Science in Christian Perspective



The Gospel, the Church, 
and the Population Explosion*

William A. Smalley**

From: JASA 14 (March 1962): 11-14.

The population explosion, already very serious in some underdeveloped parts of the world, threatens to be the major world problem within a generation or two. The many difficult problems which it presents to the Christian church are crucial to Christian ethics, and to Christian social responsibility. But in the light of the very nature and meaning of the Church, in the light of its responsibility to witness and to grow, it is the rooting of the gospel in men's hearts which remains at the very center of the problem of the church in the face of the fantastically expanding world population.

The evangelistic forces and missionary branches of the church are seriously concerned about the growing gap between the church and the population. In percentage terms the world-wide church is shrinking. Into the gap more and more time, money, and effort are being poured. At no time in the history of the world have there been more missionaries at work, or such large missionary budgets. The American Bible Society, to give one example, in 196o distributed an all-time record of 23,210,000 pieces of Scripture. To do so it expended a record budget, and it seeks to do more in 1961.

Dissipation of Energy

But as we observe the efforts put into the preaching of the gospel in this day of exploding population we make some disturbing observations, observations which keep coming uneasily to the consciousness of many thoughtful Christians. For one thing we seem to require

*Presented before the 16th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Houghton, New York, August 2225, 1961.

**Dr. Smalley is an anthropologist and is Editor of Practical Antbropology.

ever larger expenditures of energy simply to mark time or to make small advance. In many respects the same misssionary work seems to require greater and greater output. As compared with a generation or two ago, our missionaries must be older, have more education, have more specialized training. Our selection processes are more elaborate, time-consuming, and expensive. "Outfits" as missionaries often call their belongings, grow larger and larger as missionaries take with them the way of life to which they are accustomed, and this way of life is ever more complex with each new year. Ever larger sums of money are needed to support the program, and the machinery for raising the money becomes more and more elaborate, until larger and larger percentages of the money raised go to keep the machinery moving.

In the countries abroad where missionaries work, mission stations develop greater complexity in spite of the strong reaction to "compound" missionary work which has grown up in missionary theory. Mission residences with only one missionary, trying diligently to avoid the dangers of a "Little America" in a mission compound, are also complex, and in many parts of the world the missionary finds that a disproportionate part of his time is engaged simply in keeping the machinery going, the car running, the generator operating, visiting mission executives traveling, prayer letters moving, and disputes and frustrations within the church cooling. He is called on for government contacts, social contacts, committee meetings that require a day's travel. He is an amateur linguist, translator, hymn writer, and mimeograph operator. He teaches, doctors sores, and experiments with growing a variety of hybrid corn, or importing roosters to improve the chickens of the area. On Sunday he travels many miles to preach a hastily prepared sermon with a nagging feeling of guilt that he knows so little of the thinking of the people whose minds he is trying to meet, and of the basic emotions of a people whose hearts he is trying to touch.

Labor-saving and communication devices conserve a great deal of energy but part of the gain is lost through the effort required to keep them going. The radio broadcasts require personnel and committee meetings, machinery and repairs. And the more the devices multiply, the more they seem to bring the focus of attention on themselves, on techniques, on programs, and the more remote people seem to become.

It is clear, as Nida has pointed out' that there are tendencies in social systems analogous to entropy in physical systems. Energy becomes dissipated in heat, in overcoming friction, in unrelated,- random activity. The church and its missionary arm feel the effects also. Many a missionary knows that with today's responsibiliues he has to ran hard just to keep up.

Weak Impact

A second disturbing observation which we must make as we observe the preaching of the gospel in the face of the population explosion is that usually its impact is weak. There are exceptions in many cases, and in periodic movements that spring up at one place or another in the world, but it is partly by these exceptions that we can so dramfically see how weak the impact usually is.

I have seen the impact of the gospel on a college student, the son of a godly professor, a leader among a group of intelligent, sophisticated, cynical rebels against the gospel. None of us who knew him at the time will forget the electrifying impact of the service in which he gave in to God, and was converted in the most dramatic sense of that term.

I have visited in the wake of a "people's movement" which spread rapidly through people of the Meo and Khrnu mountain tribes of northern Laos. Several hundred people turned to Christ in a month. The initial explosion of the spread had tapered off when I was there, but the impact was still very strong in the new Christian villages. It was contagious, exciting, thrilling.

I have sensed the change in impact of a church service when the form of presentation changed. During one Sunday morning service in Africa the congregation was restless, noisy, paying little attention through the Western-type routine of the singing of Western hymns. But then the choir powerfully and movingly sang an anthem in a more indigenous style. Restlessness and boredom were instantly gone, and the only noise as the music died away was that of heartfelt "Hallelujah!" and "Amen."

Last Christmas I began to sense more fully at least part of the reason why so many nominal American Protestants are turning Roman Catholic. At a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, what had always seemed to be a medieval anachronism of Latin gobbledygook became a moving emotional experience. As the drama of the mass unfolded, and came to a climax in the priest elevating the host, a climax signalled by the tinkling of the bells, there was no doubt about the emotional impact on that large congregation, and on me. There was no intellectual content so far as I was concerned, and to me hardly any Christian meaning, for the symbolism is too far removed from mine, but there was impact. And although I assume that the mass is usually far more perfunctory than this one, and emotional participation by the communicants less complete, the contrast with the normal Protestant service was startling. Whether it is in the ritualistic or more "informal" branches, the typical Protestant service is by comparison insufferably dull, hopelessly blah.

Here, too, there are cultural forces at work. The entropy which characterizes the system of course contributes to the weak impact. But there is another, related human problem as well. It is that in a communication system the fact of repetition and familiarity lessens impact. The burglar alarm, when it goes off after months of silence arouses a flurry of excited activity, but if it -develops a short circuit and goes off every few hours people soon settle down and the impact is considerably lessened. We do not hear the noon whistle, although we hear the fire alarm blown unpredictably by the same whistle. West Berliners live under the constant presence of war and of Soviet might, but it is only when a new and unpredictable move is made, a wall is built across the city, that their situation is jolted out of the routine with a new situation which for the time being has tremendous impact upon them.

The Protestant service relies more on intellectual understanding, on meaning and content than the emotional drama of the mass, but the impact of the communication has so often run out.

Distorted Cornmunication

A third disturbing observation which we must make about the gospel in the face of the population explosion is that it is distorted in the very act of its communication. This is not a reference to problems of orthodoxy or of theological points of view as these are traditionally seen in the West, but to problems in the way in which the message is understood, the interpretation or the reception.

A missionary doctor looks upon himself as serving mankind in order to serve Christ and bear witness to His love, but he may be interpreted by the community as exploiting the community, a rich man having come all this way to make money off of poor people. The teacher may be thought of as a propagandist, and the evangelist a spy. Or, a missionary is one who comes here to ride around for three or four years in a jeep and then go home for a rest. He must be rich. How does he earn his money? Why doesn't he do anything?

People interpret new things on the basis of the old and the familiar. A tribal group with relatively little knowledge of the West had become familiar with the missionary family living in one of its villages. They had heard how cans with pictures of carrots on the label had carrots inside, and ones with pictures of beans had beans. Then one time when the missionary family returned after an absence they found that their house had been broken into. Nothing had been touched except for the baby food---cans with pictures of babies-which had been opened and examined.

One of the proofs that missionaries eat Negroes is Aunt Jernima pancake flour. Then, too, missionaries have a religious custom, where they go out on a hill somewhere, face the setting sun, build a fire, and roast human fingers on a stick and eat them rolled up in bread.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ the modern sceptic sees a myth. The Navajo, on the other hand may be terrified by the account. Fear of the dead, and of ghosts, is extremely acute to him and here are missionaries who make so much of death and a "ghost."

These are extreme examples, but all of the preaching of the gospel must pass through the screen of the hearer's language and experience. The distortions involved make it mandatory that the witness be presented in such a way that the least distortion possible will occur. This is why the emphasis on national preachers as against the foreign missionary. But if the foreign missionary has so indoctrinated the national preacher that he cannot do anything but repeat what he has heard in more or less the form he has heard it, we are not much ra ther ahead h ere.
Reactions in the Church

These are not new observations. Characteristically responsible missionaries, mission leaders, and many Christians have reacted to these observations with a variety of responses in which we can distinguish two poles.

One pole leans toward placing the responsibility for these disturbing facts on God, and on personal obedience to Him. It recognizes the Holy Spirit as the ultimate source of energy for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. It recognizes in individual obedience the possibility of an unbroken circuit along which the energy from God can flow. In the face of these disturbing observations its recourse is to self-examination, confession, prayer.

By experience, and by the authority of the Scriptures, we know the importance of this approach to the problem. Yet it is interesting also to see the cultural limitations within which God is expected to seek obedience. Few Caucasian American missionaries would respond in the affirmative to a question such as, "Is it possible that God would require a White missionary to marry into an African family?" The reaction of the French missionary would often be very different, much more open to the possibility. If there were a Brazilian missionary his response might well be, "Why not?"

The other pole leads toward the placing of responsibility on methods and techniques. This is, of course, a very characteristic American reaction. We enlist linguistics and anthropology to the missionary cause. We say a great deal about the importance of language learning precisely because we see that language has an enormous amount to do with understanding, and even impact. Our skills of writing and technology of printing are being enlisted to the cause of Christian literature. Our gadgets, radios, public address systems, cars, airplanes, are all being used.

-Of course, most people stand along the line between the two poles, subscribing to both, and combining them in different amounts, as they look for a formula by which the church can witness to the world today, and even catch up with the population explosion.

The Church

But what of the church itself? This is the meeting ground of the Holy Spirit and society, the believer in a social order, the Body of Christ. It exists to bear glory to God, to witness to His redemptive grace in Jesus Christ. Its function is to grow.

Much is being said about the "indigenous church," in terms of a church which is "self-supporting, selfgoverning, and self-propagating," in missionary circles these days. Yet valuable as these "three selfs" are, this understanding of an indigenous church does not touch upon the problems we are here discussing.2 The suburban church in the United States is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, but in terms of spiritual relevance it may still be hopelessly lacking in impact, dissipating enormous energy in a helter-skelter of activities, and operating within its own particular middle-class American distortion of the gospel (which, to be fair, is probably no more of a distortion, though a different distortion, from those of other peoples and classes, times and places).

There are other ways to look at churches than the "three self.s." There is the responsibility which they show to God and to the community (including the extension of the community throughout the world) and there is the relevance of their message, as well as its power. The "three selfs" have been an emphasis to counterbalance the colonialist mission policies of the past ' but they are not enough. Although there is a very true sense in which the church must be indigenous (in a fuller sense of that word, not just the "three selfs"), must be rooted in the culture where it lives, there is also the equally important fact that it must not be indigenous. It must be different from the culture in which its roots grow, in it but not of it, transcending it, standing in contrast to it, struggling to grow to greater maturity under God's judgment of it. In this climate die church can tam to a consideration of how well it is witnessed to the needs of its generation, can turn in obedience to the power of the Holy Spirit. And out of this climate may come a witness which is pointed, cutting deeply to the issues which people feel, a witness which has impact because it comes with freshness and relevance. People are stimulated to a more thoughtful understanding of the Scriptures, so that the distortions which remain are at least not casual ones resulting from half-listening. A new flood of energy, with a new focus is available in Spirit-empowered enthusiasm.

The Prophet

A church like this is not the fruit of the reports of study groups, evangelism weeks or revival meetings. It grows up in response to a prophetic voice in its generation and in its culture. It blossoms under the new impact of the reformers, or of Wesley, or on a smaller scale in the little-known leader of a small movement. Some people accept the message gladly. For the first time the Scriptures come alive, seem to have some point to them, some meaning to life. Their faith is exciting, their witness contagious. Others reject it. They see too many flaws, too many theological inconsistencies. It may be too shocking, too radical, not orthodox enough. But nobody who comes into serious contact with it can simply let it pass by with indifference. The impact is too great.

It is the orthodox who rejects the prophets with the most vigor. This has been the history of God's dealing with man. And, in turn, the prophets have protested the main stream of the church of their time. Included in the message of the Old Testament prophets was the condemnation of the religious life of the religious leaders of Israel.

Christ said he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. But to the religious leaders of the Jews it seemed as though he were flouting everything sacred, and it was not until later that the meaning of that greater "fulfillment" became evident, that Christ was really concerned with what people meant by what they did, by their motives, more than with the actual form of behavior. Christ in turn reserved his harshest words for the orthodox religious leaders: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"

The Jerusalem church was the mother church, but some of the apostles began preaching to the Gentiles. This was shattering to the self-image of some of the Jerusalem Christians. Paul speaks up sharply against their Judaism.

Later on, in the reformers, we see men who wrestled with enormous theological changes related to the problems of their day, and to the rigid theology and ecclesiasticism which characterized the nearly monolithic church.

And in our own day, in certain parts of the world, we see a multitude of prophets, some of them deeply devoted to Christ, others ready to make a good thing out of the fact that the church is out of touch with the realities of the needs of people. South Africa with its hundreds of small movements and its "Black Christs" is one notable example.

The church in every generation, and perhaps every culture, needs another Prophet if it is to break out of the deadly routine to speak with impact to a new group of people. The prophet's gift goes beyond that of the evangelist precisely because it contains that element of iconoclasm, of radical thinking, of restating the gospel in some way which seems more relevant to the burning issues which people now feel, rather than to those of a previous generation or a different culture. The prophet is usually not a theologian in the academic sense, but in some area of the gospel in relation to life he has struggled with a new synthesis, a sharp reminder calling men back to God, and doing so with impact because it calls into question some of the easy assumptions derived from the past.

What happened in Jesus' day when new wine was poured into old wineskins? The energy involved was too great. They burst. Usually the older institutions cannot contain the new movement, although there are some important exceptions. Splinter movements are formed, and the older institutions stand uncomfortable in the face of this radicalism, which may be anything from a theology to an emotional expression. Sometimes these movements prove to have been singularly God's channel, the Holy Spirit's means of operation. Sometimes they ultimately have a profound effect on the institution from which they broke off.

I do not mean to imply that the Holy Spirit is not operating in His whole church. I firmly believe He is. But in the wake of a genuine Christian prophet He works with a spontaneity and electric effect-energy of impact which is usually not otherwise known. And this, it seems to me, comes only in the context of the shattering of some of our most cherished institutions, our assumptions, and in particular our pride and smug security, making the understanding of our faith relevant to our day once more.

Without this painful rending of our blase sophistication the church will have little to say to the population explosion, except to offer it platitudes. The platitudes may be true, but nobody will listen. It will revert to being, in effect, a little anachronistic enclave in one part of the world or another, like the ancient Coptic church for centuries in the Middle East, ingrown, isolated, seeking little more than its own self-preservation in a hostile world.


1. Eugene A. Nida, Message and Mission, New York: Harper and Bros., 1960, p. 150 ff. I am indebted to Nida for several of the ideas reflected in this paper.

2. William. A. Smalley, "Cultural Implications of the Indigenour Church," Practical Anthropology, 5 (March-April, 1958), p. 51-65.

3. Bengt Sundklef, "Bantu Messian and White Christ," Practical Anthropology, 7 (July-Aug., 1960), pp. 170-176.