The Spiritual Barrier
When one looks around the world at settings in which there is significant resistance to the advance of the gospel, the most important barrier to be overcome is often of a specifically spiritual nature. This barrier manifests itself through an assortment of different symptoms, such as spiritual indifference, hard hearts, spiritual blindness, and spiritual strongholds. Whenever these are the real cause of slow response to the gospel, methods that are normally effective for overcoming other barriers will have little effect. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions.
Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 4.3–4: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The clear implication of this passage is that, due to blindness imposed by Satan, “the god of this age,” unbelievers are literally unable to see and understand the truth of the gospel until God supernaturally opens their eyes and reveals himself to them.
God, however, often uses human instrumentality to do this. Paul, once again, in Acts 26:17–18, referencing the revelation given to him at the time of his Damascus road conversion, quotes the words spoken to him by Jesus: “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
God does not leave us to do this alone, though, relying solely on human resources. As Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 10:4, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” Among the spiritual weapons that God places at our disposal are: prayer, fasting, spiritual warfare, and signs and wonders.
First among the resources the missionary worker counts on to help overcome the “spiritual barrier” is prayer. This includes his/her own personal prayer life, the prayers of the local community of God’s people in the locality in which he/she is working, and the prayers of God’s people around the world, especially those who were directly involved in sending him/her out to the field.
Grady and Kendall comment: “More effective church planters spend more time in prayer. The more time spent in prayer, the more effective the church planter. Regardless of field difficulties, those who prayed more tended to be more effective. The most effective church planters average four hours and 15 minutes more in prayer per week than their less effective colleagues.” (24)
Rankin also emphasizes the centrality of prayer: “Prayer is not peripheral to missions strategy. It is not to undergird and support mission strategy. It is the heart of our strategy to reach the nations and fulfill the Great Commission . . . Missionaries labor faithfully and struggle in resistant fields, but the harvest never seems to come because God’s people are not praying.” (25) Among the factors that he notes from his missionary field experience in South and Southeast Asia as differing between churches and mission groups that were growing and seeing spiritual breakthroughs and those that were not, Rankin points to commitment in prayer: “But finally, they were always people of prayer. They spoke matter-of-factly about all-night prayer and fasting. They gathered for early morning prayer meetings before dawn. Their worship service was punctuated by extended times of intercession, corporate praying, and prayer-centered ministry to individuals.” (26)
Another resource for overcoming spiritual barriers, closely tied in with prayer, is the practice of fasting. Though there is no biblical justification for seeing either prayer or fasting in terms of a quid pro quo exchange in which God grants one’s wishes in exchange for the degree of spiritual discipline to which one subjects oneself, there nonetheless appears to be a mysterious relationship between a desire on the part of the servant of God to draw near unto him and seek his face, often manifested by way of prayer and fasting, and significant spiritual breakthrough.
One particular area of prayer is that of spiritual warfare prayer. Paul writes, in Ephesians 6:12–19, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms . . . And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Another aspect of spiritual warfare, however, is not, strictly speaking, prayer. There is good scriptural evidence for the involvement of apostolic (or missionary) workers in “power encounters” in which demonic forces are confronted with the authority inherent in the name of Jesus.
There is not space here to discuss the many side issues related to dealing with demonic forces on the mission field, some of which have been the object of quite a bit of controversy. The following quote from Ken Baker in his EMQ article on “Power Encounter and Church Planting” must suffice:
Missionaries who avoid, or even deny, the demonic in daily life create a perplexing problem for the indigenous churches. On the one hand, they teach how Jesus cast out demons, but on the other they refuse to incorporate the problem of demonization within the scope of the church’s ministry. Therefore, animists find their own solutions and operate in both contexts. They look to the church for forgiveness of sin and eternal life, but go to the shaman or diviner to receive solutions to problems that the church, or the missionary, cannot answer. Unfortunately, they think that Jesus and the church are impotent in the very area where he exercises supreme authority and dominion. All too often, missionaries tend to approach people and expect them to meet on their level of understanding. We expect them to repress their world view and experience. Unless missionaries answer their questions and deal with their problems on the receivers’ level, they may never see Jesus as Lord of their whole lives. (27)
Another resource for overcoming the “spiritual barrier” is the presence of signs and wonders in the ministry of Christian workers. In Acts 4:29–30, the believers in the church at Jerusalem, in response to persecution on the part of the religious authorities, prayed, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25, also speaks of the value of the gift of prophecy for convincing unbelievers of the truth of the gospel: “But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’”
Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions.
(to be continued…)
(24) Grady and Kendall, 366.
(25) Rankin, 59.
(26) Rankin, 77.
(27) Ken Baker, “Power Encounter and Church Planting,” EMQ (1990): 309–10.