Yes, we have a problem—but anyone can point out problems. Is there a biblical solution? Is there anything we can do to avoid syncretism in our presentation of the gospel message? I believe there is a solution.
To begin with, as Christians we need to realize that syncretism is compounded by our own biblical ignorance of what the Scripture teaches on the gospel. I find an appallingly low level of comprehension when it comes to doctrines such as substitution, justification, redemption, and propitiation. Many believers have no solid theological foundations. Anyone who has been around long enough to follow trends, knows that this problem is increasing.
So what's to be done about it? Simply put, as believers we need to commit ourselves to a continuing study of God's Word, a study that moves beyond the superficial. Believers need to get into the Word and grapple with the meat.
As worldly post-modern values have been syncretized with biblical values, it has become the "in thing" to not take a strong stand on anything more than the bare essentials. Even the essentials have suffered. The world may prefer to live in the gray zone, but generally speaking, the Bible is black and white. We can and should speak about absolutes, even in biblical details. There are areas of Scripture where honest differences of opinion exist, but even in those areas we need to have some form of conviction. Unfortunately, people have adopted a post-modern view of Scripture where it has become wrong to say something is right or wrong. What we really need are convictions, even in the details, and where we have differences with other believers, we must disagree without being disagreeable. To have thrown overboard solid convictions for some sort of shaky unity is sheer folly.
Unity will only truly exist when we have a common doctrine and focus. To seek unity any other way is to open oneself to the subtle pressures of compromise. We may feel more comfortable mixing worldly post-modern values with the Bible, but it is not right. God hates it. We end up having Assyrian idols in our spiritual luggage.
Biblical illiteracy in the church has led to an understanding of the gospel that is as shallow as a raindrop, often emphasizing extra-biblical concepts and rituals in place of truth. This is tragic. At minimum, every believer should be able to explain simply and clearly what the Bible says about substitution and justification. If taught properly, even little children can understand and explain these doctrines clearly.
So to begin with, we need to get back into the Word and make sure we ourselves are grounded in what the gospel is, and what it isn't. We need to study out the meaning of words such as justification, propitiation and redemption—we need to grapple with the reality of the substitutionary work of Christ. Being clear on the gospel ourselves is the first step towards communicating it clearly to others.
Secondly, to avoid syncretism we need to face the fact that our western, Christian-based society has changed. No longer does the average Joe on the street have a basic knowledge of the character of God, the nature of sin, and the historical reality of Jesus Christ.
I was teaching a couple in an evangelistic Bible study a while back. Both were highly educated individuals. As the study progressed through creation, I brought out the fact that for someone to make this world, that individual had to be very intelligent, immensely powerful and everywhere present. As I continued with the lesson, all of a sudden the husband interrupted, "Stop, stop, stop. You are talking about God as if he were a being—like a person." I acknowledged that to be true.
He then told me, "I have never thought of God as being a person. I always thought of him as some sort of force."
Now think about the implications. Gravity is a force. If you are witnessing to a person who thinks God is some sort of force field like gravity, every time you say the word "God" you have confusion. For example, try sharing John 3:16. You start by saying, "For God so loved the world..." You know exactly what you mean, but your listeners, listening through the grid of their world view, hear something like this, "For gravity so loved the world..." Confusion!!
As North Americans, we need to wake up to the real world in which we live, a world missionaries have struggled against for years; a world where God is understood in a pantheistic sort of way—as a nebulous unifying force; where sin is relative—it's what you think it to be; and where they think the words "Jesus Christ" are a figure of speech—like "good grief."
In talking to people about their witnessing approach, I find many who assume too much in the listener's frame of reference. This should concern us. The listener may accept what we say, but will combine our statements about God with his or her understanding of who God is, and the result will be confusion—syncretism. If, unaware to you, your student has mixed gravity and God, there is no way that he or she will have a right understanding of the gospel message.
A few years ago, a co-worker and I had an opportunity to share the gospel with a lady in her late 20's. She had gone through a very tough time in her teen years and was seeking answers for life. For two-and-a-half hours we applied our best evangelistic efforts to the situation. We carefully explained the gospel message several times. After she left, we both felt that we had been quite clear on the message and stopped to thank the Lord for the opportunity.
This lady did not become a believer at that time, but she did agree to a Bible study. During the study it was evident she knew virtually nothing about the Bible. After she became a believer, I asked her what had been her understanding of the message at the end of the initial two-and-a-half hours. I was appalled as she explained what she had understood by our careful explanation of the gospel. Her concept of our message was more akin to a bizarre cult than the Word of God. She had thoroughly syncretized what we had taught her. Her problem was that she just didn't have enough biblical information in her mind to make sense of what we were carefully telling her.
In North America, this sort of illiteracy is more common than the reverse. For several years, I had students interview ten people, choosing as much as possible those unlike themselves in background, age, culture, education, and so forth. They had to ask nine questions covering three areas of world view. The interviewer could not express his or her opinion on any of the answers. I asked them to remain as objective as possible. Here are the questions.
3) Right and Wrong (sin):
The results of these interviews revealed a level of biblical ignorance and syncretistic confusion that rivaled any foreign mission field on earth.
So what's to be done? Does that mean we should stop going to foreign countries and instead concentrate on preaching the gospel at home? Not at all, but it does mean we may do well to bring home from the mission field the lessons we have learned in reaching the biblically-illiterate. More on this later.
So, not only do we need to be clear on the gospel message ourselves, but we also must be careful that we don't assume too much in our listeners understanding of the Bible. But let's move on.
What else should we be aware of to avoid syncretism?
Thirdly, to avoid syncretism we need to move beyond the McDonald's mindset in evangelism. Our culture may want everything fast—large fries and a strawberry shake to go, PLEASE!—but anything worthwhile, anything with value, will find people slowing down and taking more time. For example, when a couple buys a house, they usually do quite a bit of research and shopping around before they commit themselves. Most big decisions are not spur of the moment decisions—and they usually aren't made on a minimum of knowledge. For major decisions, going slow and being informed is the rule of thumb that people follow.
In contrast to this, we show up and present the gospel—involving the biggest decision one can make in an entire lifetime—and we present the whole shebang in fifteen minutes. For many, not only do we create a situation ripe for syncretism, but we reduce the seriousness of the message. We make it cheap.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we should never give a brief gospel presentation. In some situations it may be the only choice we have. And I am not saying it never works—many of us know those who became believers through reading a gospel tract. But what I am saying is this: in a biblically-illiterate society, I don't believe brevity can be our standard procedure without significant confusion—without potential cost.
Is there a cost? Well, yes, possibly. Think of those people who thought they understood our message, but didn't, resulting in an inoculation towards further investigation of the truth. Think of those who tried to understand what we were saying but because of the rush were confused and left thinking that none of it made sense anyway. When the cost is considered...well, at minimum, it should cause one to pause and ponder, "Am I sowing with care? Or, am I just blundering around?"
Finally, it would seem wise to learn from those who have grappled with syncretism problems overseas—those missionaries and mission boards who would identify themselves with mission board "B." They have been working for years with people who know nothing about the Bible. They have lived in a world that has never known Christianity. It can be rightly said that these missionaries have a gut-level feel for the dynamics of communicating in a post-Christian society.
Even more important than "picking the brains" of missionaries, is the determination to do a thorough study of Scripture to see what it has to say about the mixing of truth and error, and what solutions it offers—solutions that may have been overlooked. In a sense, pick the minds of the prophets. A good place to start is in Acts 17 where Paul addresses the Athenians—a people who knew not God.
In embarking on this study, one must remember that "syncretism" is a touchy subject. Even confronting the problem in the most gentle manner may offend some. But it must be done, or the church will drift into an ever-increasing whirlpool of double-think, syncretizing biblical truth with mysticism, psychology, paleontology, big business techniques, and the like. The pond is already muddy; it will soon become as black as coal. If you don't believe it, ask yourself where the vibrant church of Turkey, North Africa and much of Europe has gone. When you visit these countries, the ”Ęblack as coal' idiom seems an understatement.
Of course, many Christians have been trying various methods to get the message across to our post-Christian world. In the early 1980's attention began to focus on a seemingly new way to teach the Bible. New Tribes Mission was finding it an effective means to teach tribal people a clear gospel—a spectrum of the world that has had its shares of struggles with syncretism. Since tribal people know nothing of the Bible, this approach by necessity addressed those issues that exist in a biblically-illiterate society. This format of Bible teaching was found to be extremely effective in countering the confusion that results in syncretism and reaching those ignorant of the Bible.
As the western world became more and more secular with the onset of the post-Christian era, there were those familiar with this approach that felt it could be adapted and put into use in developed countries. In 1996, GoodSeed International began as an organization to coordinate, disseminate and create tools using this approach to teaching.
Among other things, this format of Bible study has been called:
Although GoodSeed uses all of the above labels, organizationally it has chosen to call it TERM—The Emmaus Road Message. Whatever the name, essentially they all share similar characteristics though the stories used to accomplish their purpose may differ slightly.
Though GoodSeed is one of the primary movers behind this form of teaching, one needs to understand that those involved in the organization do not feel that this is the only way Christians should do evangelism. However, they do believe it is a good way having many solid scriptural precedents. They also feel that it is something others should learn to use, especially when dealing with those who are biblically-illiterate. No mechanic keeps just screwdrivers in his toolbox. He has an assortment of tools to fit different situations. In the same way, we need to be acquainted with different approaches to communicating the gospel. This is especially true when a method has a strong biblical basis.
Any message has its irreducible minimums—the core of the message. If you fail to communicate those key essentials then you have not passed on the message accurately. Below are four irreducible minimums that must be communicated if the gospel is to be understood.
These four essentials are the irreducible minimums of the gospel message. You want to communicate nothing less. Your students can forget other information, but when teaching the gospel, you definitely want them to remember these four facts.
In communicating a message, the methods are seemingly endless. By method we are not referring to the means, which could range from the spoken word to smoke signals and drums. Rather we are talking about how the message is arranged in the process of passing it on. For example, is the message communicated topically, word by word, as a narrative, systematically, or by "leaping around?" All of these are dynamics that define a method—or lack of a method. Below are four principles of communication that we believe describe a good way to pass on the gospel message. In stating these principles, we do not believe this is the only way that the Gospel can be taught, but we do feel it is a scriptural way.
Studying the Bible sequentially gives an order to key information. For example, starting at the beginning with Creation, we learn who God is and much of what he is like. The Bible tells us that...
"The heavens declare the glory of God..." Psalm 19:1
Knowing what God is like is critical information, foundational to understanding all other biblical truths. It's useless to recite John 3:16 to someone who believes the sun is god or that God is an impersonal force such as gravity.
Continuing in Genesis, Chapter 3 explains to us how sin entered the world. Here we get the first glimpse of man's predicament and God's solution. Without this vital information the Bible does not make any sense at all.
As we progress chronologically through the Scripture, other doctrines are placed in perspective. For example, the Bible presents the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai before it presents God's grace shown on Mount Calvary. This is significant. It is through the law that man becomes aware of his sinful condition.
...through the law we become conscious of sin. Romans 3:20
Of course man's sinful condition is only significant if he already knows quite a bit about God's character, that He is holy and cannot allow sin in His presence. Understanding the law creates an awareness of one's lostness. It is at that point that the law becomes...
...our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Galatians 3:24
When man understands that he is lost then he is much more likely to seek a way to be saved.3
When talking about teaching the Bible chronologically, it is important to understand that TERM is not solely a telling of biblical stories sequentially. There are many books that give a chronological presentation of the Bible, and yet they do not communicate what we are thinking of when we talk about The Emmaus Road Message. Those sequential Bible stories must be tied together using the other three principles below.
Though far from comprehensive, TERM covers key biblical events—important ones, enhancing understanding by stringing them together in logical sequence—like hanging clothes spaced apart on a clothesline. Though this clothesline of comprehension does not cover every story, the events you do study are significant, and when tied together, can be seen as explaining one very, very important message.
It is absolutely critical that one not muddy that message by getting off on sidetracks, "bogging down" in details, or dragging out the study over long periods of time. Why?
a) The gospel is an emergency message sent from Heaven telling a person how he may be rescued. Lifesaving messages are usually communicated with urgency. If you "putter around," the message will lose its importance in the mind of the listener. Inadvertently, you will be making a major message into a minor story.
b) If you take too long or get "bogged down," your Bible study will lose its sense of progression and continuity. The key points will not tie together in your student's mind. You will end up teaching a number of individual Bible lessons instead of one message that ties together.
You must make consistent progress on the major points, or the study will lose its perspective and momentum. The urgency and thus the importance of the message will be lost.
Understanding this dynamic cannot be overstated. To know how to major on the majors—to get the most important information across—is critical to the success of the study.
When we combine the MESSAGE with the METHOD, we call that approach to communication The Emmaus Road Message (TERM).The
TERM teaching clearly cuts through the problems caused by syncretism—sorting out truth from error—by handing the learner a tidbit of information at a time. That tidbit is so small that it cannot be misunderstood. When all the tidbits are put together in sequential order, they present an overwhelmingly logical explanation of the truth. A clear gospel is a powerful gospel. But notice that it is only powerful if the message is understood clearly. Paul, in the book written to the Romans, wrote:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes... Romans 1:16
The word power is the Greek word dunamis which means power, might, strength. It is the word from which we get the English word dynamite. But notice how the word dunamis is translated elsewhere.
If then I do not grasp the meaning [dunamis] of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 1 Corinthians 14:11
If we are to understand the Scriptures correctly, it would seem that the power of the gospel is directly connected to having understood the meaning of the gospel. So, we not only want to be clear on the MESSAGE ourselves, but we also want to use a METHOD that ensures we have accurately communicated that message—a method that makes sure the listener has understood exactly what we are saying. That is our goal.
In teaching TERM, we have five goals in mind.4
Accuracy: It is the goal of TERM to present a clear gospel presentation. Experience has taught us that a very great number of "believers" in North America are confused on the gospel, or have syncretized non-biblical belief systems with the message.
In teaching on this subject, one of our GoodSeed staff members, Paul Humphreys, has expressed the need to paint a white line down the middle of every church, from the pulpit to the back door. When the pastor teaches on salvation he is to stand on one side of the line, but when he touches on sanctification, he is to move to the other side. In this way the congregation will know not to mix the two truths. I'm sure Paul would settle for an imaginary white line, if every Bible teacher would remember that when he crosses the line without clarification, he will often create confusion. In TERM we stay on the salvation side of the line.
Comprehension: We want students to hear and understand the message without any fuzziness, additions or deletions.
Retention: It is no use learning something if you cannot retain it. We use an approach to learning that scores high on retention.
Objectivity: In TERM, we let the message speak for itself. Although a personal testimony given at the appropriate time can have a powerful impact, we must remember that "experience" does not save. Only faith in God's provision brings salvation. To have faith, one must understand the facts. If we promote experience over the facts, there is great danger that students will put confidence in their experience rather than faith in what Christ has done. It's not that a personal testimony is wrong, it's just that we don't build TERM teaching around it.
In the same way, it is best to avoid open-ended questions. ("Well, what do you think?") Questions should be specific and objective. ("Do you understand what that paragraph is saying?")
Music certainly has its place in a Christian's life, but to use it to help an unbeliever decide for Christ has its risks. We are not saying that to use music is absolutely wrong (the Bible does not forbid it), but a person coming to salvation influenced by a heart-warming refrain can later be persuaded by the Devil or man that his salvation experience was an emotional decision swayed by harmonies and lyrics. In contrast, a person coming to the Lord, basing his faith on an objective, clear presentation of the Scriptures, is almost unmovable. His feet of faith are securely cemented in biblical facts.
We do recognize that many folk are "saved" in situations where a hymn is used to motivate them. May I offer a gentle caution. Remember that a person will only be found "standing on the promises" if he knows the promises. We must not neglect a clear, unhurried presentation of the gospel facts.
Transferability: Success without a successor is some form of failure. What we teach should also be transferable by our students to others. We want the students to be able to pass on what they have learned.
In light of the above, emphasis is not on "oratory" but labours on the practical. We teach in such a way that a "non-teacher" learns to pass on the message. In a real sense, TERM teaching does not teach a gifted communicator how to communicate, but it does teach a gifted teacher a way to teach that can be imitated by someone who is not gifted. The end result is that the success of the teacher is not measured by ability but rather by the content communicated. It is a reliance more on the living Word of God and less on technique.
We started out by saying that this approach to teaching was seemingly a new way to learn the Scriptures. Actually it is not. Teachers employing this method are found in the early pages of Scripture using it as a means to communicate truth. And no less a person than Jesus used it en route to Emmaus. Thus the reason for calling it The Emmaus Road Message.
What's in a Name: Universally, children are taught, "Never trust a stranger!" And yet, even though many people know virtually nothing about the Lord Jesus, we tell them they need to put their faith in Him.
"What's in a Name" takes a look at two aspects of communication an ambassador must have in mind when introducing a person to the Saviour.
Flying Truth in Formation: We live in a day where the Bible is severely criticized. The prevailing wisdom states "It's impossible to know it's true!"
Not so! The architecture of Scripture is different from any other "sacred" body of literature. Embedded in the very fabric of the Bible is a self-authenticating system that builds a powerful case for the truthfulness of the Word of God.
"Flying Truth in Formation" explores that architecture and explains how Bible believers can confront both a skeptical world and a questioning church with confidence.