Forrest McPhail, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings”, 2014, 148 pages.
I don’t read a whole lot of missions and church planting books, partly because I have read a lot in the past, and partly because many do a poor job of combining a high view of Scripture and church, with a practical understanding of the realities of church planting on the mission field. Forrest McPhail’s book, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” is different.
In this short book (150 pages), McPhail is thinking biblically and theologically, but also very practically. Some church planting books are theologically sound, but don’t do anything to address non-Western contexts or pioneer mission fields. Other church planting books focus on majority world contexts, but seem to have forgotten that there is more to theology than telling people to mine the book of Acts for methodical insights. McPhail is able to straddle the great divide and apply Scriptural truths to a distinctively non-Western church planting context, in his case rural Cambodia.
In this book review, I want to briefly summarize the basic contents of the book, together with some of my own commentary, so that potential readers can decide whether they want to read it. And I hope that people do read it because this is a great little book about missionary church planting.
In the press today is the story of Crystal Cathedral megachurch founder Robert Schuller being ousted from his own board of directors. And this news comes on the heels of the financial bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral itself.Why has it spiraled downward to this point? Because the Crystal Cathedral has been built on a foundation other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Schuller championed a gospel of self-esteem that refuses to address sin as the Bible does. Schuller asserts that man’s main problem is that he doesn’t believe in himself enough. However, Jesus taught that man thinks too highly of himself and needs to repent (Luke 18:9-14).
I couldn’t believe my ears. A founding member and leader of a large church in Bangkok was telling me about “The Salvation Room” (ห้องรอด) at his church. Each Sunday, visitors are encouraged to come to a special room on the side of the sanctuary during the service and over the course of a few weeks (assuming they come back), current church members explain the Gospel to them and try to get them to say the sinner’s prayer. I asked, “Is it effective? Not everyone who says the sinner’s prayer really becomes a Christian, you know.” His answer surprised me. “No, that’s not right. Eventually, they all become Christians. We know that not everyone who prays is converted yet, but if we can get them to say the prayer, then that is the foot in the door.” “But,” I replied, “how do you know that they will come to faith eventually?” With a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face, this respected church leader asserted confidently, “They just do. Saying the sinner’s prayer is what breaks Satan’s power and guarantees that they will eventually be saved.”
While the sinner’s prayer is designed to help people become Christians, here in Thailand (as in other places) it many times has the opposite effect of confirming people in a fundamentally animistic worldview. At its core, animism is the using of religious rituals and ceremonies to manipulate the spirit world into doing what the animist wants it to do, whether that be warding off evil or inviting blessing. Thai Buddhism is a mix of pure Buddhism and local animistic beliefs in spirits, omens, relics, sacred objects, fortune telling, astrology, sorcery, and so on. This mix of spirit beliefs and Buddhism forms an important part of the worldview and belief system of Thai people, and it is this understanding of spiritual reality that Thai people bring to the table when they come to an evangelistic rally or hear a Gospel presentation.
I keep hearing, both first hand and from others, evidences of a theology of the prosperity Gospel creeping through the Thai church. Certainly not all Thai Christians think this way and I don’t want to overgeneralize but I hear enough of it to be concerned. By the term “prosperity gospel”, I mean this type of “Christian” teaching that tells people that God wants them to be healthy and wealthy, and to see health and wealth as sure signs of God’s blessing in their life. I grant that God’s gracious provision of good health and financial prosperity are blessings from God but Biblically speaking, the pursuit of these things should not be the goal of the Christian life (1 Tim 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”) but rather, we should be content with what we have (Phil 4:10-13), and trust God to provide for our needs as we make obedience and faithfulness to God our primary concern (Matt. 6:33).In many Thai churches, part of the worship service is a time for people to get up and give testimonies of God working in their lives in during the past week. There is certainly a place for praising God for giving physical healing, helping in times of financial difficulty, and other practical matters. But when these are nearly exclusively the types of praises that people are giving, then there is a problem. I asked an elderly Thai Christian, who has been a believer for twenty to thirty years, “Since you became a Christian, how have you seen God change your life?” He replied, “I was rather poor but now I am lower middle class.” I was hoping for more but that was it! I was talking with a fellow missionary who told me about the weekly “testimonies” of a church elder at the church where she and her husband worship. I know this church elder personally and he is a very kind grandfatherly type of man who in many ways is a great blessing to that church. However, at the same time, he is getting up in the worship service each week telling the people how God has blessed him financially, flashing money and new electronic gadgets as evidences of God’s blessing.