It just occurred to me that over the course of my many missionary adventures around the world, I may have accidentally worshiped a false god or two.
I’ve visited temples, burial grounds, festivals, and holy sites. I’ve removed my hat and shoes, I’ve drunk ceremonial teas, eaten a fattened goat– I’ve even bowed (in greeting). I’ve always felt the tension between wanting to be respectful of local customs and, well, not wanting to worship that culture’s gods. Did any of my attempts to navigate these things amount to “worship?”
Despite my best efforts I’m sure there have been times when my respect was construed as reverence. Of course, I would never knowingly worship anything or anyone but the Most High God. And worship is a matter of the heart, an internal posture more than an external one. But what about accidental worship?
In Romans 13, Paul writes about the reality of living as missionary people among pagans. For those who are in Christ, we are free to eat, say, wear, and do whatever our conscience allows. He dwells on the example of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Can a Christian eat it? Yes. Should he? Well, it depends.
Firstly, the idols are not God. They are pathetic imitations of the One True God. They have no power over us. Eating food that has been sacrificed to them, is not, in and of itself, sinful.
And yet, idols are spiritual. While hunks of carved wood and stone are not God, they do have influence. Millions of people around the world are slaves to the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world,” and to the “spiritual forces of evil.”(Ephesians 6:12) Idols are the charms that distract us from the treasure; they are a dangerous thing indeed.
And then, of course, there are the missiological implications accidental worship. We should take care not to do anything that might indicate to others that we might revere a weeping statue or fear a pagan goddess. This has the potential to confuse our message. At the very least, it might send mixed-signals about the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ.
And therein lies one of the difficulties of being missionaries: knowing the culture well enough to distinguish between cultural norms and pagan rituals, which often look very similar to one another. An outsider may not immediately understand the difference between bowing upon meeting someone and prostrating in worship. It isn’t always clear whether attending a summer festival amounts to actually participating in a solstice celebration it was founded upon. During our initiation into a culture, we’re not aways taught the origins and significance of local traditions, folkways, or activities.
Lest you think that the question of accidental worship is limited to those missionaries living in foreign lands among primitive peoples, consider idol worship in your own context. Every day, people in your town make pilgrimages to the mall to pay tribute at the cash register. They get up each morning looking for ways to serve their masters: Power, Wealth, and Pleasure. They worship the idols of family and rights and religion.
You may think it a silly question to ask whether the missionary in West Africa should attend a Santería healing ritual, or wear a henna tattoo. I would ask whether a Christian in America should go to a football game or wear name-brand clothing.
What are you accidentally worshiping?