The old, seemingly springless Land Rover rolled to a stop in the middle of the mission compound. It had been an exhausting trip. We had traveled inland from the coast as far as we could go and then back the same day. Jouncing over rough logging roads in the heat of sub-Sahara Africa did not leave one with gobs of energy. My arms felt like they had spent the day wrestling with a bull elephant instead of the steering wheel. But as we unfolded ourselves from the interior of the Rover, the compound seemed strangely silent. Those who came out to greet us wore sober faces. It had been an exhausting day for them too, but in a different way.
Early that morning as the dust settled after our departure, the tribal village had begun to seethe with emotion. A small delegation showed up at the missionaries' house and warned them to stay indoors. It seemed that the chief had been sick; nothing life threatening, but a little under the weather nonetheless. An old lady—known as a prophetess—had discerned the source of the chief's fever. God had apparently told her that three different young men had worked sorcery on him. The guilty three were brought before the village leaders to see what they had to say about it. Vehemently, the accused denied such an allegation. Many in the village did not believe them. Others defended them. Feelings were running high. The delegation made it clear to the missionaries that they were to stay out of sight. This they did, but they also peered through the cracks in their tribal house to see what would happen next.
What they witnessed next was ancient by origin, going back deep into tribal roots—it was a trial by ordeal. The accused were stripped and made to drink a foamy poison, pounded from the bark of a sasswood tree. Then the fluid was poured—forced would be a better term—into every orifice of the body. It was a disgusting, crude, vulgar process. One victim immediately threw up the repulsive liquid. He lived. But as the missionaries peered between the cracks in their home, they watched the other two men stagger around the village until they collapsed. They were dead by noon.
As the sun set, this was the somber report that greeted us as we crawled out of the confines of the Land Rover. I remember being somewhat dumbfounded. Was not this a village that claimed to be "Christian?" Missionaries1 had "evangelized" these people decades ago. Indeed the whole country was speckled with church steeples. Even the local taxis and stores had Bible verses plastered on them. Many a mission leader would have flaunted this country as a mission's success story. But here was a trial by ordeal—a poisoning of three healthy men with sasswood.
Although I knew that this particular form of trial by ordeal had a long history in West Africa,2 one would think that when the people overwhelmingly accepted Christianity, such rituals would have been relegated to the dusty past. Not so.
The next day, I, along with several others, informally interviewed members of the village. I remember the church pastor explaining to us in detail how the poison was made and administered. He was very matter-of-fact—it obviously being the accepted way to deal with such problems. When the pastor explained how the two men died, I asked him if they had indeed been guilty of sorcery. He was strong in his affirmation. He assured us that they were guilty, not only because they had died, but also because they had been fingered by God himself through the church prophetess. He even doubted the innocence of the man who survived.
As I listened to the story, I could see the telltale traits of a problem that has plagued missions for centuries. It is a phenomenon called syncretism.
Decades ago, the villagers were taught the Bible by a missionary who did not know their heart language—he spoke the trade language only. Typically speaking, tribal people do not understand trade languages very well, so the message they heard was not clear to them. Nonetheless the villagers enthusiastically embraced "Christianity." They simply added what they thought the Bible said to what they already believed. They combined the two and ended up with a third religion, a syncretization of two very different world views.
This new religion had an abundance of outward Christian trappings—pastors, prophetesses, prayer, church meetings and steeples, with Bible verses plastered on everything from truck bumpers to store fronts—but inwardly the people retained much of their original tribal beliefs. Trial by ordeal was dramatic evidence of something amiss, but there was much, much more. For example, further questioning revealed that the Bible verses were simply fetishes to ward off evil spirits. The prophetess was a reworked edition of the tribal sorcerer. On and on it went. The evidence for a mixing of belief systems was everywhere. Syncretism was rampant.
Isolated case? Unfortunately not.
Syncretism is a huge problem in missions. This is not an exaggeration. For example, in some places in the world, it is reported that vast numbers of people have converted to Christianity. Certain evangelistic organizations, pumping out glossy magazines, show bar graphs protruding from world maps, indicating the numbers coming to the Lord each day. I remember reading one such magazine in the mid-70's. Curiosity got the best of me and, doing some calculations, I figured out that if the conversions were to continue at the stated rate, the entire world would be saved well before the millennium. As we well know, this has not happened. Are these conversions no more than paper statistics? Well, I would be loathe to accuse anyone of falsifying records, but I think we can safely say that time has proven that a significant number of these "converts" are highly syncretized "believers." Some consider these folk "Christians" whereas others say that there is no way they can be "saved."
One would think that with the immensity of the problem, this would be the primary prayer request, the most talked about issue at mission conferences. But the truth is, few Christians even know what the word syncretism means. Though the situation is improving, I have found that even at the college and seminary level, many people cannot explain the concept of syncretism. As to how it relates to missions, it holds an even greater mystery.
There is a good reason why syncretism remains in the shadows. It is a touchy issue, especially at mission conferences. I remember a missionary explaining it to me.
This missionary has led many to the Lord as well, but he cannot point to thousands. What is he to do? If he tells the truth about what is going on, he will expose "A" and then it may appear he has "sour grapes" because he hasn't had the same success. He also knows that the folk in Mission Board "A" mean well—they are doing what they think is right—and there is no doubt that there have been some genuine conversions. He feels in a lose-lose predicament. So he does what most missionaries do. He skirts the problem in his report and says nothing of syncretism.
In the meantime the local church continues on in its blessed ignorance—ignorant of what happens when sasswood, fetishes and sorcerers are mixed with the Bible.
Syncretism is not new. The ancient Israelites en route from Egypt to the Promised Land had problems in this area. God asked them a rhetorical question.
"Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel?" Amos 5:25 NASB
The answer was, "Yes, they did." They could make a legitimate claim to be following the true God. But there was something more. The next verse explains what they carried in their bags. God said ...
"You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves." Amos 5:26 NASB
These were pagan Assyrian gods. Israel was trying to worship God and idols at the same time. They were mixing two belief systems.
This problem of "mixing" seems innate to the human heart. When centuries ago, Gentiles settled in the heartland of Israel, the Bible says,
They worshiped the LORD, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. 2 Kings 17:32
Visiting the Middle East, I remember pondering those ancient high place altars, recalling God's grief with the immorality and child sacrifice that was often part of idolatrous worhip. The Lord said,
"They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind." Jeremiah 19:5
Rightly so, such decadence had not entered God's mind, but man's mind seemed quite agile at mixing this evil and God's good. The Bible says,
They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought. 2 Kings 17:33
This is syncretism. Syncretism's tenacity is illustrated in that, even after the Gentile "settlers" were instructed in true worship,
They would not listen, however, but persisted in their former practices. Even while these people were worshiping the LORD, they were serving their idols. 2 Kings 17:40,41
Centuries later God had the Apostle Paul write ...
"... I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." 1 Corinthians 10:20-21
Syncretism has plagued the church since its earliest days. Paul wrote the book of Galatians to sort out the confusion caused by those who were trying to mix religious legalism with the truth. The book of Colossians and the First Epistle of John were written for a similar purpose, this time having to do with a mixing of Gnosticism and the Bible. In the following centuries, people syncretized true Christianity with ancient Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian paganism, creating various "mixes" dominated by error. Mohammed syncretized Arab tribal beliefs with Judaism and a Christian cult to form Islam. These religions in turn have syncretized to form others. The list is long. It seems very human to believe a mangled and mixed message.
Syncretism is caused by many things, not the least being that man has a propensity to reject or suppress God's truth. (Roman 1:18) However, much syncretism can be blamed on poor communication.
To communicate clearly, it helps to have a shared heart language and culture. Though this can hardly be mandatory in all situations, an understanding of the problems that develop when using second or trade languages is critical.5 There are legitimate situations for teaching the Bible in a trade language, but it must be done carefully with a mechanism in place to double-check comprehension. Obviously, it is important to remove as much of the language and cultural barrier as possible. But even when one shares the same language, misunderstandings can occur leading to syncretism.
For example, in our "western" societies we usually share a common language and culture. Having that common ground gives one a great leap forward in removing the confusion that leads to syncretism. But we still have a problem. Our western culture is cursed with a tyrant in the shape of a clock. It is hard to get people to sit down and listen to a reasoned explanation of the Bible. Life is rushed. Thus we Christians have resorted to short sermons and even briefer gospel tracts to communicate the gospel message.
But when you stop and think about it, most of us agree that a rushed message is often a misunderstood message—either because the necessary facts are too sparse, or because in our rush we cannot communicate the gravity of the message. Whether we recognize it or not, our western society is a set-up for syncretism, and since syncretism is hardest to spot in one's own culture, many deny it even exists. That just compounds the problem.
No one will deny that brief messages and gospel tracts have worked to a certain extent, but probably that has been because our society in the past had a basic knowledge of the Bible. Not too many years ago, most people on the street had a reasonably good idea of who God was, what sin was, and that God judged sin. In those days, a gospel tract gathered together details already in the reader's mind, fleshing out a skeleton of thought that already existed. But much has changed. Nowadays, the skeleton is often non-existent. As our society has moved into the post-Christian era, we have been confronted with people who are totally illiterate of the Scriptures. Often, without us realizing it, our shortcuts have created more confusion than understanding.
If we were to know the truth, many of our methods of evangelism have contributed to syncretism right here in our own backyard. Those with a knowledge of syncretism who are willing to step back and take a hard look at western "Christianity," realize we have a problem. It is not easy to accept that reality. We often sincerely deny it, for it's hard to see it in ourselves. We don't like being told that we have a "confusion" problem anymore than Mission Board "A" likes hearing about it, but in many cases that is the truth. But before we are too hard on ourselves, let me conclude with a story.
In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking [in Greek, the trade language of the area]. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, [their heart language, a language Paul did not know] "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. [The Lycaonians responded positively, but they mixed their religion with Paul's message!]
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this [as it was translated for them], they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd [of Lycaonians], shouting [in Greek]: "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." Even with these words [in Greek], they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them [because the Lycaonians could not understand Greek very well]. Acts 14:8-18
Those of us who have spent years overseas can chuckle a little, thinking of the times we have experienced similar confusion. You can see Paul, frantic to correct the situation, shouting, as if speaking louder would make the message clear. And then there are the Lycaonians, smiling and nodding at the babbling missionaries, and continuing right on with the sacrifice. Oh my! If misery loves company, we can draw relief from this story.
But then we need to be mature enough to look for a solution.
1 The missionaries who witnessed the events had moved into the village, assuming that either the people were very confused on the gospel or had never understood it in the first place. They were recent newcomers, not connected with those who had originally "evangelized" this area.
2 In the book, "Barrow's Boys" (Atlantic Monthly Press ©1998 Fergus Fleming), Fergus Fleming tells of the British manservant turned explorer, Richard Lemon Lander, who reported a court of ordeal he witnessed in West Africa (c.1831). The "King gave final judgement by means of a poisoned drink. If the offender lived he was innocent, if he died he was guilty. Very few lived, as Lander learned when he peeked inside the hut and saw that it was lined with skulls." Lander himself was tried by ordeal. He reported the drink as 'bitter and disagreeable.' When he did not die instantly, he dizzily made his way back to his hut to discreetly take an emetic. His stomach obliged and got rid of the sasswood poison. He lived.
3 The heart language is usually the language spoken in the home, in which abstract concepts such as love and sin are understood. In contrast, the trade language deals with the concrete, such as pots and pans. It is usually reserved for the marketplace.
4 It is highly simplistic to divide "missions" into two camps. Many organizations legitimately apply both methods in their outreach. There are also a whole spectrum of methods and ministries which are not mentioned, that might best fit between the two given above. Rather than discuss the many methods with their varying degrees of effectiveness, I picked two common approaches in an effort to define the issue clearly for those unacquainted with the larger issues at stake.
5 Those involved in ESL (English as a Second Language) ministries need to be well informed about the problems of syncretism.