by Tim Warner
Awhile ago I taught a modular class on spiritual warfare at a theological seminary in West Africa. Every time I return to such places I am reminded of how ill-prepared I was for missionary service when I first went to the field.
Awhile ago I taught a modular class on spiritual warfare at a theological seminary in West Africa. Every time I return to such places I am reminded of how ill-prepared I was for missionary service when I first went to the field. I come home convinced that one of the biggest shortcomings of the missions community is our failure to teach both missionaries and converts a truly Christian worldview. Similarly, we fail to help new believers find their primary identity in their relationship with God rather than in their tribal or ethnic background. As a result there is considerable loss of apparent converts, and among those who remain, syncretism is rampant.
The problem begins here at home. Our Christian educational institutions, including theological schools, have followed the rest of the academy in defining knowledge primarily in cognitive terms, rather than in relational terms as the Bible does. Knowledge of God is not knowledge about God; it is a relational knowledge like that of a man knowing his wife. Sadly I have seen many Bible college and seminary students come to the end of their course of study with good grades in Bible and theology, but with no depth of relationship with the Lord. The reason is that we westerners are also syncretistic, blending Christianity with secular rationalism.
With the rise of postmodernism, we are now also syncretistic in another way. The spiritual vacuum left by modernism is too often filled with pagan or New Age ideas and powers from the occult. Even in Africa some Christian leaders may speak all the right Christian language while remaining fearful of the spirit world and thoroughly materialistic.
Our failure to teach future missionaries about the animistic worldview and the corresponding failure to teach them a Christian perspective on spiritual warfare has laid the foundation for syncretism.
The class I was teaching in Africa was composed entirely of people in full-time ministry. Interestingly enough, the things I was teaching about Christian worldview and the biblical way to deal with the spirit world were new to them. They were surprised to hear a westerner who didn’t simply tiptoe around the subject of spiritual warfare at an academic level, but who confronted it head on with a confidence that comes from understanding our position “in Christ” and the credibility of firsthand experience.
One of the primary reasons churches in the East and West often do not retain converts is that disciplers do not know how to help them deal with all the emotional and spiritual baggage they bring with them into the Christian life. Discipleship is all too often defined only in cognitive and behavioral terms. It is learning right theology and right behavior, rather than building a strong relationship with the Lord based on biblical truth and understanding that our victory over the spirit world is genuine and functional. They need to understand that spiritual warfare is something every child of God enters into at conversion whether they like it or not. They must not be taught to ignore the devil but to resist him “firmly in the faith.” They don’t just need a formal faith, but a functional faith as well.
My wife and I have ministered on all five major continents to both missionaries and nationals who have not dealt with their own baggage. We were recently asked to visit some new missionaries. After talking with them separately, we asked each other, “How did these people ever get to the mission field?” They were capable, gifted people who had passed all the hurdles in the candidate process, including psychological screening by a professor of psychology at a Christian institution. But they were back home and out of ministry before the end of one term for reasons clearly discernable from a spiritual perspective.
It is my contention that people may not live what they say they believe, but they will always live what they really believe. At the heart of real belief is worldview. Unfortunately, few people are led to think critically about their worldview. We may pass a theology exam, but to find out what we really believe one would probably have to live with us for a while. Our lives would speak louder than our words.
So when we see people around the world coming to Christ without leaving their old beliefs behind, it is primarily because they have not been shown the lies they believe about God, his spiritual enemies and their identity as children of God.
Timothy Warner served in Sierra Leone, at Fort Wayne Bible College and at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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