Does Pentecostalism promote secularization? As crazy as it sounds, that is the thesis of Stefan Paas's article "Notoriously Religious' or Secularising? Revival and Secularisation in Sub-Saharan Africa"...and I think author could be on to something. At ...

Gleanings from the Field - 5 new articles

Does the Prosperity Gospel Promote Secularization?

Does Pentecostalism promote secularization?  As crazy as it sounds, that is the thesis of Stefan Paas's article "Notoriously Religious' or Secularising? Revival and Secularisation in Sub-Saharan Africa"...and I think author could be on to something.  At first glance, it would seem that Pentecostalism should be a major force against secularization of societies, given its strong emphasis on the supernatural and the miraculous.  And at one level, it that is certainly true. 
But we need to remember that large sections of the Pentecostal world also promote the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’, the mistaken belief that God’s will is that all believers be financially prosperous and have good health… if they have enough faith to receive those blessings. This instrumental view of religion, namely a this-worldly focus on using religion as a tool to achieve physical and material success, is nothing new, nor is it necessarily unique to Pentecostalism. However, as Paas has pointed out, when believers with this view of religion obtain the material success that they desire, their need for religious means of obtaining those goals decreases.  An increase in an ability to provide for your own needs often follows on from the achievement of material security.  If the primary attraction of the Christian faith was the possibility of worldly success, and if ‘conversion’ resulted in new habits and lifestyle habits that led to hard work and business success, then the very thing that led a person to the church has become the very thing that leads them away from the church.  God has served his transitionary purpose in achieving success.  If you can achieve success on your own now, who needs God?
Unless Pentecostal believers and other Christians are able to stand against and root out prosperity teaching from their churches, then an important factor contributing to an expansion of churches today might well become its major undoing, an Achilles heel that leads to a shrinking of global Christianity in coming generations. The prosperity gospel may mean short-term gains in overall numbers of people counting themselves as Christians, but in the long-term, it has the potential to decimate Christian churches, both numerically and spiritually.

You can read Paas's whole article here:

Stefan Paas, "'Notoriously Religious' or Secularising? Revival and Secularisation in Sub-Saharan Africa," Exchange 48, no. 1 (2019): 26-50.


The New Paternalism in World Christianity

You may be familiar with the old paternalism. A white European or American missionary evangelizing and church planting in a “heathen” nation, with the help of “native assistants.” These native Christians, who often go unnamed in missionary reports, will someday lead the churches in their homelands but somehow they are never quite ready to do so… according to their missionary patrons. The missionaries hang on to leadership and control of local ministries for longer than they should, either in an official capacity or unofficially as their foreign money continues to hold veto power over local initiatives even after the reins of leadership have been formally turned over. The missionaries may give lip service to putting local Christians in charge, but in reality they doubt whether the locals will really get it right. So they hang on to control just a bit longer. In Western missionary circles today, that kind of overt paternalism is frowned upon, even if it continues to exist in various, more subtle ways, than it did the 19th and 20th centuries.

Missionary in Northern Thailand, 1925
Missionary in Northern Thailand, 1925

But as the world has moved on from the era of European colonialism and the “white man’s burden,” new forms of paternalism are emerging. Issues of trust, power, and control are as relevant as ever in a globalized church where denominations and networks stretch across international boundaries and missionaries travel from everywhere to everyone, not just from the West to the rest.  Paternalism, in all its forms, hurts relationships, hinders healthy church growth, and dishonors God. Here are a few examples of the new paternalism in world Christianity.

Progressive American Disdain for Conservative Africans

In February 2019, the United Methodist Church (UMC), which has a worldwide communion, held a special meeting to decide the denomination’s stance on issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The church has been nearly evenly divided over whether to go forward with full approval of homosexuality, or to re-affirm the traditional Christian position that marriage is only between one man and one woman, and homosexual practice is sinful.  Many American Methodists have pushed for full acceptance of the LGBTQ+ agenda and have resented the threat to that agenda posed by African Methodists, the majority of whom remain conservative on sexual issues.  Conservative African Methodists resent that paternalism and sense of superiority on the part of progressive American Methodists, as evidenced in a speech by Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, professor at the United Methodist University in Liberia and an African delegate to the UMC special meeting:

“Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.” 

Let me assure you, we Africans, whether we have liked it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.”

In response to the suggestion from some American Methodists that in the event of a church schism over this issue, the African churches would become financially unviable, Dr. Kulah stated that, “with all due respect, a fixation on money seems more of an American problem than an African one. We get by on far less than most Americans do; we know how to do it. I’m not so sure you do. So if anyone is so naïve or condescending as to think we would sell our birth right in Jesus Christ for American dollars, then they simply do not know us.”

For so-called progressive white Christians, it looks really good to talk about the inclusion of non-white, non-Western voices, but when those non-white, non-Western brothers and sisters don’t go along with liberal theological and social agendas, paternalistic attitudes of racial and cultural superiority rear their ugly head. The full text of Dr. Kulah’s speech may be read here.



Nigerian Missionary Paternalism in Cameroon

Some may think that paternalism and attitudes of cultural superiority are only a white, Western problem and that the rest of the world is free from such problems.  After all, if you’ve thrown off the yoke of colonialism and white paternalism, why would you adopt the same attitudes and practices you’ve broken free from?

I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Amos Chewachong who presented his research on how Nigerian missionaries from the Winner’s Chapel megachurch in Nigeria are establishing churches in Cameroon without giving local Cameroons real opportunity to lead their own churches.  Nigerian missionaries maintain control of the churches they start in Cameroon to the point that Cameroon leaders end up feeling like foreigners in their own country. The Nigerian missionaries are more respected and looked up to by Cameroonian church members, in part because they have a more direct connection to the blessing and anointing that comes through David Oyedepo, founder and pastor of Winner’s Chapel. Maintaining Nigerian control of Winner’s Chapel church plants in Cameroon and other countries helps ensure that the beliefs, principles, and practices of Winner’s Chapel are faithfully replicated in all locations.  It would seem that only Nigerians can be trusted to get the Winner’s Chapel formula right. This power dynamic between Nigerian Winner’s Chapel missionaries and the church members and leaders in other countries represent a new paternalism in world Christianity. This is not like the old paternalism of the white man over the brown man, if I may put it bluntly, but this Nigerian cultural hegemony in Winner’s Chapel missionary work is paternalism all the same. For the time being, this approach appears to be working for Winner’s Chapel, if we are to judge success by numbers of people and global spread, but in the long run, the dominance of any one cultural group in a global church denomination is bound to breed resentment, distrust, and schism.  The seeds of such discontent is already evident as some Cameroonian leaders in Winner’s Chapel churches in Cameroon are leaving to start their own churches, tired of never being trusted to lead their own churches, always playing second fiddle to Nigerians.

Worship Service at Faith Tabernacle (Winner's Chapel), 2005
Worship Service at Faith Tabernacle (Winner's Chapel), 2005

When it Comes to Contextualization, Missionaries Know Best?

One of the buzz words in evangelical missionary circles is contextualization.  There is a broad recognition that Western forms of Christianity shouldn’t just be copied into non-Western cultures, but rather the expression of the Gospel adapted to fit with local conditions. The core truths of the Bible shouldn’t be changed, but their expression or application should be suited to the local culture. Foreign missionaries should enter into partnership with local Christians in their host countries, deferring to their better understanding of their own cultures.  That’s the theory, anyway.

In practice, foreign missionaries sometimes advocate adapting Muslim, Buddhist, and other religious terminology and practices in order to make Christianity seem less foreign. The idea is that the less cultural distance there is between people’s culture and Christianity, the more readily they will accept Christ.  There is real merit to this theory.  Reducing unnecessary cultural barriers to understanding and embracing the Gospel is essential in cross-cultural ministry.  But when does contextualization cross the line into compromise of the Gospel?

Because there are so many barriers to becoming a Christian in most Muslim cultures, some missionaries advocate insider movements.  Simply put, an insider movement is when people believe in Christ and try to follow him while still identifying as another religion. So you would have Muslim followers of Jesus who still claim Muslim identity and go to the mosque, but they actually pray to Jesus.  Or it might be a Buddhist who believes in Jesus but still identifies as a Buddhist, lighting incense, and doing the Buddhist ceremonies that their family and friends do. If you get a bunch of people all following Jesus in this way, then maybe you can get a movement going that brings people to Christ but avoids the hostility and violent rejection that usually comes with openly identifying as a Christian.

But here comes the rub. The type of contextual adaptation that some missionaries want, such as insider movements, is often not wanted by local Christians. It is not that there aren’t any locals who might get on the missionaries’ hyper-contextualization bandwagon, but the majority of local Christians don’t want it. Why don’t they want it? Many converts from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. would say that it is a compromise of the faith.  It is not Christianity.  Meanwhile, advocates of these highly contextualized approaches brush off the repeated objections of local Christians, claiming that they only object because they have been overly influenced by Western missionary Christianity.  Although it is not said directly, the idea is that foreign missionaries know better than the locals how Christianity should be expressed and propagated.  Is that paternalism?  Sure sounds like it to me.

For the record, I am not opposed to contextualization per se, but discussions of how to practice and propagate the Christian faith need to be done in partnership, and if a certain method is strongly objected to by the majority of local Christians, foreign missionaries need to take those objections very seriously.  If missionaries really want partnership, not paternalism, like they say they do, they may need to back off on some of their experimental methods and work harder on dialoguing with local Christians to find ways to work together for the Gospel that are both biblical, and everyone can live with.

Paternalism is Alive and Well

The examples I’ve outlined above are probably just the tip of the iceberg in the new paternalism in cross-cultural Christian relationships and outreach in the world today. A lot more could be said on each of the above examples and I hope that the reader will forgive any oversimplification of complex issues.  However, I believe these new forms of paternalism should be pointed out because paternalism is not just a sin of a bygone era of Christendom.  Paternalism is alive and well today in world Christianity.  Whether it reflects attitudes of racial, cultural, or some other kind of superiority, it is harmful to healthy relationships and church growth.  It dishonors God and hurts people in the long run.  Not everyone is guilty of paternalism but it is a specter that we should all be on the look out for them, not only in others, but most importantly in our own attitudes, practices, and church fellowships. 



Three Ways the Bible Re-Defines Leadership

It seems that every time you look at the news these days, there is another story of a fallen Christian leader. Leaders suffer moral failure for different reasons, and sometimes there are specific cultural dimensions that have contributed to that failure. In a number of cultures around the world, false beliefs about gaining and retaining honor compromise Christian leaders. Those leaders may or may not ever experience a crisis-level failure of personal leadership in the way we see in the media, but the influence of worldly models of leadership is serious all the same, and requires biblical correction.

In their book, “Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials”, Jayson Georges and Mark Baker explain three ways in which a proper biblical understanding of honor and our identity in Christ serve as a corrective to worldly conceptions of honor.  By properly understanding the honor we receive from God, and what is honorable in God’s sight, Georges and Baker say that Christian leads can grow in their ability to “accept criticism, overcome jealousy and empower teamwork.”  Christian leadership in honor-shame contexts require a re-definition of what is honorable and what is shameful for leaders.  They explain as follows:

“In hierarchical societies, correcting leaders is perceived as a challenge and even an insult. Leaders respond to critics by harshly shaming them to preserve face. When operating by the values of biblical humility, receiving criticism is honorable. Mature leaders accept correction graciously as an opportunity for growth (Heb 12:5-8). 

Jealousy is another poison debilitating leaders. Envy of others’ status leads to conflict and competition, as status is often viewed as a zero-sum game—your gain means my loss. But Christians operate with a surplus of honor. When the reservoirs of our souls are at full capacity with God’s honor, we are free to bless others with honor; it overflows. A leader with Honor is not seduced by honor. 

Last, humility allows leaders to empower teamwork. The purpose of a group must extend beyond making the leader appear prominent, to achieving the group’s highest interest. Then the assets of each person, regardless of rank or status, contribute to the overall good of the group. Legitimate teamwork needs a benevolent leader who prioritizes the group’s best. A leader who utilizes the giftings of each person brings flourishing to the entire group, not just fame to their own name.”

excerpted from Jayson Georges and Mark Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), Kindle locations 3868-82.



Should Missionaries Seek Ordination?

In a previous era of Protestant missions, it was very common for evangelistic missionaries to be ordained (or married to an ordained man). There were exceptions, of course, if you were a school teacher or doctor (or a woman). But for men who went to the mission field to do evangelism and church planting as their primary task, ordination was often expected. That has gradually changed over the years, beginning in the 19th century with some interdenominational faith missions, and in the present day, it is very common for evangelistic missionaries to not be ordained. A minority might be, but it is not necessarily expected in many missions circles, be it denominational missions or interdenominational groups. 
Does ordination matter?  Theologically, I think there is meaning and significance to ordination.  In practical terms, it depends on the context. In some cultural contexts, it is very important. In other cultural contexts, it isn't. In some creative access contexts, there would be great danger in being known as an ordained minister. But even in open access contexts in a given culture or country, some churches value it highly and others don’t.
The question I want to answer in this brief post is whether missionaries should seek formal ordination by their home church (or church denomination). There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but I want to suggest some personal and practical benefits of ordination that a missionary (or potential missionary) would do well to consider in deciding whether seeking ordination is best in their given situation. Providing a full theology of ordination, however, is beyond the scope of this post.
Presbyterian Ordination, Southern California, 2006
Presbyterian Ordination, Southern California, 2006

Personal Benefits of Ordination

I initially went to the mission field for a few years to teach English and only afterward went to seminary to get a Masters of Divinity. That was a good choice for me as I got some cross-cultural ministry experience before getting any formal theological training. During my seminary years, I started to pursue ordination and (after graduation and a change of denominations) I got ordained before my wife and I went to Thailand for our first 4-year term of missionary service. Going through the ordination process forced me to think more deeply and make some decisions about what I thought on some issues because my denomination has certain positions which they maintain on things like baptism, charismatic gifts, church government, etc. The interdenominational evangelical seminary I went to didn’t force me to take any hard and fast positions on many issues as long as I had something reasonably intelligent to say in my written work and tests that fell within the broad spectrum of evangelicalism. Thus, the ordination process forced me to have a more developed understanding of the Bible and theology, and what my positions were on various issues and topics before entering into a full-time cross-cultural context where I would be faced with a whole host of other questions and issues.
When I was actually ordained, namely when the ministers of the Presbytery examined and then laid hands on me, I gained a greater sense of affirmation of my call to the ministry of the Gospel. It was really good to know that someone beyond myself thinks that I am competent to do what I will be doing. Of course, there is some experience of this affirmation when your home congregation sends you out or when a mission agency approves you to work with them; but because the ordination standards were so rigorous, I felt like it was really something for an entire Presbytery to say, “We believe that this man is competent to preach the Gospel, to be a minister of the Word and Sacrament.” This is very subjective, I understand, but it was a great boost of confidence as I headed into full-time ministry.
Being ordained, I have also felt a heightened sense of accountability because of my ordination vows. Not that there is no accountability without ordination, but as an ordained minister I have made a public statement that the teaching and doctrine of my church is true and that I will teach this. If I were to veer away from the doctrine that I have said I profess, that would be a serious thing that I would have to consider deeply, and if I ever find myself to no longer hold that doctrine, I would need to report that to my Presbytery. This doesn’t preclude growth or development in one’s understanding of Scripture and its application, but ordination has meant a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability as I minister overseas.

Ministry Benefits of Ordination

On the home side, ordination can be a handy calling card, showing people you are not a lone ranger. There is a church body that has examined you and judged you competent to preach and minister, and that church could potentially be called upon to verify that you are who you say you are. One of the reasons early Lutherans valued ordination was to protect against intruders who would come in and teach false doctrine in their congregations. Likewise, one of the reasons for the formation of the Assemblies of God, the first Pentecostal denomination, was to guard against charlatans who itinerated from place to place teaching odd things and fleecing money from unsuspecting believers.
Being able to say, “I am an ordained minister in such-and-such a church” (or simply include “Rev.” in your written correspondence) lends greater credibility and can open opportunities that may not be open otherwise. In my experience, many churches are more likely to give the pulpit to a visiting missionary who is also an ordained minister, as compared to one who is not ordained.  Preaching is many times a more effective way of furthering your connection with a whole congregation than a two minute “Moment for Mission” during the Sunday service or even speaking to a Sunday school class. If a congregation is blessed by being taught the Word by a missionary through the regular Sunday sermon, even if the sermon has little to do with missions per se, that gives people a window into the type of teaching you do on the mission field, and speaks in your favor when people are considering which missionaries they really want to get behind.
On the mission field, many people may not know you are ordained, and it may not matter, especially in evangelism. But in various church circles around the world, it does matter. In Western cultures, there is a tendency to judge people based on their accomplishments rather than their degrees or titles. Not that the latter don't matter at all, but Western societies tend to be status-earned rather than status-ascribed cultures. However, in East Asia, and many other places, your family background, personal connections, and formally held roles, titles, or degrees carry more weight. Status is ascribed more easily, even before people look at your personal accomplishments. Titles and letters before your name do make a difference in terms of credibility. That’s why there is a cottage industry of fake diploma mills and rush-job ordinations to get increased status and credibility with little to no work. Of course, in the same way that the degree doesn’t make the man, ordination doesn’t make a person into someone more than they already are. But in the minds of some, the fact that you are ordained says something about the quality of your teaching and character. That can be a foot-in-the-door so that the quality teaching and ministry that you have to offer is given a chance to show itself. Letters before your name can get you in the door, but once you are in, you need to prove yourself if you want to be invited back.
In the mission context, there are many who want to be involved in pastoral training. This is a great thing, and you don’t necessarily need to be ordained to do this, but holding formal ordination credentials can communicate that you yourself have obtained the minimum requirements of being a pastor in your own country, and thus you are qualified to be teaching others about being a pastor.

Should Missionaries Seek Ordination? 

If you are looking to impress others or boost your ego by getting some letters before your name, the answer is “No.” But if you want an established church body to help you become the best you can be for the sake of serving in the Kingdom of God and to stand behind you so you have maximal opportunities for service, the answer may be “Yes.” Not every type of missionary work is benefited by, or requires, ordination and there are examples of self-taught men without degrees or ordination who have very effective ministries. However, for the reasons above, men who will be primarily working in the area of teaching, evangelism, church planting, or local church ministry leadership (or leadership training) should seriously consider ordination if your church (or church denomination) has a practice of ordaining people. 

Christians Don’t Need a Bucket List

Do you have a bucket list?  I first heard of this term in connection with the movie, “The Bucket List”, a story of two terminally-ill men who try to do a bunch of things they’ve always wanted to do before they die, or “kick the bucket.”  On the one hand this sounds like a great idea if you’re going to die soon.  But on the other hand, it displays a very limited perspective.  It indicates a short-sighted, scarcity mentality that the only time we have to enjoy is the here and now.  But that simply isn’t true for Christians.
Bucket list - pixabay
Christians don’t need a bucket list because we are going to live forever in a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21-22).  If there are things that we don’t get around to doing before we die, that’s okay.  When we are resurrected and receive glorified bodies upon Christ’s return, we’ll have plenty of time to explore those hills and mountains and sites that we never got to see before we died.   If there are some things in the present world that don’t make it into the new earth, we trust in God’s wisdom that they should not have been preserved and that what is ahead is far more worthwhile than what was left behind.
Christians don’t need to feel like they are “missing out” if they don’t get to see the sites or have the exciting experiences that other people may have.  Certainly, if you have the chance to see something amazing or have a really enjoyable trip with friends or family, that’s great.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying the gifts and the creation that God has given to us.
But because Christians have a long-range perspective, we don’t need to worry that if we don’t do it now, we’ll never have the chance again.  The highest priority for Christians should be serving God faithfully and enjoying Him.  Along the way, we’ll enjoy many of the tangible gifts and relationships that he gives us but we shouldn’t have a scarcity mentality. We need not be enslaved to a “fear of missing out” or be regretful that we didn’t seize the day. When we find ourselves in the new earth with Jesus, we can spend 10,000 years enjoying God’s good creation. But even then, we’ll have just begun.
One of God’s servants who seems to have not had a bucket list was John Paton.  As a young man in Scotland, he was burdened by the thought of all the people in the South Pacific islands who did not know Christ.  Many tried to persuade him to remain in Scotland, where he had the prospect of many years of promising ministry.  But he would not be persuaded, even though others had gone to that region before him and been killed and eaten by some of the islanders. In his autobiography, Paton wrote,
Amongst many who sought to deter me, was one dear old Christian gentleman, whose crowning argument always was, "The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!" At last I replied, "Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms, I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” The old gentleman, raising his hands in a deprecating attitude, left the room exclaiming, "After that I have nothing more to say!”
John Paton was not concerned with getting out of life all that the world had to offer before he died.  He was concerned with honoring the Lord Jesus Christ, whether he lived or died.  His long-range perspective on the resurrection and eternity freed him from the fear of missing out in the here and now.  That is an important perspective to have in order to give oneself to a mission field that may include much suffering, or even early death.  But in a world that pushes us towards instant gratification and idolatrous envy of other people’s lives as depicted by social media, it is essential for every Christian to keep this biblical perspective on eternity before us. 

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