Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul said, "For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:8-9). Paul rejoiced because they turned to God from idols.
So what happens when our mission suffers from a deficient view of conversion? What happens when people worship Jesus among other gods, rather than above other gods? A new Red Futon Films documentary, Half Devil Half Child, looks at these questions in the context of missions in Bangladesh. While the film focuses on the Insider Movement within Bangladesh, these issues apply to all Christians pursuing the call of Jesus to make disciples of all nations.
The Reality of Persecution
Although all genuine conversion requires forsaking idols, the immediate consequences of conversion vary. Those reared in Christian homes often enjoy celebration as a result of their conversion. In the early days of the church, however, persecution was so pervasive that the apostles assumed Christians would suffer as a result of their conversion (2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 4:14).
And persecution, not celebration, remains pervasive in the Majority World today. While Half Devil Half Child ultimately challenges the approach of the Insider Movement in Bangladesh, the film also gives voice to the suffering that causes brothers and sisters to wrestle with their public identification with Jesus. The idea of accepting Jesus only inside the heart, while publicly and culturally remaining a Muslim, gains attraction because of the physical, financial, and social suffering experienced by so many.
On what basis do you call someone to repent, when repentance results in imprisonment, bankruptcy, and even death? What can you promise someone in the gospel when you cannot promise them their best life now or that every day will be like Friday?
The Myth of Progress
In Bangladesh, and throughout the 10/40 window, the cultural and religious pressure against Christianity is so strong that missions work can be painstakingly slow and conversions numerically small. The film also gives voice to the honest pressure all missionaries and pastors face to demonstrate "success." How long can you expect financial support when your organization is looking for a "return" on its investment?
The cultural pressure against conversion in Bangladesh with the added cultural pressure for numerical growth on the part of Western missionary boards creates a perfect storm for discouragement and deceit. An Insider approach allows the opportunity to claim mass conversions but can never verify them. The myth of progress begins to justify doublespeak.
Michael Horton, who is interviewed in this film, describes the Insider approach as the practical outworking of two influences on Western Christianity: individualism, which separates the idea of becoming a Christian from becoming a part of the body of Christ; and the emergent movement, which downplays the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. In this scheme, conversion means nothing more than privately preferring Jesus.
The Hope of Perseverance
So where do we turn for wisdom and hope in carrying out God's mission without compromise in the midst of intense persecution? The New Testament. Jesus was crucified, John the Baptist beheaded, all of the apostles beaten and arrested, and most of the early churches persecuted. Do we really believe Jesus when he said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven" (Matthew 5:10-12a)?
The film highlights how the Insider approach in Bangladesh led to further conflict over the scriptures. The new methodology of missions resulted in a translation of the New Testament that intentionally altered words in the Gospels and entirely omitted the epistles. For a newly released, academic treatment of the translation issues surrounding some of these discussions, see D. A. Carson's Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed.
When we submit to the God who inspired the New Testament, we find hope in suffering, "for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us . . . for in this hope we were saved" (Romans 8:18-24). There is a future glory worth our suffering to believe and spread the truth.