. There's effort involved in presenting what's offered.

People sit on thrones—people in authority. Those who approach whoever sits on the throne acknowledge the authority of the one who sits on the throne. Their acknowledgment is shown by some type of submission, allegiance, respect, or honor.

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne?

Christian altars

As a young believer, I remember calls to "come to the altar" to give my life to Jesus or rededicate it to Him. At other times, calls to come to the altar were for repentance, healing, dedication to some service for God, or whatever else the speaker exhorted people to do.

In my early days, I responded to these calls because I thought it was expected. As I matured in my faith, I realized I didn't need to respond to these various altar calls because they often didn't apply to me.

The throne of grace

I also realized that Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment (Matt 16:24-26). I didn't need to make individual or special commitments, I just needed to follow through on my initial commitment to follow Jesus.

I realized Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment of my life

This singular and continuous commitment is reinforced in the book of Hebrews—

...let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)

How do you approach God?

Let me ask my earlier question again. When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? We are told in the book of Hebrews that the tabernacle under the Old Covenant was a copy of what was in heaven (Heb 8:5-6).

The layout of the tabernacle had the altar outside. This is where sacrifices were made. Only the blood of atonement was brought inside to the innermost room and only once a year by only one person (Heb 9:7-8, 11-15).

That innermost room—called the Most Holy Place—represented the very presence of God above the mercy seat with its golden cherubim (Heb 9:4-5). Jesus made His atoning sacrifice once for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:2, 10, 12, 14) in the very presence of the Father.

No sacrifices needed or required

God neither desires or requires any further sacrifice from us—those of us who trust in Him by faith because of His grace. Jesus invites us to follow Him in a simple way. If we choose to follow Him, He says we need to deny our selfish nature and die to our self and live for Him (Mark 8:34-37).

Personally, I accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as perfect and complete, and that I could not nor need not offer any further sacrifice to Him. I chose to commit my life to Him many years ago and I affirm that commitment on a daily basis (Luke 9:23).

So, how do you approach God? Are you bringing Him a sacrifice of some kind or trusting in Jesus and His perfect, once-for-all atoning sacrifice?

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace!

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

Most of the Rest of the World—MOTROW

©tkbeyond / word-strong.com
©tkbeyond / word-strong.com

Most of the rest of the world is where billions of people live. The majority of the world's population isn't centered in one geographic location but is tied together in some ways.

In some circles, this is called the two-thirds world. In times past, it was termed—underdeveloped, developing, second and third world. World missions organizations now use the term majority world.

I use the acronym MOTROW for Most Of The Rest Of the World. This includes what once were called second and third world nations but also other nations and people groups.

Who is MOTROW?

What nations does MOTROW include? It's easier to say what (or who) MOTROW doesn't include—the USA, Canada, Australia, England. Even that list is too broad for what I mean by MOTROW, so let me narrow it down.

First of all, nations, as the Bible describes them, are called people groups—people with a distinct culture and language (or dialect) regardless of geographic location or politics.

Thousands of people groups are scattered throughout the world, ranging in population from several thousands to a few million people. You can see a list of people groups on the Joshua Project website for a complete index.

Over 40% of all the people groups in the world are considered unreached with the Gospel, having no Christian witness or community among them.

Worldviews

A real distinction of MOTROW is how the rest of the world is seen, called a worldview. That is, how people of MOTROW view the world around them.

MOTROW primarily consists of non-western cultures. By non-western I mean how people think, interact with others, and live out their lives. This has to do with priorities and values, not geography.

Americans and other similar western cultures focus on time and tasks—getting a job done and using time efficiently. As the expression goes, "Time is money!".

©tkbeyond / word-strong.com
©tkbeyond / word-strong.com

MOTROW is focused on people and events. Events are important because of the people involved or celebrated in the events. These can be personalized events like birthdays and anniversaries, or community-wide events like festivals.

For example—in America, a wedding is typically focused on the couple being married, the venue, the style or theme of the wedding, and so on—in MOTROW, the couple is important, but so are family and friends.

My first glimpse of this was in the Philippines after a wedding ceremony I officiated. On the wedding night, following the ceremony and reception, many close friends hung around with the bride and groom in their bridal suite (cottage) till late in the evening.

In America, the newly wedded couple can hardly wait to get away from everyone to go on a honeymoon. Anniversaries, in a similar way, aren't celebrated by the couple alone, but with family and friends. 

Here's an important distinction—MOTROW is more concerned with community than individuality.

Thought processes and values

Another distinction of MOTROW is how thought processes connect to life.

In America, we tend to be more concerned with the destination than the journey itself. We, along with most western-oriented cultures, tend to think in a straight line, with an analytical thought process.

This is both a great strength and weakness. Others from around the world (MOTROW) come to America and enroll in our schools to learn this capacity. It can be quite valuable.

But this linear and analytical process is a weakness when important life realities are neglected. Relationships, quality of life, creativity, inspiration, peace of mind and heart, and spiritual needs often suffer for what is deemed more important.

Once again, other people are elevated over tasks in MOTROW.

Coming to a town near you!

©tkbeyond / word-strong.com
©tkbeyond / word-strong.com

So, how does this relate to anyone, especially in America? A couple things come to mind.

MOTROW has been moving into the good ol' US of A for the past few decades. Many people groups live in communities (usually urban areas) and are often isolated and bewildered by American culture.

Thankfully, some churches and communities reach out to them, but not nearly enough to meet these needs.

Great opportunities

Great opportunities for reaching the world (various people groups) with the gospel exist right here in the US. Many people and ministries are starting to reach out to them.

Another interesting development is how other nations are sending missionaries to reach the unreached in America. Not long ago I reviewed a book that gives some great insight into this.

Secondly, most Americans are oblivious to MOTROW because of ignorance of world geography and other cultures and people groups.

Our news about the outside world is limited, edited, and almost non-existent. The internet has helped, but only if you're looking for world news. Even then, it's still pretty limited.

Reading and hearing the news outside the US is quite different. Political and cultural views of the world and America are from a different worldview, which stands to reason. It gives anyone willing to consider it an opportunity to see things differently.

Connect, engage, change, and expand

So, look around wherever you live. There's likely a people group or two from MOTROW near you.

Have you already recognized people from MOTROW around you?

Have you had any interaction with them?

If you're not ready to reach out or help them in some direct way, start praying for them, learn about them. A couple of places you can look are—the Joshua Project website and People Groups site. Another helpful site is Global Research.

When you engage them, your perspective on life and the world will change and your worldview will expand!


Here are a couple other resources that might be of interest regarding world population growth—

World Population

About that Overpopulation Problem

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.