I want to start my post today with a true story I once heard from missionary colleagues of ours in Papua New Guinea – one of many just like it I could tell you. Des Oatridge was one of the first Bible translators working with our organization to arrive in PNG back in 1956. He and his wife worked for many years among the Binumarien people:
At the time that Des and his wife allocated to this area in 1959, the Binumarien people were facing extinction - there were only 112 people left, mainly due to excessive amount of tribal warfare with neighboring clans. Des shared that when they arrived in the area, it was obvious to them that the people had lost the will to live. Although they had a church in their area, the preaching and teaching were in one of the coastal languages and translated into Binumarien. Many years later, the local man who translated sermons for the pastor told Des that when things were hard to understand, he would just make something up or say what he thought it meant. As a result, the people had a great deal of misunderstanding of the Bible's teaching – some really bizarre things like God created only men in the beginning and then turned Eve into a woman as a punishment for sins. Or that you were saved by works done for the mission church. It was not until the Oatridges began to help them translate the Bible into Binumarien that the people's misunderstandings about the Bible were cleared and they came to a true understanding that salvation comes not through the things that you do but by trusting in the things that Jesus did for us. One particularly poignant example that was shared was about one of the old men who was sort of viewed by the people as the village idiot. After hearing the Easter story read in Binumarien, he stood up in church and said: “God is great! God is big! He’s very powerful and He walks on the clouds and on the wind. He’s got a fighting stick in His hand. And He took that fighting stick and put it down. And He very humbly entered into the stomach of a young woman. And He put away His anger and His strength – He put it all aside and He took on humility and gentleness. And He grew up to be a man and He died on the cross for our sins and now we can be forgiven and that’s how powerful and how humble God is.” He got it right the first time. This clear understanding of Scripture, as a result of having it in their own heart-language, has totally transformed and saved the lives of the Binumarien people in more ways than just the spiritual sense. The population has more than quadrupled in the past 50 years - there are over 574 full-blooded Binumariens living in Papua New Guinea today [as of the writing of this story in 2006].
So why do I tell it? I tell it because I think it counters some of the ideas that Smith is trying to propose in this section. I got very squirmy when Smith started saying things like “Lived worship is the fount from which a worldview springs rather than being the expression or application of some cognitive set of beliefs already in place” and “Doctrines, beliefs, and a Christian worldview emerge from the nexus of Christian worship practices.” He claims that this is so because the early church didn’t have “the Bible” (at least not in the form we have it today), and yet they had worship practices that were far more formative and effective at shaping their desire for the Kingdom than what we typically see in the modern church, so they must have had it right. But if that is so, why is so much of the New Testament filled with teachings aimed at countering heresies and correcting some of the practices that the early church got wrong? God’s Word is a gift, and one that we should not – indeed, must not – ignore in any discussion of Christian doctrine, belief, worship and practice.
That’s where this story comes in. The Binumarien people had had a church among them for years and years. They knew what the practices of Christian worship and Christian living should look like, and I daresay many of them followed these practices, whatever their motivation for doing so may have been. But it wasn’t until they heard the Word preached – really preached in their own mother tongue – that they really got it. It was God’s Word that “speared them in the liver” as the saying often goes in that part of the world and caused them to reorient their lives towards His Kingdom.
I agree with Smith that worship practices are important. And that head-level belief in a set of doctrines alone is not enough. And that our worship practices ought to align with our doctrines and beliefs – there shouldn’t be a disconnect between them. And I think that often our practices do reflect what we really believe at our core, even if we say we believe differently. But practices cannot be the starting place in defining our doctrines and beliefs. God’s Word is the starting place for that. God’s Word has the power to speak to our hearts (Hebrews 4:12) and contains the wisdom we need to discern what our practices for Christian life and worship ought to be (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Trying to go at it the other way around lays us open to syncretism, error, and emotionalism that fades because it isn't rooted in Truth. Perhaps this is harder to see in the West because we have such a heritage of Christian faith (even though that is fading in today’s world). But having lived and observed churches in two different non-Western-Christian cultures, I can say that this is true. Right practices flow from a deep understanding, appreciation, and belief in the Truth of His Word.
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