by John D. Ellenberger
A half century of radically rethinking our methods in foreign missions has focused the attention of this generation on the indigenous church.
A half century of radically rethinking our methods in foreign missions has focused the attention of this generation on the indigenous church. Under this three-fold formula-quoting movement, many a church has gained – if not spontaneity of expression and expansion – at least a Westernized form of autonomy. More recently, studies in church growth have brought awareness to evangelical missionaries of the possibility – even the desirability – of whole communities embracing the Good News. This emphasis has highlighted those spots on the world mission scene today where such harvests are occurring. This brief report can only be a condensed, problem-centered introduction to one such God-blessed community: the Central Highlands of West Irian (West New Guinea).
The north coastal regions were occupied by Dutch missions in the nineteenth century, with unusual success. But no one pushed into the interior where rugged mountain chains formed a natural barrier. In 1936 Captain Wissel’s discovery of three interior lakes surrounded by a primitive population set the stage for missionary entry into the Highlands three years later by the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
Since 1956, a series of movements have occurred in which whole communities have left the appeasement of their ancestors to follow Christ. The 1962 figures for areas occupied by four missions are as follows: estimated population of nine Highland tribes, 250,000; estimated adherents, 52,000; baptized converts, 8,303. Significantly, this is 20% of the population (exclusive of what Mr. Sunda calls "areas not fully explored").
In a number of these areas, adherents total over 95%.
To consider briefly this unusual expansion within the last eight years and arrive at useful conclusions for missionary practice, we do best to examine a few of the fundamental problems that are being met. This will elucidate some of the social factors involved and the methods used.
DECISION AND SOCIAL CHANGE
For a missionary to work with such a movement, he must be aware of the level where decisions involving social change (which conversion does involve) are made. In the socio-political structure of the Highlands tribes, leadership of the kinship group is informal. It involves everyone in the decisions of the society. Social, political and religious activity is engaged in by the whole of the kin group involved – sub-lineage, lineage or paired-sib group. When faced with the claims of the Gospel, a decision was reached by the kin group as a whole to follow Christ, everyone participating in that decision. Often missionaries from our individualistic society have not realized the validity and inclusiveness of such a multi-individual decision, nor the necessity to direct the appeal of the Gospel to the decision-making unit of such a kinship-oriented society.
BRIDGES AND THE "FUZZY FRONTIER"
The inter-relationsbips between kinship and groups cut across tribal and language barriers in West Irian. Family ties, then, became the natural media for the rapid communication of the Gospel, not only to include a whole people, language or sub-culture area) but to cross these boundaries and ignite a new tribe or language. These "bridges" were spontaneous! They did not need to be constructed or heavily cultivated. We had only to permit and encourage such natural concern for one’s kin. In ever-widening circles of witness, the message spread from the centers of early conversion, outrunning the missionary often by many months. Confusion of the message and a syncretism of ideas often occurred on this "fuzzy frontier" of witness, especially where this was a language-culture boundary.
Two things were needed to win the frontier: (1) the immediate effective training of every believer in basic and simple Gospel teaching – simple enough to be easily remembered and become the text of his belief andwitness. This necessitated a concentration ofmissionariesin responding areas to train believers in pre- and post-baptismal instruction and establish fuller training for leaders known as 11 witness men". (2) The screening of adherents in baptism. This symbol of initiation into the Body of Christ can be a most powerful weapon against nominalism and syncretism on the frontier in the early days, as the Church sorts out those who have testified by life in the community to a genuine experience of Christ, and who can now be validated by the Church as qualified witnesses outside the community. As dangerous as this may seem (and the churches learn discernment by their mistakes) this writer feels it is infinitely more dangerous for those on the frontier and for the church community to delay for a long period this essential sorting of the genuine believer from the nominal adherent. Missionaries working with the movement had to be aware of the problem of the "fuzzy frontier" and sympathetically devote themselves to a ministry of simple, basic instruction.
MYTHS OF MILLENIAL EXPECTANCY
Soon after Dutch missionaries arrived in Irian in 1855, they recorded a myth of the coastal people portraying their millenial expectation of a golden age of immortality and freedom from material want.2 This theme of expectancy phrased in a variety of legends also has been recorded throughout the interior Highlands, an area that was unaccultured and not in direct contact with Western economic or political domination. Early interest and response to the message of the gospel can be traced in some measure to this expectation throughout the Highlands. This theme, then, is the "inner source" of Melanesians culture from which springs, on the one hand, a people’s movement of faith in that Kingdom which is not of this world, or on the other hand, under the stresses and frustrations of impinging Western society, disturbing messianic movements that Melanesia has experienced so frequently, reacting against outside domination.3 Faith in Christ is a strong deterrent to such reaction, but not always a guarantee, as the Mansren Manggundi movement on the Irian coast and the Wege Cult in the Highlands demonstrate. Recognition cannot be too strongly urged that outside personnel in Irian – government, mission, or economic – are acculturative agents dealing, often unwittingly, with an explosive expectancy. To use this as a social tool to channel people into a careful knowledge of Christ (the One who asks us to "live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope," Titus 2:12, 13) is our duty and unusual privilege. And it can be their escape from the alternative of explosive reaction against rapid acculturation.
If met by prolonged resistence, evangelism in unresponsive areas easily turns into such institutionalized services as education and medical aid. The Moni tribe, hard to ignite with the gospel after 12 years of evangelism and service, had the Gospel fires lighted in an area adjoining the nearby people’s movement. Witnesses moving on the bridge of relationship ties crossed into the formerly uninterested area with a message that they demonstrated as vital and relevant. "The surest way to reach the unreached … is not by maintaining foreign missions, outposts of foreigners in the midst of an unresponsive if not a hostile population, but by working with friendly People Movements and their resulting churches."4
The Church in West Irian is graphic witness to what the Spirit of God can do among a people who in their "fullness of time" receive the Good News. Though the conditions differ elsewhere, may the ambassadors of Christ recognize this strategic moment among other peoples and deliver the age-old appeal: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 16:31).
1. J. Sunda, Church Growth in the Central Highlands of West New Guinea (Lucknow, India, 1963). Cf. Russell Hitt, Cannibal Valley (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
2. F. C. Kamma, "Messianic Movements in Western New Guinea." International Review of Missions, vol. 41, pp. 148-160.
3 P. Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1957).
4. Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God (New York: Friendship Press, 1955), P. 119.
EMQ, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 31-34. Copyright © 1964 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.