I would like to direct your attention to a post by Dan Edelen over at Cerulean Sanctum from way back in March 2006. He starts off by listing five unbelievable missionary tales which are all actually true–or maybe not. He then goes on to challenge us as American Christians because of our unwillingness to believe that God can do the things described in these tales.
While you’re at it, read this post from a Bible translator in Mozambique which gives some needed balance to the issue. He says that what really happens on the mission field isn’t all the glory of God falling nonstop upon the peoples of the world. There is a lot of good which gets magnified and perhaps exaggerated, and a lot of bad and ugly which is simply glossed over.
At any rate, I don’t know if I believe all the missionary stories which Dan Edelen recounts. But I can definitely affirm his heart in this, which is to say that we who live here in the world of 21st century American evangelical Protestant-dom are not the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world. This is something which I have said repeatedly on this blog, and I will not hesitate to take this opportunity to say it again.
One of the stories is about a team of American missionaries who try to convert villagers in an Asian village, but have no success whatsoever. Then a man comes down off a nearby mountain, preaches the Gospel to the villagers, and they all convert. He then goes back home, leaving the Americans to tend the flock of new believers.
I don’t know where you would come down on the supernatural element of the man from the mountain healing the sick as he preached. Some people believe that God still deals in miraculous signs and wonders when the Gospel is being preached, and some have valid reasons for not believing this. I do not wish to start a cessationist-continuationist debate here on this blog. But the thing in this tale that sticks out to me is that an American missionary team came into this village thinking that they would convert it, and then they were upstaged by a local man and left to tend the fruits of his ministry. We go around believing that our technological superiority and spiritual development gives us an edge over the rest of the world which means that we will have automatic success in any missionary endeavor we undertake. And that is not the case.
If things like this do not illustrate for us that we as Americans are not the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world, then I don’t know what does.
But there is something else here as well. Again, I don’t know where you fall on the whole continuationist/cessationist thing, and I’m not sure where I fall either. But when I hear stories like this, I want to believe it.
One of the defining influences in evangelical Protestant-dom is that of the Calvinistic Reformation plus the First and Second Great Awakenings, which has been to react against the use of art and music in the Catholic liturgy by rejecting art, music, and any other vehicle of human creativity as idolatrous and therefore not of God. This has led to a spirituality of paring everything down to bare-bones doctrine, where we find the glory of God through correct exegesis of Scripture and correct expression of doctrine.
We in evangelical Protestant-dom have, through our emphasis on finding the glory of God through correct exegesis and doctrinal purity and de-emphasis of human creativity and expression through the arts, have reduced the workings of God to nothing more than that which we can understand and that which we can control. There is very little, if any, room for the mystery and the otherness of God. There is almost nothing which points to the fact that the God we worship is completely and totally other than what we are. There is no sense of mystery, no sense that we are relating to something which is so completely alien to us that we cannot possibly understand or relate unless He chooses to reveal Himself to us, and that we can know nothing more than what He has revealed to us.
The Pentecostal/charismatic movement has reacted against this by saying that we can have a direct, immediate, and intimate experience of God which is more than just the correct formulation of doctrine. There is a lot of craziness over here. Men who teach eloquently and powerfully are said to be anointed by God to speak His words to us. We have alleged prophecies, healings, miracles, speaking in tongues, people falling over, people laughing uncontrollably or barking like animals, and it is the Spirit of God moving in our midst. Everything is looked at in terms of God’s blessing, God’s anointing, God’s favor upon our lives.
And yet, as crazy as all of this is, it fulfills the need that many of us have to know that there is more to this world than just what we see with our senses. There is a God who is completely and totally other than us, and He is in our midst, doing the supernatural and the unexplainable. He has not simply created the world, left us with the Bible, and then just gone away and left the world to run its course. We have not scaled the mountain of God only to find nothing more than a Wal-mart and a Starbucks at the summit.
I don’t know where to come down on the whole cessationist/continuationist thing. But whenever I hear stories of God doing fantastic things in other parts of the world, I want to believe. I want to believe that there is something more out there. I want to believe that God is alive and moving in our midst, even if it is an ocean away from here.