MR #23: Evangelizing Folk Religionists
Why do the Ten Commandments begin with the injunctions:
“You shall have not other gods before you,”
“You shall not make yourself an idol,”
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”?
What led Moses to proclaim the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our god, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5), memorized by all Jews and recited liturgically by pious Jews twice each day?
Why did Moses so strongly tell the Israelites before entering Canaan not to listen to practitioners of the land but to listen to the prophet like him that God would raise up (Deut. 18:9-15)?
Why did Paul encourage the Colossians to remember their conversion and not be drawn back to the elementary principles (the stoikeia), the building blocks of popular culture, out of which they had come (Col. 2:6-8). Why did Paul so emphasize the “fullness of Christ” who is “the head over every power and authority” (Col. 2:8-10, cf. 1:18-20)?
These passages are significant because they demonstrate the propensity of people to turn to popular folk religion for answers to everyday problems rather than standing in faith before God. They reflect the ease by which followers of God can employ a type of tiered religion. On one level people claim to be followers of God and ascribe to belief in God. On another level they rely upon popular folk beliefs to solve the basic problems of life. They are like pre-exilic Jews, who bowed down and swore by the Lord but also swore by Molech (Zeph. 1:5-6) or those who “turned their back to [God] and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say ‘Come and save us'” (Jere. 2:27). By simultaneously giving allegiance to both God and other gods (or principalities), they have developed what Jaime Bulatao first called split-level religion (1992).
Communicators of the Christian message must perceptibly understand split-level religion.
Examples of Split-Level Religion
Sophia is a pious wife of a wealthy businessman living in Mexico. She gives adoration to Maria and thanks God for Jesus, but when her youngest son gets into trouble, she goes to a Cathedral to pray to the Virgin of Guadeloupe. This virgin also gives her comfort when she hears of the activities of her husband with his mistresses. When her children are sick and Western medicine does not seem to work, she visits the local curendero.
I met Julie recently on an airplane and was enthralled with the books about power points and flows of energy that she was reading. She described the altar in her house. Around the circumference numerous crystals had been placed. Within the circle three pyramids formed a triangle. Statues of Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus, representing Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, stood between the pyramids. In the background was a large cross. A Bible, Koran, and Sutras were all placed among the images. Julie considered that each of these elements radiated life energy which gave her both peace and power. She had devised her own popular religion integrating forms of different world religions and interpreting them as power objects having what she called life energy.
Linda, a member of the First Christian Church, practices Reiki therapy (the Japanese art of therapeutic touch) in my hometown. I met Linda on the day that she decided to go public concerning her involvement with folk religion. Her speech, given at an occult fair, was entitled “Can you be a Christian and a Psychic? Yes!” When a prayer partner and I entered the room for the presentation, she turned from those with whom she was conversing and to our surprise said, “I perceive that one of you is a preacher.” During her presentation, she led participants through a personality profile to enable them to ascertain whether they had the spiritual propensities to be clairvoyants, clairaudients, intuitives, and prophets. She then equated these psychic abilities to the gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. Later I asked two graduate students to interview Linda. They found that Linda began her training in Reiki by going through an “attunement” in which she was “opened to the flow of Reiki energy.” During this attunement experience, Linda received what she called “the gift of vision.” Each time she conducts her Reiki therapy with a client she sees images of light. These have vague human form but are not distinct. Lacking a better name, Linda calls these figures her “light workers.” While believing in God and salvation in Jesus Christ on a cosmic level, Linda uses therapeutic touch and meditation to heal, relax, and rejuvenate both herself and her patients.
Split-level religion is also found among Muslims. Abdullah observes the five pillars of Islam (confession, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage) but perceives them primarily as ways to gain baraka, or “blessing.” He believes that those lucky enough to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca are greatly endued with this special spiritual power. When his children are sick, his wife goes to a practitioner who is thought to have much baraka for divinatory guidance to discover the cause of the illness and to obtain remedies for its cure. Folk beliefs and Islam are “strangely mingled,” with “theism and paganism” existing “side by side. The prayer is made to the Almighty, the chapters read are from the Qur’an but the whole character of the rite is pagan” (Zwemer 1920, 206). “Islam and Animism live, in very neighborly fashion, on the same street and in the same mind” (Zwemer 1920, 207).
Why Has Folk Religion Become Popular?
The world is not experiencing the demise of folk religious beliefs as many prophesied thirty years ago when the respected missions anthropologist Alan Tippett gave folk religion “ten years, at the very utmost twenty” to disappear (1973, 9). Rather, there has been a resurgence of folk religion. Why has this occurred?
We live in an increasingly privatized world where people live in proximity without neighborliness. In this individualized world people, like Julie, are creating their own personal religions. Folk religious web sites and chat rooms on the internet, as well and national and international conferences of various sorts, provide the resources for the creative ideas employed.
Religions from all over the world have moved into all the major cities in countries with freedom of worship. Within this environment folk religion has flourished and become fashionable.
For example, only a few people attended the first World’s Parliament of Religion in Chicago in 1893. This meeting, however, amplified the religious pluralism of the United States. Representatives of some major religions spied out the land and found receptive soil.
The second Parliament, organized by Baha’is, was held once again in Chicago one hundred years later. This time folk religionists were given prominence: Native American practitioners received the most enthusiastic response in the opening ceremony. Wiccans were highly visible. “Two hundred representatives of pagan groups attended” (Reapsome 2000, 1031). Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, represented by the Dalai Lama, the Noble Peace Prizewinner in 1989, held center stage. Paradoxically his form of Buddhism mixes the pantheistic and the animistic in ways that appeal to many Westerners. This second World’s Parliament of Religions illustrates the widespread acceptance of folk religion in multi-cultural contexts of the world.
Redefinition of Spirituality
Within the current social climate traditional Christian religious groups appear institutional and thus unspiritual. Thus many are looking for spirituality outside the confines of traditional churches. People continue to be “high on God,” but “low on the church” (Sweet 1999, 47).
To a large degree Christianity has brought this upon itself because Christians have focused more on rational understandings about Christianity rather than on modeling relationship with creator God in Jesus Christ. They have focused on the forms of religion rather than on spiritual relationship.
Within our postmodern environment people are typically questioning the modern presupposition that humans are able to determine their own destiny. They are much more likely to reflect inwardly seeking spiritual experiences and oneness rather than outwardly seeking reality.
Focusing on Power and Neglecting Truth
Postmodernists are also focusing on power and neglecting truth. Truth claims are understood to be social constructs of reality and, therefore, not inherently true. This has led many to believe that these understandings are based merely on power. Religious leaders are thought to have superimposed codes of religion upon people in order to control them. The Lausanne Committee on Spiritual Warfare concluded:
The tendency to shift the emphasis to “power” and away from “truth” forgets that error, ignorance and deception can only be countered by Biblical truth clearly and consistently taught . . . . It is also the truth that sets us free, so the Word and the Spirit need to be kept in balance (1993, 3).
Demise of Knowledge of God
At its root turning to folk religion is a dethroning of God from his rightful place at the center of human identity. During the Modern Era, human rationality thus displaced God at the center of human identity. People began to conceive that they could rationally determine their own way in life.
As modernity wanes, numerous other allegiances are becoming alternatives to human rationality. The options are many: universal life energy, the old gods, astral beings, and pseudo perceptions of the one true God. Thus all evangelization is a rethroning of God, redefining God, so that he is again at the center of human identity.
Communicating Christ to Folk Religionists
What then are some guidelines for communicating Christ to folk religionists? This analysis will address both the contextualization and presentation of the Gospel.
Too frequently we focus on individualistic presentations of the Gospel. We emphasize how a person must personally become a Christian or receive Jesus Christ. The questions we ask are “How did you become a Christian?” or “Have you received Jesus?” This presentation of the Gospel might be entitledconversion theology because the beginning point is human response.
The Gospel, however, must be first communicated in a much broader theological framework. Initial teaching must focus upon God rather than upon the response of the individual. The full kingdom message must, therefore, be communicated: God rules over his world because he is the creator; God has actively sought to save fallen humanity from the first rejection on him in the Garden of Eden; With the coming of Jesus Christ the word kingdom began to connote God’s distinctive reign in his Son; Christ’s incarnation, baptism, ministry, miracles, death, resurrection, and exaltation are all kingdom events illustrating that God has more fully broken into a world controlled by Satan. Kingdom theology, therefore, provides a holistic biblical framework, an interpretive model based on the Word of God, to help folk religionists to understand the reality of God in the world (Van Rheenen 1991, 127-142).
Within these kingdom understandings, we must rethink how to present the Gospel to folk religionists.
First, we must provide foundations for theistic understandings. Folk religionists understand God in one of three distinct ways: (1) They consider God too distant and, therefore, too unconcerned about them to hear their prayers or receive their sacrifices. (2) Some believe that the nature of the Supreme Being is reflected in lower spiritual beings to whom prayers and sacrifices are made. (3) Folk religionists understand God merely as an impersonal force, like electricity, that permeates all nature (Van Rheenen 1991, 243-46, 298). God must be enthroned as the personal Creator who sets the boundaries of our habitation and of earthly time and desires to live with us in a personal, intimate relationship. The Ten Commandments, the Shema, the passage on “To whom should we listen?” (Duet. 18:9-15), and the one on “The fullness of deity” (Col. 2:8-10, cf. 1:18-20) all enthrone Yahweh as God in the context of multiple spiritual beings and forces.
Secondly, we must communicate the distinctive nature of Jesus. Christ must be described as the great Liberator who defeats the principalities and powers and rescues believers from their dominion (Col. 2:15). Christians, while living in the earthlies, have been raised into the spiritual realm to dwell with Christ (Eph. 2:4-6). Christ has himself been elevated into the “heavenly realms” which is “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:20-21). While an overemphasis on this metaphor creates triumphalism and a focus on power rather than relationship with God in Christ, without the power of God the folk religionist will never free himself of the power of Satan.
Thirdly, we must affirm that the Holy Spirit is from God and reflects the nature of God. The Holy Spirit works in the Christian to create holiness and displace any other presence.
He is the one who fills us full so that principalities and powers have no place to enter. The Spirit is the emancipator who frees us from sin (Rom. 8:13).
Within this Trinitarian framework, the church must be distinctive people saved by the mission of God, cleansed by the blood of Christ, and indwelled with the Holy Spirit.
Because the church stands within the Trinity it is able to withstand the forces of the principalities and powers and become God’s instruments of spiritual warfare (Matt. 16:18-19; Note the plural pronouns of Ephesians 6:10-20). The church, then, must be “a finite echo . . . of the divine personal dynamics,” “a temporal echo of the eternal community that God is” (Gunton 1991). The church is called to be a body of people who stand in opposition to the structures of the principalities and powers in the world.
As in any era and any culture, the message must be communicated in culturally appropriate ways. As we move away from the Enlightenment thinking of modern culture, the number of people in the world who think in terms of cognitive, rational, segmented categories is greatly decreasing. The presentation of the message to folk religionists thus should consider the following four methodologies.
Teaching Narratively: We must learn to teach narratively, taking the role of a storyteller. I can testify that the transition from propositional to narrative teaching is immense. I grew up thinking propositionally. All my first sermons (and evangelistic lessons) dealt with topics, not stories. The typical sermon was organized with an introduction (maybe a poem), three points centered around a topic, and then an invitation that would include an illustration or a poem. In Africa I began to hear a young Christian, Jonathan Soe, preach using Bible stories. People loved to hear him tell these stories and learned from them. I learned that stories give themes in real life, in living color, in flesh and blood.
Then I realized that much of the Bible was is a story and began to wonder why God placed much of the Bible in narrative form. I began to understand the narrative nature of Christian theology. I realized with Koller that “The Bible was not given to reveal the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but to reveal the hand of God in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not as a revelation of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but as a revelation of the Saviorof Mary and Martha and Lazarus” (1962, 32).
The work of Trevor Mcllwain of New Tribes Missions also had an impact on my teaching: “We must not teach a set of doctrines divorced from their God-given historical setting, but rather, we must teach the story of the acts of God as He has chosen to reveal Himself in history. People may ignore our set of doctrines as our western philosophy of God, but the story of God’s actions in history cannot be refuted” (1987, 81).
Some of the narrative lessons I have taught include: (1) “How Sin Came into the World and What God is Doing About It” (a meta-narrative overviewing the history of sin and salvation); (2) “Jesus: The Son of God Sacrifices His Perfection for Our Sins” (a contextualized description of the life of Christ); and (3) Hanna: How Sovereign God Opens the Womb (an appropriate story dealing with allegiance in infertility).
Not all lessons, however, need to be narrative. Textual lessons, beginning with a specific text and moving to application, help the searcher to learn how to use the Bible to answer questions of life. Topical lessons, focusing on issues of concern in the unbelievers’ lives, help them deal with these issues. Panoramic narrative lessons, however, enable the searcher to see how God has worked in human history. Then the understandings of textual and topical lessons can be placed within the understandings of God’s historical actions.
Teaching with Spirituality: While teaching we must continually demonstrate our relationship to God. I have found that people typically make a decision to come to Christ not during the time that they are hearing about Christ but when they are joining you in prayer petitioning God. Our age is a very practical age. Cold, rational religion is rejected. We must teach with passion, emotion, expressing our brokenness before God and continual need for his grace. We can bear fruit only when we are like branches connected the true vine because “apart from [Christ we] can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).
Expressing emotion: Postmoderns, when they hear the Christian message, must not only understand the Gospel narrative but also feel it. They must experience the type of emotion that artists feel when they perceive the meanings of a classic painting or composers when hearing an ageless musical composition. All parts fit together and sound intelligible to the rhythms and harmonies of life.
Christian communicators, like musicians, must place the content of the Christian message within appropriate musical forms, which have both meaning and emotion.
Tangibly Addressing Life Experiences: The Christian communicator must also address practical life experiences. This is most easily done through faith stories and testimonies, which glorify God’s work through frail humans. Public dramas, role-plays, and skits also perform these functions. Folk religionists tend to be concrete-relational thinkers. They become greatly bored with propositional categories.
Many Christians greatly fear communicating the gospel to folk religionists. It is my experience, however, that these are people very receptive to the Gospel. They frequently are fearful of all the powers that they have allowed to come into their lives and desire freedom in Christ. They also tend to be people who are searching for spirituality. When God leads us to empathetically enter their lives, many will come to know and walk with the one and only Savior of the world.
Bulato, Father Jaime. 1992. Split-Level Christianity. Manila: Ateneo de Manilo.
McIlwain, Trevor. 1987. Building on Firm Foundations. Vol. 1, Guidelines for Evangelism and Teaching Believers. Sanford, FL: New Tribes Mission.
Reapsome, James. 2000. World’s Parliaments of Religion (1883 and 1993). Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. By A. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Sweet, Leonard. 1999. SoulTsunami. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Tippett, Alan R. 1973. Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
Zwemer, Samuel N. 1920. The Influence of Animism on Islam. New York: Macmillan.