Case study from Malaysia: Group conversion

An entire village wants to be baptized

A case study designed to help hone critical thinking and decision-making in cross-cultural situations

Mark looked at the chief and elders before him and at the more than two hundred men, women, and children crowding behind them. "Have they all really become Christians? I can't baptize them if they don't each decide for themselves!" he said to Judy, his wife.

Mark and Judy Zabel had come to Borneo under the Malay Baptist Mission to start a new work in the highlands. They spent the first year building a thatched house, learning the language, and making friends with the people.

The second year they began to make short treks into the interior to villages that had never heard the gospel. The people were respectful, but with few exceptions, none had shown any real interest in the gospel. One of the exceptions was Woofak. He always seemed to be around and had been interested from the beginning. In time he had become a believer, but he was something of a village maverick and few of the others took him seriously. Then, there had been Tarobo and his wife and four others. By the end of the third year, the worship services were made up of these seven baptized believers, Mark and Judy, a few passersby, and a dozen children.

That year, an epidemic had spread through the highlands. For weeks, Judy and Mark went through the villages, praying with the sick and dispensing medicines. There were times when they thought they could go on no more. They wept with families faced with death and told them of the God who loved them and who had conquered death.

One village in particular had suffered greatly from the disease. Though the villagers seemed to appreciate the love shown by the two missionaries, they didn't show any great interest in the gospel. Then, three months later, two elders from that village showed up at the mission home, wanting to see the missionaries.

"Can you come to our village and tell us more about your God?" they asked. "We want to know more about him."

Hope flared in the hearts of Mark and Judy. Perhaps their hours on the trail in the rain and the weary days of ministering to the people were going to bear Kingdom fruit. So, taking food, water, a change of clothes, cots and mosquito nets, they set out for the village.

It was almost dark when they arrived. The village chief invited Mark into the men's long house where all the adult males of the village were gathered. Judy joined the women, who sat in front of their huts discussing the decision the village elders were about to make. She sensed that there had been much discussion in the village before she and Mark had been invited to come. Now there were feelings of excitement and uncertainty in the air. Some of the women wanted to know more about this new God. Others said that it was best to stay with their ancestors who cared for them in the spirit world, and with the tribal gods who had helped them to be victorious over their enemies in the past.

In the long house the chief asked Mark to tell them more about his God. For three hours Mark talked to the men about the Jesus Way and answered their questions. Then the chief asked Mark to sit down on a log. Mark noticed that the men broke up into smaller groups, each made up of men from the same lineage. For half an hour there was a loud debate as men argued for and against following the new God. The arguments died down, and then the leaders from the various lineages gathered with the chief. Again there was a heated discussion. Finally the chief came to Mark and said, "We have all decided to follow the Jesus Way. We want to be baptized like Woofak and Tarobo."

Although it was late, neither Mark nor Judy could sleep after the meeting. The decision of the village and especially the way it was made had caught them totally by surprise. They knew that tribal people often made important decisions, such as moving a village or raiding a neighboring tribe, by discussion and group consensus. However, it had not occurred to the missionaries that the people might use this method to choose which religion to embrace. All their experiences in church as well as their theological training had taught the young missionaries that individuals should make their decisions individually to become Christ- followers.

Here the group leaders had decided for all. What did that mean? Was it a valid decision, especially when it was clear from the debates that some had opposed the choice? How could they baptize the whole village when not all were agreed? Then again, what did it mean in Acts when the jailer believed and Paul immediately baptized him and his whole household? Was this village truly a legitimate case of multi-individual, interdependent conversions?

Moreover, if they did not accept all of the villagers as authentic Christ followers, the entire group might harden themselves toward the gospel message and simply return to their traditional religious beliefs. Of course, there was also the nagging thought of the story of the emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century baptizing everybody in his army and how that actually weakened the church by bringing in a bunch of people who were only nominally Christian. Judy and Mark knew that they had to do something before they left the next day.

As Mark and Judy searched for an answer that night, they suddenly heard the great spirit gong in the men's long house ringing. Mark went to see what was going on. He found the chief and asked him why they were summoning the tribal spirits if they truly they wanted to become Christians.

"Don't worry," the chief said. "We are calling them to tell them to go away because now we have a new God."

Judy and Mark were still uncertain what to do as they finally fell asleep, bone-tired and knowing that they would have to give the chief and the village an answer in the morning.

Originally written by Paul Hiebert. Edited by Howard Culbertson

This case study is a revised version of one written by Paul Hiebert that appeared in Case Studies in Missions, Baker Book House. This case study may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35-cent royalty per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

George Patterson, Conservative Baptist Missionary in Honduras, has identified seven basic commands of Christ that need to be taught to churches filled with new believers. The commands are:

  1. Repent and believe Mark 1:15
  2. Be baptized Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38
  3. Love John 13:34, Matthew 22:37-40
  4. Celebrate the Lord's Supper Luke 22:17-20
  5. Pray John 16:34, Matthew 6:5-15
  6. Give Matthew 16:19-21, Luke 6:38
  7. Witness Matthew 28:18-20

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