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The Holy Spirit in Missions

God is not geographically-biased; the Holy Spirit is equally at work in every part of the world, and not in special ways on traditional mission fields. The arguments that “new” Christians need miracles to undergird their faith is inadequate; the center of the world Christian population is today in Africa, while the Christian population of Europe and North America is statistically declining. The visibility of the Holy Spirit’s work in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East seems more dependent on an openness to His interventions there than in North America and Europe. It is a matter of human perception, rather than a difference in God’s working. Rationalism excludes the invisible spiritual world, thus evidences of the Holy Spirit are seldom perceived. The core issue for man is control - man himself or God. It is the primary work of the Holy Spirit to work within man to give new hearts, to make new creatures that submit to Jesus as Lord. That is the Spirit’s great work, not the more visible and striking evidences of His presence.

Why should we find it necessary to talk about the Holy Spirit and missions? Does he work in a different manner outside the United States or Europe? Is he more needed when proclaiming the Gospel on the African, Asian, South American continents than in North America or Europe? Mission is not a matter of geography, but of alienation from God. So why do we experience the Holy Spirit differently in Africa than in Europe? In Asia than in America?

In Zimbabwe, a most unusual privilege was extended to me by a “messenger of the gods,” an iwosana. Would I like to take his picture, wearing the symbols of his office (a python skeleton, tails of certain animals, and the tip of a cow horn full of unknown medicines, suspended on a necklace,)?

“Of course!” I replied.

Three or four weeks later I returned to learn that man was near death. I naturally asked what was wrong—malaria perhaps, or chronic dysentery? “No,” the villagers told me. “You took his picture and that offended the spirits for whom he was a messenger.” They were surprised at my ignorance in jeopardizing the life of their friend.

When I went to his house, there were three other diviners and “messengers” with him. All of them accusingly told me that my pictures were the problem, so I asked to pray for his healing, in the name of Christ. They did the equivalent of shrugging their shoulders, so I prayed with a sense of real challenge in the spiritual realm. I risked not only my reputation, but the reputation of Christ in that prayer. The man was healed. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit was evident in his glorification of Christ in that confrontation.

Such glimpses of the spirit world and activity of the Holy Spirit are repeatedly given in Africa, South America, and Asia. Far less frequently do we hear of the Holy Spirit’s manifestations in North America and Europe. Does that suggest that God is geographically biased? Some have suggested that traditionally “non-Christian” lands need this kind of evidence to reinforce their belief.

But some of these lands traditionally considered non-Christian have a higher percentage of professing Christians than historically “Christian” lands. Today, the population center of the Christian world is not in North America or Europe, but in Africa! There are possibly more believers in mainland China than in the United States. Churches are multiplying in most of South America, Africa and Asia but the percentage of Christians is static or diminishing in North America and Europe. Former “mission fields” are now sending more missionaries to proclaim his Glory worldwide than the mission-sending lands of the northern hemisphere. The records of the last two decades of the twentieth century show the emptiness, perhaps even the evasiveness, of arguing that the Holy Spirit must work uniquely outside of Europe and North America to undergird the “weaker faith” of those believers.

Deception or Truth?

Evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work is not limited to a few untaught people or to a particular theological bias, but is widespread in both space and time, and often objectively verified. “By their fruits you shall know them” and by the lives—and deaths—of a multitude we know that God the Holy Spirit is indeed working in ways that are labeled “remarkable.” Of course there are also examples of deceiving and being deceived, and often confusion between what is from the Holy Spirit and what is activity of spirits not from God. Mere “spiritual” interest and “spiritual” manifestations in no way proves that Almighty God is involved.

A Christian college graduate in East Africa very seriously said that you must be careful to dispose of any tissues used to wipe your eyes. “If you do not, an enemy can use the matter from your eyes to bewitch you and cause great trouble!”

In South Africa a young Zulu Christian teacher exclaimed, “Oh no, thank you, I could not eat that rabbit you killed.” It was part of a delicious-smelling rabbit stew. When pressed for an explanation, he reluctantly said it was a symbol of his clan—a clan totem. If he ate it, the ancestors and spirits would be very displeased and could cause great trouble for him.

It is possible to dismiss many of these fears as simple superstition, or deception by the spirit mentors of a people. But there are hundreds of other reports that cannot be so easily dismissed.

With startling clarity, a shaman of the Yanomamo (Venezuela) tells of the presence of God’s angels, and deliverance by the Spirit of God:

In [the village of] Honey the people worried all the time and talked to Yai Pada, their new spirit. [Yai Pada is the Yanomamo name for Jehovah, the Almighty God. He had been known as the enemy spirit when all Yanomamo were controlled by spirits not from God.] They wanted him to help them fight off their attackers. One morning Spear got out of his hammock at the first light. He couldn’t sleep. He had been talking to Yai Pada all night because he was so afraid of Mouth Village. As he stepped from his house onto the wet grass, he saw that Honey Village was surrounded by people, warriors maybe; he wasn’t sure. But there were so many of them, big beautiful people in bright white shirts that went down to their feet. Spear could tell that Yai Pada had sent them to protect Honey from all the attacks. But after the sun came up, they were gone. He asked Pepe [a missionary living among the Yanamamo] if Yai Pada had people like that. Pepe said, “I’ve never seen them, but his book says that he has them and they can protect you.”1

The shaman, Jungleman, tells of his personal deliverance by Yai Pada from the deception and power of evil spirits:

Just before they (the spirits) killed me, a bright light came. It was so bright that I couldn’t see anything. And there was something very warm like I have never felt. A creature stood over me, more dazzling than anyone could ever think. As soon as I felt him, I knew who he was. He was the one we have always called… the unfriendly spirit, the enemy spirit… I have never seen such beautiful light.

I lay on the ground in the cloud of brightness and I saw my whole life, and I saw how completely tricked I had been. I remembered all the things my spirits had told me. Now suddenly in this bright light, I saw that they were all lies. Everything they ever said was a lie. And such clever lies too! All our revenge, every habit, our chest-pounding, all of it was to make us unhappy. I had been used by my spirits for their pleasure.

I’ve run from this creature of beauty all my life, I thought. No wonder I have nothing…

He (Yai Pada) reached out and grabbed me. I felt so safe … Then with a big voice the spirit said to my spirits, “Leave him alone. He’s mine.” They scampered in every direction, like a herd of terrified hogs. And he was right; I was his.2

Greed and Fear Overwhelm Rationality

The power of spirits has a firm grip on the thinking of many, so strong that deception can easily be practiced even when spirits are not involved.

A man in Zambia (Central Africa) convinced a clerk that he could use sorcery to triple any amount of money by a “spell,” writes Marvin Wolford. “The clerk put [the equivalent of $1400] from a government fund in a special box. After the proper ritual … it was to be put under the clerk’s bed for three weeks. He was told if it were opened before that time then the money would disappear. The clerk couldn’t wait so he looked into the box. Of course, all the money was gone. He asked about it. The… man told him that he would actually do it all over again if the clerk would get more government money and promise not to open the box for another three weeks. So the desperate clerk put [the equivalent of $1700] into the box, and the spells were performed again. The case against the clerk was heard in the courts not long afterwards.”3

How could people be so deceived? It is understandable only by perceiving the binding grip of sorcery and evil spirits, a grip that overwhelms rationality. In such a context, glad response to the ministry of the Holy Spirit can be expected. And those who preach the gospel know that only the power of the Holy Spirit can break the fear of dark powers.

Spiritual gullibility and fear are not restricted to Africa, Asia, or South America, even if such transparent frauds seem to succeed less often. Fear of unknown evil is present in North America and Europe, too. The shaman Jungleman commented on the similarity between the beliefs of the white men they knew and the Yanomamo belief in spirits. “Sometimes they even use the same words!” But more commonly, belief in spirits is denied in North America and Europe, including the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Rationalism Largely Excludes the Holy Spirit

Why, then, does it appear that the Holy Spirit is more active in Asia, Africa, or Latin America than in Europe and North America? Perhaps in the North Atlantic nations evil spirits are not active, or only operate at the margins of society. Yet there is a documented increase in cult activity in those very societies, featuring deceptions similar to that elsewhere, along with self-proclaimed witches, covens, and various forms of spirit worship—the “Mother Goddess,” the “life-force” present in the world, and horoscopes.

Some suggest that higher education has made the people less easily deceived—at least concerning evil spirits. That may be true, but in areas of material goods and wealth, deception and confidence tricksters flourish. Ponzi schemes and scams to transfer to “your account” unclaimed millions of dollars left behind by some fallen leader show that greed is universal. Education has not made people less gullible to schemes promising quick riches.

Others suggest that the prevalence of churches and Christians has muted the activity of those spirits that are so fearsome in other parts of the world. If that were true, why is belief in the power of evil spirits pervasive in African nations where professed Christians are 40 to 80% of the total population, and there are more churches per capita than in Europe or North America?

I suggest that the real point is not a difference in the working of the Holy Spirit, but a difference in the working of our human perceptions. Just as our unaided ear cannot detect radio signals nor can our eyes pick up television signals, the untransformed heart is unable and/or unwilling to perceive the Holy Spirit except in ways consistent with our existing understanding. Our ability to perceive anything rests not only on our physical senses but on our previous experience and on our heart belief—our world view.

In Western cultures, reason is considered supreme. The cultural mainstream says that feelings are not to be trusted, and emotion should always be controlled. The Enlightenment paradigm infuses nearly every part of Western life, even our systematic theologies. It leads us to believe that Truth must be found and proved by careful logic, and that logic rests on empirical observations. If “it” cannot be weighed, counted, or measured in some way, “it” does not exist. Reason can only work with verifiable facts, and in that way we know the true and the false. Anything that might exist outside of empirical human experience is irrelevant, and is best simply ignored. This core/heart belief in Western cultures has made it nearly impossible to perceive the genuine working of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, the fundamental reason the ministry of the Holy Spirit seems more visible outside the North Atlantic nations is a matter of perception. We experience what we are conditioned to perceive. Since the dominant paradigm in North Atlantic nations is rationalistic, humanistic, and materialistic, we do not expect to see reality outside the boundaries established by our minds. Man is the measure and reason is the method; thus we are conditioned not to “see” outside that which is tangible—that which can be weighed, measured, counted, and apprehended by the five human senses. Emotional learning/perceiving is distrusted or dismissed, because it is not subject to reason.

Where rationalism is supreme, there is an unwillingness, even an inability, to perceive the spirit world, both the evil and the holy. Differences lie in our perception, not in a chameleon-like God. In the West, we live in a one-dimensional “Flatland” with inability to see in all dimensions. So we look elsewhere, places safely at a distance from our comfort zones, to revel in the evidences of the Holy Spirit’s activity in this world.

The Spirit as Power

Initially, I was astonished to learn that my students at a teachers’ college in South Africa believed firmly in the reality of the spirit world, the presence of the ancestral spirits, and the validity of dreams. Even with education and church membership, the desire to gain “life force and power” was the major concern, not forgiveness for sin, victory over sin, or even knowing God personally. As South African G. C. Oosthuizen expressed, “The Spirit’s activity is not [considered to be] related to moral guidance but rather to vital force.”4

At the time I served in South Africa, there were some 1500 African-initiated church movements in the country; there are now reputed to be more than 6,000. Virtually all of these independent churches give great emphasis to the Spirit, believing that the Spirit does not manifest himself freely in the mission churches because the missions that originated in the Western world are considered to suppress activity of the Spirit.5 There are indeed sharp differences concerning the working of the Spirit that divide mission-initiated churches and African-initiated churches. The differences often concern the place of scripture as the norm of Christian experience, the reliability of religious experience stimulated by emotion, and the distinction or lack of it, between the Holy Spirit and the ancestral spirits.

In the absence of scripture as norm, the practice of the Spirit’s presence and power may become hopelessly entangled with ancestral reverence or worship. That confusion is also seen among Asian peoples where shamanistic practices have sometimes blended with Christian worship.6 Teaching of the Word would seem to be the antidote to this silent syncretism. But knowledge of the Word without experience of the Spirit is unpalatable to the African or Asian traditional religionist, so that knowledge may be isolated in a seldom-used “spare room” of life. Quite independently of that knowledge, the spirits’ guidance is sought in matters of daily belief and living.

Those who become leaders (in African traditionally-oriented cultures) play a special role in access to the Spirit. Because they are higher in the hierarchy (ladder) of power, and thus closer to the Supreme Spirit, they become the interpreters of the divine and mediators for the people. The ability to see hidden sin and prophesy about the future lies with these leaders, as well as the power to heal, give baptism to open the way for redemption, and determine what liturgy should be followed. They frequently become Messiah figures to their followers—Shembe, Leselinyane, Alice Lenshina, Simon Kimbangu, are some of the familiar names in Africa.

Spirit or spirits?

These religious experiences appear to be Spirit-centered, but do not always distinguish between the spirits.7 The word of God is often not normative; it is replaced by experiencing spirit-power.

People go into trances, fall on the ground, laugh and cry uncontrollably, speak with strange sounds, and foretell future events. The spirits through possessed individuals can bring disaster to individuals and villages as well as demonstrate protection from dangers with a frequency that is beyond mere chance.8

Is God’s only answer, “I can do everything you can do, but do it better”? Is the Holy Spirit primarily the emotional side of believing? Is the Holy Spirit only at work when there is evidence of unnatural or supernatural power? So it is correct to ask, What will happen when someone is controlled by the Spirit?

On or In?

The Old Testament speaks of the Spirit acting upon people, from the outside… like a storm wind blowing on people. The effect is real and powerful, but not essentially internal. The Spirit “fell upon” as with Ezekiel or Gideon (Ezek 11:5 and Judg 6:34). The Spirit came upon Saul (1 Sam 10:10; 11:6).

In the New Testament the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit in us, as in Rom 5:5, “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 8:1-11 emphasizes the Holy Spirit dwelling within. Hebrews 10:16 quotes Jer 31:33 with reference to the New Covenant to show that God makes it internal: “I will put my laws on their hearts, and I will inscribe them on their minds…” The Lord promised that the Spirit would be in the believer: “The Spirit of Truth… dwells with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:17), and would flow forth from the believer to refresh: “let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’ (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive.)” (John 7:38-39).

Without biblical teaching and examples to stand on, “we would easily slide into the notion that the Spirit of God is just about feelings, ideas, atmospheres of thought, in which nothing necessarily gets done. This is far from the truth.”8 The Holy Spirit is not synonymous with emotion, though his presence and working evokes powerful emotions. The emotions come from ourselves, a proper and blessed response to him, to his working within us. Suppressing emotional responses does not necessarily limit the Spirit’s working, but it does rob us of the richness of Christian experience. Many Africans, Asians, and South Americans are unwilling to lose that richness. Discouraged by a dominantly rationalist approach to the gospel, they may wander into areas controlled by unholy spirits.

If emotion is not the primary work of the Spirit, what does he do? He works within, transforming and uniting to Christ. The Holy Spirit is not simply like the attractive clothes a man wears, but like the inner dynamic of the man himself. His work is not primarily to give us emotion in our worship, but to work inwardly—transforming our total lives as we are filled by the Spirit.

The Issue Is Control

The key issue is control. Satan, the deceiving enemy, seeks to control this world and everyone in it. To do that, he must hide the cross, mythologize the resurrection, and limit man’s mind to only what can be learned empirically. By so limiting man’s rationality, man can be controlled. As C. S. Lewis expressed in Screwtape Letters, the enemy’s great achievement would be stimulating man to be a “magical materialist.”

“Losing control” is literally a fate worse than death for many. A study of assisted-suicide deaths, after the state of Oregon twice approved legislation permitting doctor-assisted suicide, established that uncontrolled physical suffering was reported in only 20% of suicides. Others “appear to be motivated largely by the threat of losing control of their own lives.”9

Knowledge of the future is coveted—so we can control that future to favor ourselves. As a riddle puts it, “What is worth a million dollars today, but only 25 cents tomorrow?” It is tomorrow’s newspaper, worth a million dollars if it could tell us in advance what tomorrow would bring so that we could control those events for our benefit.

Attempts to use the spirits for increased control are seen in such non-significant issues as who wins a soccer game, and also at critical points such as protecting soldiers from bullets in battle. Charms “empowered” by a sorcerer—a witchdoctor—are buried in the center of the field before games, and others are carried by players during the game. Sorcerers give magical drinks, skin lotions, or a magical phrase to chant during battle.

The desire to control is an integral part of man. The manner of control is the difference. A culture may attempt to manipulate through emotion, or through spirits by use of spells and charms. Rationalism seeks no less to control, but uses the path of reason to know and control the destiny of self and others. But the Holy Spirit’s control is indirect, exalting Christ as Lord, the One who is in control. In daily living, he guides and instructs so that Jesus Christ is in control.

The Holy Spirit is indeed manifest in great explosions of revival and power. But to seek those evidences as the primary work of the Holy Spirit is like seeking the explosion of fireworks on America’s Fourth of July as the way to keep America independent. The fireworks are a celebration of what exists. They raise patriotic feelings in many who watch the display. But they have very little to do with the business of winning and maintaining liberty and independence. Freedom is the point, not the celebration.

Fireworks do not solve the issue of control, nor even convince those who would take away independence that they could not win. Victory is won through loyal soldiers controlled by capable generals. Startling manifestations of the Spirit show his power, attracting attention but also sometimes eliciting a desire to manipulate those manifestations, as Simon demonstrated in Acts 8. They may be like fireworks—dramatic and awesome. But essential loyalty has not been changed—it is still self in control.

The truly remarkable work of the Spirit is done in changing individual hearts from self-loyalty to God-loyalty. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to exalt Jesus, to establish his Lordship over the whole earth and everyone on it. For individuals to give glory to Jesus requires a radical transformation in the very core of a woman or man. That is the work of the Spirit which we welcome, and of which we are not afraid.

But in missions we too often look for visible changes, equating them with belief and new life in Christ. This visible part of a culture is behavior, the hundred thousand things that we do, say, and use virtually every day of our lives. It is by no means the whole of culture, though when among people of a different culture we are preoccupied with these differences of mannerisms, speech, foods, clothing—nearly endless differences occupy our attention.

Change at this level is often rapid, a matter of novelty, seeking advantage or enjoyment, or adjusting to new social situations. There is usually little resistance because there is little threat to an individual’s sense of self and significance. Even though superficial, changes in behavior may be mistaken for deeper change of the heart—the core commitments on which lives are built.

That innermost or core is called the heart in scripture. The core is made up of “the verities” on which life is built. It determines how we respond to all that surrounds us and places demands on us, from simple survival to satisfying personal relationships. It may be called the “kidney” in some cultures, the “stomach” in others, or even the “liver.” Whatever it is labeled, there is an invisible core in an individual and in a specific culture. This deep and closely-guarded core is the determiner of everything else in a person or society. There, and there alone, are resolved the “issues of life.” “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt 15:18-19). The core, the heart, must be changed.

But How is Change Possible?

We are faced with a deep dilemma. This core is essentially unchangeable after it is established in the first years of life. Not only is the core unchangeable, but it is essentially unchallengeable. There is such deep commitment to the components of the core that a challenge is considered first laughable, then ridiculous. A continued challenge arouses animosity, then rejection. Finally, challenge leads to anger and possibly violence. The challenge must be silenced because it is wrong! If the challenge is seen to be valid, then the innermost being of a person or culture is threatened and may begin crumbling. Self-identity is lost, self-respect is destroyed, and the person/culture is left adrift in a confusing and frightening world.

But entry of the Holy Spirit changes that core, bringing hope and new life. It begins with a new birth. “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ …What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:3, 6). There is no natural way by which the heart/core can change or be changed without shattering the individual. Only by the Holy Spirit can make the new birth occur that begins the new life in Christ. And thus is God’s promise fulfilled, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and I will make you walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances, and you will do them”(Ezek 36:26-27).

Through personal experience, a thirst and hunger for God may develop. With that deep desire, a choice may be made to seek God’s renewal. Then he fulfills his promise and through the new birth he begins the work of growing a member of the family of God. It is in this miracle of growing transformation that the greatest work of the Holy Spirit among people is seen. He works in the heart first. “To get at that requires a degree of power greater than anything which… probes the interior of the atom or the depths of space. It would be inconceivable … that such power could be at work without results that would show up in all directions.”10 Behavioral change certainly results, but is not the cause of transformation.

Even as the basic core of every man is created from birth through approximately the seventh year, so is the new life in Christ created, beginning with the new birth. And with that beginning, the Holy Spirit lives and works within and we are being transformed. Paul sums up the power of his work in us “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12a). And be like him! It is as we are filled by the Spirit that his work proceeds.

But what does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? “It means to be controlled by the Spirit,” responded an African church leader. “If I am controlled by the Spirit, I can be expected to act in ways that are consistent with the very character of God.”

The Greatest Work of the Spirit

This is the great work of the Holy Spirit, to give new life and control that transforms the very core of an individual and group. The Spirit exalts Jesus so that he is known and worshiped as Lord of all. Even the sensational acts of the Holy Spirit have only that as their purpose. Concentrating on the actions rather than control is to misunderstand and misuse demonstrations of the Spirit’s powerful role. His work is intended to deliver us from both the fear of spirits and the blindness of unrelieved rationalism.

We know the Holy Spirit is the one who reveals and teaches, enabling sinful man to perceive holy Truth. Without his work, mission anywhere is an utter impossibility. Without his work, there would be no deep consciousness of sin, but only a sense of failure. Without his work, there would not be a deep thirsting for God, or for righteousness and salvation. Without the Spirit’s work, we would not personally or collectively experience the power of God in transforming us into the likeness of Christ.

The only thing we have to fear in the work of the Holy Spirit is being thrust out of our rationalism and self-control. But as we exchange self-control for Spirit-control, he will exalt Christ who “will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). This is the miracle of missions.


1 . Mark Ritchie, Spirit of the Rain Forest (Chicago: Island Lake Press, 1996) 122.

2 . Ibid., 227-8.

3 . Marvin Wolford, Free Indeed from Sorcery and Bondage (San Rafael, CA: Pathway Press, 1999).

4 . G. C. Oosthuizen, Post-Christianity in Africa: A Theological and Anthropological Study (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1968).

5 . Ibid., 122-3.

6 . Note the highly controversial presentation by Chung Hyun Kyung at the World Council of Churches Assembly in 1991 in which she identified the Holy Spirit with other spirits recognized in traditional religions: “Come, Holy Spirit—Renew the Whole Creation” in Signs of the Spirit: Official Report of the Seventh Assembly of the WCC, Canberra, 1991.

7 . “A major concern at Canberra was to establish criteria for discerning the Spirit among the many spirits. Two were put forward...1) The Holy Spirit ‘points to the cross and resurrection and witnesses to the Lordship of Christ,’ 2) The Holy Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit...” (Kirsteen Kim, “Spirit or ‘Spirits’,” Missiology 32.3 [July 2004] 358).

8

8 . “Joseph Osei-Bonsu from Ghana draws attention to the fact that many African Christians are more Spirit-centered than Christ-centered, particularly because of the ‘endemic and chronic fear of evil spirits’ against which the Holy Spirit provides protection” (Kirsteen, “Spirit or ‘Spirits’,” 352). Allan Anderson makes the same point in Bazalwane: African Pentecostals in South Africa (Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa, 1992) 20.

9 . “Suicide: Patients fear losing control,” The Oregonian, February 24, 2000 (Portland, OR) A13.

10 . John Peck, The Holy Spirit (Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Publications, 1979) 21.

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)