Wednesday, 10 September 2008

strength and weakness again

So now I’ve slept on it I think I ought to be rebuked for making such idle speculations in the public arena. Possibly I have given totally the wrong impression about the work of the early missionaries. So let me say something in correction.

Firstly, the Bristish Navy didn’t patrol the waters coming by to check up that the ‘natives’ were treating the missionaries well. It came by only occasionally.

Secondly, it would have been unfair to give the impression that the early converts were ‘false’ converts having joined the ‘side’ of the missionaries because of their superior strength or possessions.

[For accurate history of the coming of the gospel to Vanuatu, read John Paton’s autobiography (Missionary to the New Hebrides) or the Live Series by Graham Miller.]

Many of the early missionaries were actually Pacific Islanders coming across from Polynesia, particularly Samoa. They worked under the leadership of ‘Western’ missionaries, taking the gospel into the bush, living in villages with the people of Vanuatu, learning their languages and speaking the gospel to them. Many of them were killed and many died of illness. As such, these workers came without the ‘strength’ to which I was referred. They came in ‘weakness’ and held out only the word of God.

Secondly, it was the changed life that comes from the gospel that attracted others to the word of God. As one village repented in faith, it was totally changed. Other villages saw this, liked it and wanted to know what had changed them. It was the attractiveness of which the word of God itself speaks (e.g. Matt 5:16; Titus 2:5, 8, 10). Its ‘strength’ was exactly what it should be.

Perhaps there were some ‘false converts’ among these, but we cannot know. It is always difficult to know when whole villages convert. Perhaps as momentum grew some converted because they wanted the power or influence being in the church gave. If they did, they would not be the first people to have done so.

Perhaps the weakness we see in the church now has less to do with ‘other words’ speaking in strength and more to do with the word of God not being spoken.

Having said all that, I do think that as western missionaries in developing countries we need to be careful about ‘which words’ we are speaking, and about what we do to make our message attractive. We may be in danger of drowning out our message and in so doing, empyting the cross of its power.


Anonymous said...

I don’t think they would have been idle speculations that you wrote because you normally think carefully about what you say. They were cautiously worded thoughts after 3 or 4 years of patient observation and reflection.

There will always be other words that make it hard for people to hear the word of the Gospel. I think the most important thing is that the word of the Gospel is still at the centre being clearly proclaimed. From what I have read of the lives of the early missionaries it seems that they were very faithful to the Gospel and people’s lives were transformed, so I agree that the conversions were a real work of the grace of God even though there are always mixed motives behind human decisions.

But it does seem that people are leaving the church in droves and it is good to try to work out what went wrong. When I look at the church today I don’t see the Gospel being preached clearly. In fact, I’m not sure that most people in the church understand what the Gospel is. What went wrong over the last 150 years? I have two big questions I would like answered:

1. To what extent are today’s problems due to the way mission was carried out in the past, and do we need to change what we are doing today in light of this?
2. How can we get the word of the Gospel back to the centre today?

Anonymous said...

That last comment was by Glen. Sorry, I left my name off.