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.

In the second year, they began to make short treks into the interior to visit 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. Few of the other villagers 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. Judy and Mark went through the villages for weeks, 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 the two missionaries showed, they seemed to have no interest in the gospel. Then, three months later, two elders from that village came to the missionaries;' home.

"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 would 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 longhouse, 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 seemed to be 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 longhouse, 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 appeared to have 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 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 they had to do something before leaving the next day.

As Mark and Judy searched for an answer that night, they suddenly heard the great spirit gong in the men's longhouse 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 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

Is this material relevant in any way to this case study?

Case studies are descriptions of real-life situations. They usually include a brief history of how the current position developed and outline a problem that a key personality is facing. Originally associated with Harvard University's MBA and Law programs, case studies are now used across a wide range of disciplines.

The three main benefits of using dilemma-based case studies such as this one on group conversion are applying theory to practice, encouraging critical reflection, and developing problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Seven steps to effective case study use

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Afterword: Background on Group Decision-Making

Many cultures around the world employ group decision-making processes rather than relying solely on individual decisions. These approaches vary widely depending on the cultural context, values, and traditions of the society. Here are some common ways in which group decision-making is practiced:

  • Consensus Decision-Making: In some cultures, decisions are made through achieving consensus among group members. This means that everyone in the group must agree on the decision before it is finalized. Consensus decision-making often emphasizes collaboration, communication, and compromise. It is commonly found in indigenous communities, certain religious groups, and some small-scale societies.
  • Collective Decision-Making: In collective decision-making, decisions are made collectively by a group of individuals who have equal say and authority. This approach values the input of all members and aims to reach decisions that benefit the entire group rather than prioritizing individual interests. Collective decision-making is often practiced in communal societies and organizations with flat hierarchies.
  • Consultative Decision-Making: Some cultures emphasize consulting with various stakeholders or experts before making decisions. Leaders or decision-makers gather input from relevant individuals or groups to ensure that decisions take into account a broad range of perspectives and considerations. This approach is common in many modern democratic societies, as well as in traditional societies where elders or community leaders play a central role in decision-making.
  • Ritualized Decision-Making: In certain cultures, decision-making processes are ritualized and follow specific ceremonial protocols. Rituals may involve prayers, offerings, or symbolic actions aimed at seeking guidance from spiritual or ancestral forces. Decision-making rituals often serve to reinforce cultural values, norms, and beliefs while also providing a sense of unity and cohesion within the group.
  • Democratic Decision-Making: In democratic societies, decisions are typically made through a process of voting or elected representation. While this approach is often associated with individual voting rights, it also involves group decision-making at various levels of governance, where elected representatives deliberate and make decisions on behalf of their constituents.
  • Hierarchical Decision-Making: In some cultures, decisions are made by hierarchical structures, where authority and decision-making power are concentrated at the top of the social or organizational hierarchy. Subordinates may have limited input in the decision-making process, with ultimate authority resting with leaders or decision-makers at higher levels of the hierarchy.
  • In summary, group decision-making processes in various cultures reflect the values, social dynamics, and historical contexts of the societies in which they are practiced. While individual decision-making has its merits, group decision-making often fosters cooperation, inclusivity, and collective responsibility, which are three things that are highly valued in many cultures.

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