When the Gospel Goes Overseas

Image from harvesthillsbaptist.org

For nearly two years now, I have been writing to expose heretical doctrines and practices within the modern American church. Some may wonder why I bother. After all, what difference does it make if someone believes in Complementarianism, or American Exceptionalism, or the Prosperity Doctrine? Aren’t we all loved and accepted by Jesus in spite of our theological shortcomings?

Well, yes. But with a population that’s 78 percent Christian, over a quarter of whom are evangelical, the U.S. happens to be a major exporter of Christian thought and practice. In this case, accurate scriptural instruction becomes absolutely critical, especially when you consider that other cultures don’t view or respond to Church doctrines – or even the gospel itself – in the same way Americans do.

It would surprise many Western Christians to learn exactly how our brand of Christianity is viewed overseas and just how destructive extra-biblical teachings have been to these cultures. Having spent the past 14 months working for an international church-growth organization and reading many perspectives from indigenous believers, I’ve come to see my own faith and religious upbringing in a new light. It’s time to get real and peek past the curtain and finally admit that, yes, what we teach and observe in our own churches does, in fact, matter. A whole heaping lot.

When Faith Meets Nationalism  

Here in the U.S., many Christians think nothing of holding religious services that honor our nation’s military or feature patriotic songs. However, this tradition appalls Christians overseas who take seriously the gospel’s stance on peace and love for enemies. The practice is even more disturbing to believers in highly nationalistic countries like China and North Korea, where military leaders have historically been revered as spiritual figures. More than a few indigenous Christians believe that the Bible actually promotes (rather than discourages) separation of Church and State, and refuse to even participate in civil elections. To see their American counterparts lauding the military in church and defending gun rights from the pulpit is confusing, unsettling and just plain wrong.

This is just one reason overseas Christians are sending missionaries to minister in the U.S. They think we’re lost!

Prosperity in Nigeria

Many teachers have pointed out how problematic the Prosperity Doctrine is to believers in America, but it has been absolutely crippling to Christians in poor countries like Nigeria. Combine extreme poverty with eager, misinformed faith, and you have an atmosphere ripe for manipulation and abuse. Corrupt men desperate for wealth have started churches just to plunder sincere believers through twisted scriptures. How bad is it? Check out this quote from an interview with a group of Nigerian Christians, linked above:

“In Nigeria, what is important is getting wealthy. ‘No one’ cares how you do it.

The result is such a complex system of religious rot in a highly religious society. Armed robbers have been known to pray before robbery and even pay their tithes and offerings. Some pastors bless the guns of some armed robbers. I have heard someone say ‘you are stupid in Jesus name’, seen gross exploitation of people in the name of tithe and first fruit, seen musical instruments for the ‘church’ prioritized over people’s lives and it goes on and on…”

And do you know where Nigerians are getting their Prosperity Doctrine? TBN. The 700 Club. Sunday morning tele-evangelists. American TV has gone to Africa, and this is just one result.

Women in Ministry

A startling number of American churches still discourage or outright ban women from ministering in the pulpit. This stance on women in ministry would come as a big shock to some Christians in Asia and Latin America, where women have been responsible for planting and leading whole churches. It has often happened that a woman was the only believer in her village and the only one able and willing to share the gospel with her neighbors. Many have started church services in their own living rooms. One woman in Cambodia, Mout Phoun, earned a biblical studies degree and established a church in her home village, then traveled several miles weekly to preach in the next village where no one knew Christ. She founded a second church there, where she now pastors. (My organization sponsored the church building.) Tell this woman she shouldn’t preach? Ha!

Christians in Gaza

Showing unequivocal support for the state of Israel is the favorite pastime of many evangelical Christians. My home church in Tennessee went as far as blowing the shofar and wearing the traditional white-and-blue Jewish prayer shawls during services.

However, many of the evangelicals giving the nod to Israel’s violent campaign in Gaza (where children represent nearly a quarter of the civilians killed so far) would be astonished to learn that the vast majority of Christians living in the Holy Land are Palestinian or of Palestinian descent. In fact, some Israelis view being Christian as synonymous with being Palestinian. And though Western Christians will line the block around our nation’s capital to protest UN sanctions against Israel, Israel does nothing to protect Christians in Gaza and the West Bank. In fact, Christians are often targeted for violence and oppression because they are known to be Palestinian. As a result, many Christians are fleeing the Holy Land.

Back in 2012, an interviewer asked a Palestinian Christian what he thought about Christian support of Israel (linked above). His response:

“They are Christian Zionists not Christians. Jesus taught to forgive, love your enemy and to carry on the brother hood in the whole world. They are not true Christians.”

I’m not here to demonize Israel or let Hamas off the hook for its crimes. The conflict in Gaza represents a complex situation with a long and turbulent history. But perhaps we’ve let our zeal for a (potentially misunderstood) scripture blind us to a matter of grave injustice.

Who’s Reading the KJV?

Fundamentalists in America love the King James Version. To them, it is the only acceptable version of the Bible to read. All other versions are somehow incorrect and deceptive. They even have songs about it.

There’s just one problem with holding up the KJV as the versions to end all versions: The King’s English doesn’t really translate into other languages. I chuckled when I heard the story of an American pastor who met a Korean pastor and inquired as to what version of the Bible he was using. The pastor responded, “The Korean Bible.”

Christians in China don’t know about the KJV. Or the NIV, the ESV or The Message. Neither do Christians in Tanzania, Egypt or Colombia. They’re reading the Bible in their own language.

The Bible has currently been translated into 2,200+ languages. Only a small portion of the world’s Christians rely on the KJV. To tout this one version as superior, or to expect Christians in other parts of the world to learn from a tome written in 16th century English, is not only ethnocentric and Pharasiacal, it’s also just plain ridiculous.

Popular Worship Song Affirms Polytheism?

It’s not just flawed doctrines that can mislead indigenous cultures; theologically questionable songs can, too. A couple of weeks ago, the music ministry director at my organization pointed out that Chris Tomlin’s song “Our God is Greater” would actually affirm polytheism in places like India, a culture steeped in idol worship. Some might argue that the song promotes the sole worship of God, since he is called “greater,” “stronger,” and “higher than any other.” However, that’s not how polytheistic cultures work. Polytheism teaches that even minor, weaker gods deserve attention because they control certain life events: childbearing, success, agriculture, etc. Fail to please them, and they can wreak havoc in any of these areas. If we as Christians really believe that God is the only god in existence, then even our songs should reflect that belief.

The Prodigal Son in the Middle East

When Christians in the West read the Prodigal Son, they encounter a story of repentance and restoration. When Middle Easterners read the Prodigal Son, however, they encounter a story of forgiveness so profound, it suggests Universalism. In the eyes of Middle Easterners, the prodigal son was never repentant. In that culture (the culture in which Jesus taught, by the way), a repentant child that had been so cruel as to demand his inheritance before his father’s death wouldn’t have dared insult his family further by returning to ask for a servant’s job. To Middle Easterners, the son’s return was motivated by cowardice and laziness; he was unwilling to accept the consequences of his actions or work hard to restore his fortunes. The fact that the father welcomes and even celebrates the son’s return – rather than giving him the beating he deserved – is simply mind-blowing.

I hope this post has inspired you today. 🙂

4 responses to “When the Gospel Goes Overseas

  1. What is the point of imposing your religious views on others in the first place? Does God keep a scorecard of how many souls you have saved. How many soul-saving points does it take to get into Heaven?

    Missionaries have always brought cultural baggage along with the gospel they preach. As “civilized” people living among “savages” they could not adapt to indigenous ways of living. Rather, they did their best to enforce their own standards of “proper” behaviour. The first thing is to teach modesty so that the missionaries will not be made uncomfortable by those whose bodies are not draped in yards of fabric. Housing with opaque sides is a must. All the things that keep westerners apart from one another.

  2. Not to mention the damage that a few American evangelicals (extremists?) have done in Uganda, stirring up ant-queer sentiment, leading to the kill the gays bill and the murder and persecution of gay activists in the country…
    And I couldn’t agree with you more on the prosperity doctrine business – I’ve seen its destructive influence at work in Ghana, too.
    This is a really important issue, April, good on you for approaching it.

  3. Today is my middle daughters birthday. She left the church of her childhood (where she was teaching and having amazing results with the middle schoolers in Sunday school) because she could no longer bear some of these same separation thoughts that you have outlined here. All of my children struggle with these things…my oldest worked with Mother T at Caligat in Calcutta, my youngest doesn’t know what to believe since her father came out of the closet 15 years ago and has no real place to belong, and she loves him as all children love their parents. I myself have a direct relationship with God, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Elijah and a few others…as an Ecstatic Mystic I find they all meld into a Godhead that has no differences…only love.
    This is a great article…what is it that we want people to experience from our own god life? What can we share, what can we give? What return can we make from all we have been given? What “good news” comes from our deepest being, what is our personal testament? To me, the only possible thing that is important is that at the end of the journey I hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” So that is where I put my energy and strength, listening to/for Gods voice and being that living testament. Blessings to you for sharing such important thoughts.