Islamic attire is now commonplace on the road that runs through Tanna’s Middle Bush. Before Cyclone Pam there was one Muslim family on Tanna, now there are many.
Following the disaster many groups have given out relief in the form of food and goods such as tarpaulins, blankets and water containers. One group that operated in Middle Bush was Islamic.
Like other groups they collected statistics of how many family groups were at each village, but, according to the people, there was an extra piece of paperwork: a form to sign committing them to join Islam.
One convert that was questioned about his conversion quipped that Islam is part of Tanna’s kastom (traditional religion). On one level that is ridiculous, but on another, it makes some sense of the decision of some to join this new religion so quickly.
The form that they were asked to sign was ambiguous in that it never actually stated that people had to sign it in order to receive the rice, but to the Tanna mind which tends to view religion as a road to receive material goods and relationships as foundational to receiving, signing came with the implication of a promise.
Ps. Dino, the Presbyterian pastor in Middle Bush, said that the number of people attending Muslim prayers, most of whom came from Seventh Day Adventist, has declined since they stopped handing out rice. But, some are continuing as Muslims and others won’t ever return to their previous churches.
Material giving is not a new missionary strategy on Tanna. Mormons have a standing offer to pay the school fees of children whose parents sign to say that they will attend their church. Nor is it confined to non-Christian groups. It is not uncommon for our mission fields (church plants) to join a different denomination because they perceive it to be a better deal. One of our former mission fields is now split between Mormons who pay school fees, Apostolic, who provided water supply, Upper Room, who gave water tanks, and now Islam. That’s a lot of slices in a small community pie.
In our local community one family received an extra bag of rice because he was an AOG member while others did not. This has caused frustration among Presbyterians who feel that they are one of the few groups not to receive rice from their church. Some local Presbyterian Churches have sited this as a cause of low attendance since the cyclone.
You could be excused for thinking that the response to all this is to counter it with a material giving program of our own, and some may ask why we are only spending a small amount of the money raised on providing rice.
While material giving is great for statistics, it is a poor strategy for kingdom growth.
Few, if any, of the people who have recently joined new groups would understand the beliefs of that group, nor would plan to give up what they previously believed and practiced. They may gladly take on the forms of their new religions but their hearts will remain animistic.
The logic of church growth through material giving might be to get people in so that they can get the message. However experience has shown that it doesn’t tend to work like that. People who join a movement assume they have already ‘arrived’ – that they are a Muslim or a Mormon or a Christian simply because they are a member and because they do whatever it is that the group does.
It is very hard then to get those people to hear, believe and have a heart-response to the message. They assume that whatever it is that you’re saying is already true of them because they have already arrived – they are already a member and a recipient of whatever privileges that membership entails: rice, water tanks, eternal life, etc.
So what are we doing then? Well, we keep believing that the gospel is a powerful message; we keep proclaiming it and training others who can communicate it in their own cultural context.
We will spend cyclone fundraising by rebuilding things that meet those goals, and that means primarily in rebuilding the Bible College.
I am also putting together a Bible study which I am workshopping with the students to respond to some of the issues that the cyclone has brought up. Studies are popular here and pastors are usually glad to run things that they have material for.
Please be in prayer for the students and me as we work on the study and for local churches and mission workers as they minister to people in what, for some, has been a discouraging time.