Fear and Power in Ministry, and Five Encounters


I just recently did a short talk on Folk Islam. Not the center of my expertise, but our regular speaker was not able to make it. So I tried to position the talk from an area of greater strength for me… anthropological reflection. So I showed the classic cultural triangle.

Cultural triangle

“Western” Cultures are more interested in Guilt/Forgiveness. “Eastern Cultures are more focused on Shame/Honor, while (so-called) tribal cultures emphasize fear and power.

The orange region tends to be the cultural setting of most Christians, while the green region tends to be the cultural setting of many, but not necessarily all, of other “great religions.” This arguably includes Islam.

The range is dependent on three factors:

  • The Broader culture. An adherent to a religion in a broader culture that is, for example, honor-shame focused would tend to share that focus.
  • Religious Denomination. Denominations tend to needs in a specific region or range on the triangle. For example, I was raised Fundamentalist Christian. There is a strong proclivity toward Guilt and Forgiveness. Charismatic groups are more like the half-way point between Guilt/Forgiveness and Fear/Power.
  • Religious Class. Religions have Formal Religion and Folk Religion. Formal Religion tends to have “religious thinking”— with the adherence to formal doctrines and having the goal of serving spiritual powers. Folk Religion is more emotional rather than doctrinal, and tends towards “magical thinking”— seeking to manipulate (rather than be manipulated by) the spirit work. Folk Religion tends more toward the Fear/Power side of things while Formal Religion (at least of major, non-primal, religions) is away from that vertex of the triangle.

Since the vast majority of most religions are more folk practitioners than formal practitioners, one has to deal with the fear/power side of things more. I noted that for Folk Islam, Charismatics, and probably to a lesser extent Pentecostals, have an advantage over Conservative Evangelicals because their cultural center is closer on the cultural triangle.

That brought up the question, not surprisingly, as to what Conservative Evangelicals can do to reach Folk Muslims. Two bad solutions present themselves above. Becoming “charismatic” (unless of course one decides to based on personal theological reflection) as a means to connect more with Folk Islam seems a bad idea, as is becoming a Folk Christian. While the distance may be reduced, it is reduced by violating one’s own personal integrity. Another bad solution is syncretism… mixing one’s religion with the religion of another to make it more palatable. In my mind, Charles Kraft did that in taking the Fear-Power orientation and spirit world of West African religions and redefining it with Christian language. (Not everyone agrees.)

Some better solutions I believe are here (although they might sound a bit at times like the options above).:

  1.  Reduce cultural distance. Enculturation comes through interacting in and seeking to understand the behavioral and cognitive patterns of a culture. Removing distance culturally does not undo one’s beliefs, but it may broaden them. After all, Jesus was not only an atoning sacrifice, but was also a liberator, and bestower of honor. Understand what the people are most concerned about. They may not be most interested in Heaven. They may not be most interested in forgiveness. They may be most interested in family, community, health, and prosperity. One doesn’t necessarily have to redesign Christian doctrine to these different priorities, but it should speak prophetically to these concerns.
  2. Be open to the possibility that God will demonstrate Himself through power. I have little time for those who feel that God constantly does demonstrate Himself through power. It tends to lessen focus on God’s more common method of working through the weak, the foolish, and the vulnerable. It also puts pressure on people to “fake it,” label as from God what was not from God. However, God has power, and it seems like, especially in situations where the Gospel message is first entering a community, God will demonstrate power as a sign.
  3. Focus on symbols and rituals. Power is often seen in amulets, talismans, incantations, and various rituals. I don’t recommend totally embracing this worldview (wiping handkerchiefs on a religious icon, or getting them “blessed” by a televangelist) adding to local beliefs on contagious magic. But one can’t simply throw away these things and assume that there is not a vaccuum that will be filled by something else. Consider rituals. Rituals are tied to lifecycle, to crises, and to the calendar. In each case, they provide comfort in the providence of God (or god, or gods) that the future is secure. Rituals and symbols can and should be used to provide comfort, while helping them understand that true faith is more relational than magical.

Consider Five major “Encounters”

  • Power Encounter.  The interaction of the power of God with the powers (whether spiritual, natural, or human) within a people.
  • Truth Encounter.  The interaction of the truth of God with the false beliefs within a people
  • Allegiance Encounter.  The interaction of the call of God with the prioritizations/allegiances within a people.
  • Cultural Encounter.  The interaction of the Biblical perspective and behavioral patterns with the culture of a people.
  • Love Encounter.  The interaction of the Love of God with the selfish valuations within a people.

What should be done first? Love Encounter should always be first, I believe. To encounter a community demonstrating God’s love is always foundational. In folk religion, faith is more emotional than cognitive, so love encounter is even more critical.

But what is next? For some cultures it might be truth encounter… but for Folk Religionists, power encounter tied to cultural encounter hand-in-hand probably comes next. After all, folk religionists commonly are linked to their faith through their culture and their priority of power to overcome fear.

Next would be truth encounter. After a foundation of God’s love, and the bridges of God’s demonstrated concern and power translated through culture, God’s message must be made clear in the language, thought patterns, and priorities, of the people..

Ultimately, there must be a change of allegiance. They must choose to follow Christ or the old way. Of course, following Christ does not destroy all aspects of the old way, nor, on the other hand, should it syncretize it. It should transform and fulfill it.

An interesting thing to note is that the five encounters start and end with emotions. It starts with dealing with love and fear and ends with dealing with trust. The other two are more cognitive, truth and culture… dealing with symbols and meanings. None of the five are, strictly speaking, addressing behavior directly. Behavior is the natural fruit of spiritual transformation. Spirituality is the intersection of power and meaning (ideas and values). If behavior does not change, one must question the spiritual transformation.

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