So what does this have to do with missions? I would argue that the situation in the Burned-Over District is undesirable. A lot of the groups (Mormons, Spiritualists, and some of the Utopians) were non-Christian or syncretistic organizations. Some, like the Millerites, have a complicated relationship with historic Christianity
Perhaps the situation was created… it did not just happen. This is, of course, not a research study… just reflection on a single historical phenomenon. But here are some thoughts on what might set the stage for spontaneous development of non-Christian faiths in an area of Christian
1. Overemphasis on Evangelism with Underemphasis on Discipleship. The term “Burned-Over District” had to do with revivalism. The term suggested that there were so many evangelistic revivals in the area that they ran out of people to convert. However, revivals tend to push very hard on a visible conversion, with little follow-through. This is an all-too-common reality. I have certainly seen that here in the Philippines.
2. Lack of Foundational Base. <Yes this is related somewhat to the previous item.> While it may be true that too many clergy (like chefs) can spoil the soup (or the revival), there is still a role for clergy. Clergy can provide a sound theological, Biblical, and historical basis for one’s spiritual transformation. Without that, anyone can come along as a wolf among sheep and reinterpret the experience. Here in the Philippines, we used to do a lot of medical missions. The problem was that often (but not always, of course) our hosts did not provide the necessary follow-up. Other groups would sometimes descend on those who had made decisions of faith. An experience that cannot be attached to a sound foundational perspective, can equally misdirect.
3. Unrealistic Expectations. The growth of radical groups, apocalyptic groups, and utopian societies suggests that many of the people who were interested in faith, were disillusioned. This can happen when one is given unrealistic expectations as to what will happen after a faith conversion (or at least a faith experience). Life doesn’t necessarily become rosy. Prosperity or even reduction of suffering is not promised. The new fellowship of believers can, sadly, also be less than hoped. Following Christ can be a path of suffering, serving God faithfully, within a network of flawed believers. When one is told things that are not true, when the emotional high of revival wears off, dissatisfaction can set in, leading one to look elsewhere.
4. Unbalanced Response to Rapid Social Change. Change can be good. Change can also be bad. When change exists, the church must know how to adapt to it. The church should not be “faddish”… simply following the culture around it. However, if the church simply rejects all change, it can be seen as culturally irrelevant… marginalized. Other groups that seem to be relevant (or at least aware) culturally, may be enticing. I believe there is balance here. Because if the church is too quick to change with the culture, it loses the solid Biblical, theological, and historical foundation that is needed (as listed above).