One of the hardest events of missionary work is the death of an unbeliever among the people you are trying to reach and disciple. This is particularly difficult when you are in the language learning phase and have yet to be able to share the Gospel with your people, but only becomes somewhat easier after the Gospel has been given to the people in their heart language.
I've been really contemplating a few things after witnessing death over and over in our tribe. We have seen death of believers and non- believers and those we are not too sure about. We had one of those deaths recently. One in the "not too sure category" and while I truly hope she is with Jesus, it has definitely made me think longer and harder about how we are communicating salvation to those in our village.
There are certainly some things about a tribal church that are much clearer and simpler than a Western Church, like when the church building needs a new roof. There are no meetings, committees, budget plans or heated discussions...
Just a group of people gathering the materials needed out of the jungle and assembling a new roof. The End.
Unfortunately, some things are all too familiar. We still deal with those who claim to be believers, who can quote our Chronological teachings from start to finish getting every word correct, but who show no fruit of the Holy Spirit in their daily lives. We have those who can give a clear testimony, saying all the words necessary for the missionary to say, "Well, they know the Gospel," but who stir up drama, dissension, and even lead others away from the truths of Jesus.
I think the better question to ask is not, "Do they know the Gospel message?" but "Do they know Jesus?"
After all, one of the major tools in the animist's tool belt is the use of "magic words." Knowing the right words to use when planting a garden or blessing a newly built house are all key to successfully manipulating the spirits around them to give them what they need to make life work. And the more those words are recited or repeated the more weight they carry and the more likely they are to give you the desire you want. Our co-workers ran into this with some of the new believers in our village who wanted to "practice" reciting the stories from the chronological Bible teaching to them everyday until they got them right. Because of their prior understanding and practices they thought this was the way to know and please Jesus.
We have to be very careful to teach them God's Word with the understanding that these Words are just an avenue that He left to make Himself known to man and make a way for man to know Him better and have relationship with Him. That relationship involves repentance of sin, the old way of living and thinking, and surrendering to His will even if that includes sickness, death, or persecution.
This is very hard for the animist, who is used to having a measure of perceived control over every detail of their lives. There is always some sort of action you can take to get what you want. Some magic word, or sacrifice, or payment. Even if things don't go your way, then you switch to "revenge" killings or payments, hoping that this will prevent the same thing happening again in the future. To completely surrender to the will of God- no matter what that is or how bad we perceive it to be- and have faith to believe that He is good through is very very hard for the animist whose ultimate goal is control.
But wait... isn't that very very hard for us all? And don't we deal with this same issue in churches all across America? People who can tell you all the stories of the Bible, people who have prayed the magic prayer that gets you into heaven (the sinner's prayer) and who live their lives with no intention of ever surrendering to the will of God?
The more I've learned about animism and the closer I've gotten to those who practice it, the more I see it in my own culture, sadly, even Christian culture...maybe even especially Christian culture. We are constantly looking for hidden secrets in scripture to make God give us what we want- maybe not specific material things, but an overall #blessed life. Remember the Prayer of Jabez? People went crazy over this small scripture referencing one man and his relationship with God and took it completely out of context, trying to use it get something from God. This happens over and over again. People read some obscure text and think it holds all the power to get God to do exactly as we want Him to do. As if He is only all powerful and sovereign because we haven't figured out exactly how to correctly form the words and phrases that will force all the goodness and blessings out of His hands and onto us.
And if that's not animism I don't know what is.
But it's not just Christians. It's humans. And in a secular humanist context we try our best to use science to not only explain everything around us, but to manipulate and control our world through it. We think that because we have "evolved" enough to not need God we are now in control of lives and universe- if we just get all the research and formulas right. Yet somehow in spite of all that research, and all the chemicals, machines, and incredible works of our own hands, humankind is still getting sick, still dying, still forced to face everyday knowing we actually have very little control of the world around.
All of these similarities show how much the core of man's sin nature has stayed the same since the very first sin was committed. After all, it was the the serpents words, "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God..." that convinced Eve to take the fruit. She saw it was "pleasing to the eye" and that it was "desirable for gaining wisdom."
Deep down at the core of who we are. We want to be like God. We want control. We want the wisdom and knowledge of God so we can control every aspect of life that effect us... the elements, the animals, our neighbors, even our own bodies. We want to call ALL. THE. SHOTS...from the BBs to the cannons... which is why we seem to be on an unending quest to figure out a way to influence the One who actually does the shooting.
So the question we must ask ourselves as missionaries is do our people know Jesus or do they just know the stories we have translated and taught about Him? Are they trusting in the person of Jesus and His work on the cross or are they trusting in the magic words that we have so neatly typed, printed, and bound together as a book for them ?
And the question all Christians must ask ourselves is "Do we know Jesus?" Do we have a relationship with Him that calls us to let go of our desire to control and manipulate the world around us and to trust in His will and work in our lives? Or have we believed the same lie as Eve, and just picked a few words off the tree of scripture that look beautiful hanging on our wall and sound just wise enough to get us what we want from God.
Are we doing just enough to appease the Jesus Spirit to get us into Heaven? Or have we completely surrendered our lives to His will and have an intimate, growing relationship with Him. The person of Jesus.