An understanding of the problem of syncretism is vitally important to successful missionary work. Syncretism is the blending of two distinct beliefs, thinking or pretending that they are the same.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas found themselves up to their ears in syncretism. Paul had just healed a lame man that had never walked (vs. 8-10). When Peter and John did this in Acts 3, a great revival broke out; however, a revival of syncretism broke out after Paul’s miracle! Verses 11 to 13 go on to say, “And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people.” When the apostles realized what was happening, they put a stop to it. Nevertheless, the syncretism had escalated too far, and the religionists did not appreciate Paul revealing the truth. Paul was stoned shortly thereafter! Let’s notice some important facts in this account.
First, all this was being discussed “in the speech of Lycaonia” which Paul and Barnabas did not understand. The missionary must speak and understand the native language well. He must get feedback from the people. If he uses a translator, or if he only uses the trade language, as Paul and Barnabas did, he will not get this feedback. The missionary might say all the right things. The people seem to be responding. There is exciting news to write in the prayer letters! However, the missionary may be in the dark as to what the people are saying, and more importantly, what they are believing. Today’s missionaries must be at least bilingual, and in many cases, trilingual.
Secondly, notice that there was a religious system in place when the apostles arrived. Never think that people on the mission field have a big religious void and are waiting for the missionary to come with the Gospel and fill it. No, they have a religion! (The answers it provides are false, but they do not know that.) People are not usually “hungry for the Gospel.” When the true message of God arrives, the heathen may reject their false religion and receive the new message, or they may keep that which is false and mix the truth with it. The latter is the easiest and least painful. This is what happened in Acts 14, and it is still happening today. After all, who wants to admit he is wrong?
Next, notice that the people were quick to accept the apostles and their message. We should be suspicious if people are too anxious to accept the message of Christ. The pagan must understand that he cannot just add another god called Jesus to his set of deities. Christ does not want a place, or even first place in the heathen’s life. He demands every place!
Finally, notice that the heathen saw the advantage of incorporating the apostles into their religious system. After all, these men could heal! Who wouldn’t want them on the team? Why do modern-day heathen accept us foreign missionaries? They may truly see their need of our Saviour and trust Him in repentance and faith. We pray this is the case. However, they may see our riches (home, car, clothes, tools, etc.) and think that if they accept our God, He will bless them with this wealth. They may associate with us because it raises their status. They may outwardly accept our message because we are educated and speak with authority. They may just be nice people who want to please us, and accepting what we say does please us! However, they may be sincerely confused. When we present a Bible truth, they process this message according to their beliefs and experience, their worldview. They then put this information in the compartment of their mind where it seems to best fit, and it mixes with what is already there. Nothing has really changed; their paganism has only taken on a Christian facade. This might not be so bad if all we wanted was outward conformity, but we want a true conversion and nothing less!
How can we prevent people from mixing the true message with false concepts? We must know the likelihood of it happening. We need to understand what people believe before we present our message. We must not only speak and understand the heart language of the people, but we must study and learn their culture, their thinking. May I suggest that before we step into the role of preacher, we must first take the role of learner? If we understand the worldview of the people, we can probably predict what they are going to do with our message. We can head them off at the pass, so to speak, and present the truth to them in a better way. If syncretism begins to occur, we can recognize and deal with it before it gets out of hand—before we end up under a pile of stones!