I remember reading in my Perspectives Class on world mission a phenomenon called “power encounters” whereby a missionary would directly confront the idols of the day in some bombastic way to show the futility of such idols. For example, tearing down a totem pole or cutting down a tree (if these were the items of worship) in an area. While the confrontationalist in me loves the idea, I wonder how much was missed in these opportunities to really get to the heart of idolatry–namely, through teaching that idols are nothing (1Cor 8.4). Yet for those who worship an idol, it is very much a real thing.
I am currently reading Roland Allen’s formative text on mission, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, and have been immensely helped (in tandem with Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret). Regarding the moral and social condition in which Paul preached, Allen makes this side comment:
Incidentally I should like to remark that in heathen lands it might still perhaps be the wiser course to preach constantly the supremacy of Christ over all things spiritual and material, than to deny or deride the very notion of these spirits. Some of our missionaries know, and it were well for others if they did know, that it is much easier to make a man hide from us his belief in devils than it is to eradicate the belief from his heart. By denying their existence or by scoffing at those who believe in them we do not help our converts to overcome them, but only to conceal their fears from us. By preaching the supremacy of Christ we give them a real antidote, we take them a real Saviour who helps them in their dark hours” (pp.28-29)
Allen brings balance. Too often preachers can assume they are preaching the supremacy of Christ, but they never pinpoint what exactly he is supreme over. Put another way, we preachers can preach rather generically. “Jesus is Lord over all!” We declare full throttle. Yet those listening have not been helped.
What is he supreme over?
He is supreme over your doubts of salvation. Your incessant anger. Your slavery to lust and pornography. Your boring and romantic-less marriage. Your bad parenting. Your disobedient children. Your greed. Your self-doubt. Your self-aggrandizement. Your obedient children. Your good parenting. Your healthy marriage. Your pure eyes. Your self-control.
He owns you. Therefore, the world doesn’t revolve around you anymore. Instead, he sets you free to think of others. Even more, he empowers you by his Spirit to think of other more highly than yourself. Your fears that you will be passed over for the job promotion. Your self-righteousness toward your unbelieving neighbor is set under his lordship in such a way that you no longer possess the answers, but are possessed by One who does. You cannot gloat that you understand the world en esse. Rather, you are saddened by the way the world actually is.
So, Christian, we need a modern-day power encounter. Not where we smash totems. But by understanding the world around us and helping others see our need for a Savior. We limp forward together. We bind up wounds together. We use the splint our arm is wrapped in to bind our neighbors’ arms. Thereby we see that instead of hiding the idol in shame, our neighbor is free to admit the idol and know that he will not be condemned but helped.