This was originally published at my new blogging venture, “Dave Miller Daily.” Don’t get your hopes up, I’m not planning to leave SBC Voices anytime soon. But I plan to write about broader interests – sports, politics, and other things, at that site, limiting my entries here more to the things that deal with the SBC. I will also, from time to time, double post, as I’m doing now.
I had a moment of clarity in the villages west of Ziguinchor, Senegal a couple of weeks ago, one that helped me to understand the problems in American Christianity.
For most of our history Americans have described our nation as a “Christian” nation, though social scientists and historians, even Christian historians, debate the validity of the designation. But we put our hands on our hearts and pledge allegiance to “one nation under God.” Our money declares (as untrue as it might be) that “In God We Trust.” Even in most-certainly-not-Bible-Belt New York City, the Yankees sing “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch of every game. Even in this perverted, mixed-up time of moral and spiritual decay, most Americans would still self-identify as Christians. They like Jesus and respect his teachings – at least as they have interpreted them or understood them. Our cities are filled with a smorgasbord of denominational options: Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Church of God, Reformed, Catholic, Episcopal, Assembly, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Methodist and a host of others with varying degrees of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Christianity is woven into the fabric of this nation.
And yet this Christianity has exerted precious little force on the direction of the nation. Many look back at the Christian culture of the 50s and 60s as a sort of ecclesological utopia, but if it was that great, why was it so ineffectual in impacting the culture? Why is America swirling the bowl morally and spiritually while Christianity is so prominent and powerful a force? In “Christian” America, racism, discrimination, segregation and the brutalization of people of color went on almost unchecked. In “Christian” America between 55 and 60 million babies have been aborted. In “Christian” America we have tossed out the biblical idea of marriage and have embraced same sex marriage as normal and good. This has not been forced on us by a brutal dictator. America – Christian America – has voted for people who enacted laws, appointed judges, and operated a government that did all of this.
And, in “Christian” America, evangelism is failing dramatically. For all the hype we hear, for all of our new strategies, new programs, new evangelistic paradigms, we are losing ground every day. More people were born yesterday than were born again. It will be true today and likely tomorrow. One prominent leader told me that for all our talk, growing churches today are primarily growing through transfer growth from other churches.
Even in the SBC, known for its evangelistic passion, statistical decline, small though it is, has become a reality. A high percentage of our churches are either plateaued or declining and many thousands of our churches baptized not a single person last year. No one. A whole church did not reach a single person in a whole year – is a denomination known for fidelity to the gospel and for evangelistic passion and priority.
How can these things be? What in God’s name is going on in the church of Jesus Christ?
I had a moment of clarity as I was walking through the villages of southern Senegal with my friend Matt and our interpreter, and as I was sitting back at our base discussing the work with them, and with Azagen (Bart Barber) and his interpreter. Bart said something, at least I think it was him. Lots of words were spoken in our conversations. As we were walking the next day, as we were having gospel conversations with the Essing people, it all began to make sense to me. I pieced together not only what was going on in our villages, but a light came on about what was happening in Sioux City and around the USA.
Here is what Bart said, as I remember it. I will explain the statement later.
He said something like this,
“the people of this area are about 90% animist with about 10% of Catholicism on top of that.”
I am going to talk, at first, about the failures of the Catholic church in Casamance region, but it is not my intent to engage in Catholic-bashing here. I’m not Catholic and believe that their faith is founded on some seriously false teachings. But my point today is not that Catholics are evil, but that the mistakes they made in the Casamance are not unlike the mistakes we have made in America!
The Bayot/Essene Story
Many years ago – we have no idea how many – three brothers came from Guinea Bissau (or points south) and settled in this area. They have formed three tribes, what our IMB calls people-groups – the Bandial, the Bayot, and the Essing. They are fisherman and subsistence farmers who worked these lands. And they engaged in the common, animistic religion that is seen throughout Africa. They would go into the woods, build shrines, and offer sacrifices to the bachin, the “gods” or spirits of those shrines, seeking boon or favor. The animistic practices have changed some through the years, but they are still the root identity of these peoples’ lives, their tribal identity, their culture.
Then, along came the French. Actually, the Portuguese may have been there first, but the Casamance eventually became a French colony, and they brought with them the language, some aspects of their culture, and they brought with them Catholicism. The French Catholics came and built churches and “converted” the population.
It was a remarkably successful evangelistic campaign. Every single person we talked to claimed to be a Christian – 100%. The Casamance is a Christian region in a country that is otherwise majority Muslim. There are a few people around, farther from the main roads (and the churches built along them) who do not claim Christian faith, but every single person we talked to claimed to be a Christian. How did they do it?
It was pretty simple. They simply asked the animistic locals to glue a thin Christian veneer on top of their lives. Baptize your babies, send them to confirmation classes and observe a few rituals. Let us give them last rites and prepare them for the afterlife. Then, just keep doing what you have always done. They never asked people to turn away from the bachin, to leave the idols behind. They never demanded repentance or a full devotion to Christ. They allowed them to continue in their animistic traditions – unaltered, unchanged, unrepented – and add a thin veneer of Christianity on top.
There it is. A thin veneer of Christianity on top of their paganism.
That’s bad. You know it and I know it. How can those Catholics do that? We all know that you can’t condone pagan worship at bachin shrines among followers of Jesus Christ. No way. Easy call. It’s just plain wrong.
In fact, when we share the gospel there, it is one of the sticking points. We tell the story of Elijah and the false prophets – “the Lord, he is God!” You worship one God and that God alone. We tell the story of Jesus and the demon-possessed man, showing Christ’s power over the forces of darkness. We tell a story called, “Creation to Christ” that includes the fact that God made us for himself, but people turned to other gods. We bring out the law which begins with “no other gods” and “make no idols.” We draw that line clearly. If you come to Christ you have to leave the bachin behind.
Our interpreter’s daughter wrote a song which he taught us at the worship service. It is not likely to become a classic in America, but it speaks volumes to the issue at the heart of Christianity in the Casamance. We sang it for nearly 8 minutes, in 5 different languages.
Jesus, you are alone in my life.
Jesus, you are alone in my life.
Jesus you are alone, no one else.
You are alone, O Jesu.
Jesus, and Jesus alone. No one else. No bachin. No fetish shrines. No animistic practices. It is a hard commitment to make, but we cannot offer a gospel that is anything less. A “keep doing what you are doing and paste a veneer of Christianity on top” gospel is no gospel at all.
The Church has succeeded in converting everyone, but in reality, they converted no one. As best I can tell, there is no genuine faith among these people. They think the Church has taken care of their original sin and will grease the skids in eternity, and in the meantime they can live as they please. Worship at the shrines, drink the palm wine, make the sacrifices, go with the flow – and still be a “Christian.”
They have glued a veneer of Christianity on top of the rotting planks of animism and they think that all is well.
One young man said he was glad that the Catholic church did not ask them to give up the animism. Of course not. A religion that allows us to do what we want, live as we please, continue in our own paths, and still paves the road to glory? Who wouldn’t want that?
Jesus – the Evangelistic Failure
Let’s face it, Jesus was a horrible evangelist. He needed a few pointers from some of our evangelistic programs, and some remedial help on closing the deal. Look at his sad failure when a rich young man came to him in Matthew 19, a man who wanted eternal life.
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Seriously? This young man came to Jesus seeking eternal life and went away sorrowful, and lost? Let’s be honest. You and I would have never let that happen. We’d have gotten the job done! That man would have prayed the prayer, been baptized and been teaching a class of boys six months later. But Jesus failed. Why?
He realized that you cannot come to Christ if you are holding on to your other gods. Jesus was no communist, demanding that people sell off all their goods to serve him. But he knew this young man had an idol. Note he never asked the young man about the first two commandments, about “no other gods” and about “no idols.” That is precisely what he was honing in on when he told him to sell his goods. “You already have a god, young man. You worship your money, your possessions. Now, turn from your idol and come follow me.
The young man would not give up his idol. That’s why Jesus failed when the Catholics of the Casamance succeeded. They said, “Just add Jesus to the life you have.” Jesus said, “Leave everything behind to follow me.” Jesus failed because he gave an invitation to true Christianity, to biblical Christianity.
Think about the Early Church and all that they suffered. Much of that could have been alleviated if they hadn’t been so silly. The Roman emperor just wanted them to say two meaningless words to show loyalty to the empire. “Kaisar Kyrios.” No one really believed the Caesar was divine, and if you said the words, you could worship with great freedom. But those obsessive Christians refused. They had a Lord and they would give honor to no other. Their refusal to compromise even in a small way led to big trouble.
Today, I’m afraid we’d just line up, cross our fingers, and say the words. “I didn’t mean it and they knew it!”
My Moment of Clarity
So, boiled to bone, here is what I realized. As I was thinking ill of “Christianity” I was encountering, the kind that allowed someone to continue in pagan animism and still call himself a Christian, I realized that what was happening in the Casamance was not unique. There is far too much of that kind of Christianity right here in the good old USA. No, we don’t go out in the woods and make sacrifices at pagan shrines, but we’ve adopted the practice of the Catholics in our faith.
Pastor, ever had this happen? You meet with a family to do a funeral. “Grandpa Buford didn’t go to church and he lived a pretty rough life, but back when he was 11 he went forward and got baptized, so – once, saved, always saved – we know he’s in heaven today.” The family expects you to preach old Buford through the Pearly Gates based on the fact that 67 years ago he walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, and got wet in a baptistery, in spite of the fact that this ritual never changed his life at all. Is this not gluing a thin veneer of Christianity on top of Buford’s sinful and fleshly life?
Jesus said this to his disciples in Luke 9:23.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul said,
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
In the baptismal formula I wish I got to quote way more often at my church, Paul said in Romans 6:4
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The Bible never authorizes us to glue a veneer of Christianity on top of people’s pagan lives, even if its’ American, good ol’ boy paganism. We cannot “receive Christ,” continue on our own way and then when death comes, expect Jesus to meet us and take us to the other side.
Jesus never said, “Come to me and you can keep living your life as you please. I’ll come alongside you and help you reach your goals and achieve your dreams.” Jesus calls us to die. Dead. I must turn from my sins, lay down my idols, die to self, deny self, and give my life to Christ.
America, in many ways, has become as idolatrous as the animists of Africa. We are just more subtle about it.
- We idolize our sexuality and then tell people, “Come to Christ and continue to be who you are. ONE LOVE!” Jesus calls us to die to our sexual sin and live to him.
- We idolize our money, just as the rich young man did, but Jesus has not changed his mind. He still says, “You cannot serve God and money.” He still says to money-olaters, you must turn from your Mammon to come to me.
- We idolize our Americanism, even baptizing our civil religion, but Jesus calls us to die to earthly things and to live in him for the heavenly kingdom.
- We want to live for ourselves and our own happiness, our own ambitions and egos, ignoring the glory of God, and just paint a thin veneer of Christianity on top of that. It offends us when the Catholics of the Casamance do it, but when good, decent, patriotic Americans do it, it just doesn’t seem so bad.
We have replaced the Christian life – dying with Christ, rising to new life in him – with a Christian Lie. “Jesus just wants to fit in to your life and help you reach your dreams, help you achieve your best life now.” It’s little more than a thin veneer of Christianity on top of American paganism.
Jesus will not accept it from us any more than he will animists in backwards third world nations. He’s never offered to fit into your life. He calls you to die to your life so that you can experience HIS life in you.