Shaped by missions, and the lack of missions

I’d like to briefly tie together three sources regarding the work of Christian missionaries working among indigenous peoples.

Last night, my wife and I watched the first part of Ken Burn’s documentary on the history of the western United States. Christian missionaries, usually in the from of Spanish Roman Catholic priests are a regular presence in the story. They are nearly always function as terrible bad guys in the narrative. They are occasionally well-meaning, but generally destructive – forced conversions and confessions at gunpoint, whipping the natives down the road to church, etc. There was awful abuse in the name of Jesus Christ.

It’s the same story of American conquest that I heard all growing up and I don’t doubt that much of it was terrible and true. But is that the whole story? Philip Jenkins, in discussing the explosion of Christianity in Latin America thinks this MUST only be one side of the coin. It couldn’t have been all conquest or Christianity would not have “stuck” so hard and fast among the millions of natives.

“The new Christianity was unquestionably associated with robbery and tyranny, leaving a sinister heritage over the coming centuries. In the initial decades, the depth of conversions was questionable. Moreover, native converts were granted admission to communion only on the rarest occasions, a policy that acknowledged the shallowness of conversions. Just as seriously, natives were almost never ordained to the priesthood.”

-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.35

Sounds like a train-wreck, right?

“Far from being a formula for effective conversion, the record of colonial Latin America sounds potentially like a story of disaster, so much so that it is baffling that Catholicism would ultimately plant such deep roots in this continent. Yet the ordinary people who were ignored and despised by the churches created their own religious synthesis, which became the focus of devoted loyalty. Lacking priests and access to church sacraments, Latin American people concentrated instead on aspects of the faith that needed no clergy, on devotions to saints and the Virgin, and they organized worship through lay bodies… Catholicism not only established itself, but became an integral part of the cultural identity of Latin Americans, in all parts of that very diverse landscape. As an institution, the impact made by the church was partial and often inadequate, but Christianity itself flourished.

He returns to this idea quite often. There is something special about Christianity that makes it remarkably appealing, even when it is obscured by abusive rulers. It takes on a life of its own and grows, especially in the ignored rural areas. Jenkins, in writing a scholarly piece of history and sociology doesn’t come right out and say it, but I believe that he (along with myself) would attribute this “special appeal” to the work of the Holy Spirit.

I am also reading a recent book by Ethiopian scholar Tibebe Eshete concerning the rise of Evangelicism in Ethiopia during the past century. In his introduction, he mentions something that really caught my attention. Though protestant pentecostal churches were established in the 1920s, evangelicals only claimed a tiny slice of the population for a long time. It only took hold in a few rural areas among poor farmers. Then, in the 1960’s, it exploded and now accounts for nearly 20% of the whole country. And this is the fun part: The explosion took place during a time of persecution, when all the western missionaries had been kicked out by the last emperor and then kept out by the communists. Eshete describes the current pentecostal church as

“largely an independent initiative pioneered by young Ethiopians, whose followers came mainly from an Ethiopian Orthodox background, and has sustained itself because of its indigenous roots, voluntaristic nature, and enthusiastic embarkation on evangelization programs of national import.”

-Tibebe Eshete, The evangelical movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and resilience, p.12

The author himself is an insider to what went on. He grew up Orthodox, then got excited about communism and helped organize socialist rallies while he was a university student in the 1970s. After the communists took over and crushed everyone, he was very disillusioned. Through the witness of a friend he ended up becoming a Baptist and has been very active in the church there ever since.

So here again we have Christianity thriving without clergy – driven by locals. Theologians often freak out about how this inevitably means that folk religion is absorbed into the faith. Well, yes, but I think that is going to happen regardless. New churches aren’t doctrinally mature. If they were, Paul would not have bothered to write most of his epistles. I think it is better to rejoice that they worship Jesus and assume that the leftover paganism (or secularism, etc.) will be reformed out during the coming century or two.