“What Shall We Teach” by Charles D. Neff, Apostle to Asia
One of the most interesting challenges before the church in this stage of its development is planting the Restoration gospel in non-Christian lands and cultures. The opening of the work in certain countries of the Orient in 1960, and expanding to Africa and India more recently, has caused us to face up, as never before, to this challenge.
“What shall we teach” is a question which may appear illogical to those persons who think of the gospel as a kind of formula or procedural pattern or code of ethics or scriptural interpretation. To these, religion can be defined and applied the same everywhere; it is totally a matter of black and white. I feel sure, incidentally, that the number of our people who continue to think in these terms is diminishing.
It is likely that our missionary work in the domestic field is handicapped by the location of the pad from which the missionary launches his message. We assume that because we are in a Western culture all citizens are knowledgeable in the field of Christian religious experience. We also assume that the stages of religious maturity run mainly along chronological lines; all adults, for instance, are on equal ground. This assumes too much. Certainly it is a mistake we cannot afford to make in non-Christian countries, where many people hear the name Jesus for the first time from our ministers.
Some of us are tempted to settle this problem once and for all by preparing a statement of belief, a la the epitome of faith (which has been terribly misused by our people for so long), and translating it into the thousands of languages and dialects of the world. I tried this in the Orient. The discipline was excellent. I recommend that all members attempt to prepare such a statement. But it is a temporary help at best; it is not the final answer at all.
The development and use of language is, in itself, a barrier to such an idea. Most Asian languages were developed completely outside the Christian influence. Therefore, concepts which depend upon the acceptance of word-meaning cannot be translated into these languages. We have found that the name of the church cannot be translated literally, with proper meaning, into Asian languages.
Other barriers are in the forms of concept growth in people as they gain experience with the church, the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of the community of Saints. It is impossible to prepare a statement of belief, even in one language, which speaks meaningfully to all levels of human development and understanding.
Simply stated, what and how we teach depends upon the person or group to be taught, including the full range of forces and circumstances which make him what he is where he is.
We cannot start with a building in a neighborhood. Or with a systematic theology. Or with a pat modus operandi. We must begin with a burning conviction that God is God-Creator, Redeemer, Holy Spirit-and that man, special to the Creator because he is “made in the image of God,” has hope only as he grows to know and love the Creator and the cause for which he was created.
So we must start at a point where man can find God. A lesson in church history would not be meaningful to the undernourished, sick, and illiterate Sora tribesman in India, Or even to the Japanese intellectual. Providing answers to questions that people aren’t asking anymore is a serious problem with Latter Day Saints everywhere. We must find a way for God to speak to man at the point of his need and within his range of comprehension.
A prophetic church is one that discerns the signs of the times and speaks to the present age. Prophetic ministry is possible only on these terms. It must be a work of mission rather than revivalism. It must acknowledge that the Creator is the God of the universe and not the God only of the church.
Worship and witness, the only valid reasons for the existence of the church, will seek to give meaning to man where he is. They will take into account man’s present predicament.
Some of the modern predicament is common to all men. Some are centered in “local” privations. The church, if prophetic, will speak to both.
Every man needs to feel related to the universe. Most of us yearn to understand the processes of creation, the balance and harmony and order of nature, the justice written into the natural laws, and the wonder of our own beings.
Surely every man has no hope, nor incentive to live, unless he can have some sense of belonging to eternity. In most parts of my missionary field, the philosophy “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is very real. In these places, where life is based on materialism and where religion is generally unrelated to life, tens of thousands of persons each year find it appropriate to destroy themselves in suicide.
The gospel assures us that man is related to the universe, and to the world and age in which he finds himself. No man can ever understand himself or the universe until he gains knowledge of and fellowship with the One who created both man and the physical worlds. We must find ways to teach man that he “joins with the universe” in God the Creator.
Every man needs to feel a sense of worthy purpose while on the earth. I have come to know personally hundreds of persons who feel “born to die.” There is complete absence of hope. I find no incentive to improve, to share, to become skilled. One of my friends, now a brother in the church, just a few years ago while still of student age went to the edge of a volcano with the full intention of hurling himself into the boiling molten mass. This is one of the preferred ways to commit suicide in his country. Life held no attraction for him; fate had ruled against him many times. Discouragement turned to hopelessness. He could see no possible reason for continuing his life; no purpose he knew was worth the effort. Fortunately, some small but penetrating voice persuaded him to give life one more try.
Perhaps the best work of the Holy Spirit is at this point of need. A man is permitted to see himself, not only as he is but as he can be. A transformed life is one focused on a purpose so significant that it calls forth from the man an expression of a better self which he knows is in him only by the grace of God. He begins to understand that to be “made in the image of God” implies a partnership with God, in which the human shares with his Maker responsibility for that part of the act of creation which gives order to the world. He understands his call to share with God in the acts of redemption.
I have observed many men in Asia become convinced that they count for something. The reaction is amazing. Whereas they once wanted to be healed merely to find peace in their physical beings, now they want to be made whole so they can answer the call to worthwhile goals. Whereas once they were illiterate, and had no incentive to be otherwise, now they are determined to learn to read and write in order to learn more about the One who redeemed them. Our program in India, limited though it is, is doing much to help good people fulfill these desires. We must continue to find effective ways to teach men that God not only creates them and unites them with the universe but also puts them to work on worthwhile projects.
Every man needs to live and work in community. Almost without exception, non-Christian religions (at least, those in Asia) involve only the individual in the worship experience. The sense of the larger community as understood by Restoration Saints is nonexistent.
It is one thing to live in a community of humans, but it is quite another thing to live in a community of humans endowed by the Holy Spirit. In many countries the only compelling community is the family. The fact that typical family associations can be enjoyed and improved upon by people without blood ties is unbelievable to the vast majority of the citizenry of the world. But the times in which we live bring men into the types of association which make such a community the desire of sensitive people everywhere.
My suicide-bound friend has a strong testimony of the power of loving fellowship. After taking himself down from the mountain, he made one last effort to find himself. Strange developments occurred, and he later found it possible to go to the United States for study in an excellent college. There he became involved in the life of a small student group sponsored by the church and in the affairs of the congregation in the town. His ideas about the relationship of persons in the patriarchal society of his native culture were transformed through association in the fellowship of Saints, empowered by the Eternal. Loneliness, once seemingly a natural part of his life, was strongly attacked and overcome by the community spirit. He developed a sense of destiny, and of worthwhile purpose. He was saved.
We must never cease striving to find ways to teach, through precept and example, the true meaning of brotherhood and the broader concepts of stewardship.
There are many problems which are related to the culture in its present stage of development. Diseases still run rampant in many parts of the world. Malnutrition is very real in more areas of the Western world than we care to admit. In such places as Korea and India, death is a familiar visitor in the humble homes of deprived people. Economic conditions are so bad in these and other lands that description is impossible.
The prophetic church must speak to these needs also. Jesus Christ had reference to these conditions, in part at least, when he announced his mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath appointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised; to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” -Luke 4:18-19.
This is the mission of the church also. We are pursuing such mission, in a limited way, in Latin America, Korea, and India. Perhaps noteworthy things are happening in other places, such as French Polynesia. And the Honduras project lives on; many good people contribute heavily to its program. A medical clinic is now under construction in a remote village in South Korea. It will center its ministry in preventative medicine. Working to alleviate and rectify health problems in the community caused by ignorance and poverty will keep our skilled workers very busy.
The members of the church of four villages in the Sora tribes of India have constructed the first schoolhouse in their area. Heretofore, not one person could read or write in any of the dozen villages where we are working. We have hired a team of professional schoolteachers, and a pilot project is under way. Forty-two students are enrolled. They are learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Oblation
Fund provides a professional nurse to work in the same area. She is the first trained medic ever to work among the Soras of this section of India.
Agricultural projects are being undertaken among the Soras. The Saints, through the Oblation Fund and freewill offerings, are providing oxen to pull the crude wooden plows, money to redeem lands from greedy moneylenders, and grain for planting. More modern methods are being taught. Conditions are improving. The outlook, once completely hopeless for these people, is now bright.
Much more is involved than merely providing manpower and money for food, medicine, and materials. The needy must be taught and nurtured to the point where they can muster incentive and faith. These are prerequisite to any program of assistance. These “local” problems cannot be solved permanently without a continuing teaching program which is centered in the God-man relationship.
What, then, shall we teach?
We shall teach men how to encounter and comprehend God to the learning of four things: who God is, what we are, what God has done for us, and how we ought to love and serve him.
We shall teach men that the Lordship of Christ is central, and inescapably real.
We shall teach men that God’s purpose for the world is that Jesus Christ shall fill all the orders of man’s social existence so that human life, in each person and each people, shall be reformed in the image of Christ.
We shall endeavor to give ministry to all facets of human life so that the total health of the individual and the community may be enhanced.
We shall endeavor to bring souls together in and through the church which, at its best, is that community in which Christ takes form in the world.
As a church, we shall strive always to develop forms of life which will permit the word of the sanctuary to become the style of life in the marketplace.