What Forced Conversion and Poor Discipleship Have in Common

Welcome to the modern world. Now pick a religion.

The Orang Rimba people of central Sumatra were given this greeting last year when Palm Oil plantation farmers burned enough of Sumatra’s jungles that the Orang Rimba could no longer survive off the land. The government of Indonesia was willing to provide housing and schools for the Rimba, but to receive these benefits the Orang Rimba were forced to pick one of six nationally recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism.

The elders of the Orang Rimba met to decide which religion the community would follow. They have a survival mindset, and when faced with the government of the largest Muslim population in the world, they selected the religion that would give their children the best chance for success: Islam.

Soon after, the government issued national ID cards detailing the Orang Rimba’s chosen faith. Muslim leaders opened religious schools in the area to teach the Orang Rimba children. They claimed children are easier to convert into true Muslims.

But Did They Mean It?

Although on paper they are now officially Muslims, Rimba adults are still strongly animistic in their beliefs. They want to eat pork, uncover their heads, and give offerings to various jungle spirits. While they have verbally stated, “There is no God but Allah,” in their hearts they remain true to their animistic worship of forests, hornbill birds, and rivers.

The Orang Rimba “conversion” is not an anomaly. Superficial conversions have occurred in other groups and with other religions. A large portion of the Dayak people on the island of Borneo have “Protestant” written on their national ID cards. Christian missionaries have been working with Dayak peoples for more than one hundred years.

Dr. James Masing, a Christian Dayak politician in Malaysia, is quoted as saying Christianity was accepted by Dayaks, “not because of the promise of life after death” but because they could “increase their economic and social standing while alive.”

It was a head decision, not a heart decision. Today, Dayaks attend church and sing translated western hymns, but some Dayak Christians still practice animistic beliefs handed down from their ancestors. Once again it is evident the teachings of a new faith failed to filter into daily obedience.

When Conversion Isn’t Conversion

Two things have occurred in these examples. First, the community-oriented value system of Eastern culture allowed these peoples to choose their new faith as a group. When these decisions are made without the understanding of every group member, the resulting new faith is often syncretistic.

“Teaching about Jesus’s commands increases people’s knowledge about God and Christian life, while teaching them to obey equips them to live out the Christian life.”

Second, even for individuals who truly desire to embrace the new religion, mentally agreeing with the truth of a religion is different from applying the truths in daily life. The Orang Rimba people agreed to identify as Muslims but within months reembraced their ancestral animistic practices. Dayaks have identified as Christians for nearly one hundred years, but animistic beliefs still influence their everyday lives.

In both of these cultures, when new, logical beliefs intersect with tradition, they fall back to heart-led behavior. They may know what the new religion teaches, but their heart makes them do what “feels” right.

The Second Half of the Great Commission

If the Orang Rimba’s government or the missionaries to the Dayak hoped to make converts simply by telling them what they should believe, they are in for a huge disappointment. Yet the American church faces a similar risk.

If we educate our congregations or converts by only engaging them on an intellectual level, we’ll likely see a disconnect between what we teach and fruit borne in their lives. In this scenario, scriptural truth is not moving from their heads (intellectual education) to their hearts (values that are lived out).

The root problem is discipleship. Teaching people to obey everything that Jesus commanded is different from teaching people everything Jesus commanded. Teaching about Jesus’s commands increases people’s knowledge about God and Christian life, while teaching them to obey equips them to live out the Christian life.

Increasing knowledge does not always translate into daily obedience. Teaching obedience requires an example lived out. It requires time, and effort, and, at times, hard correction—all things that are best accomplished through deep-seated discipleship that goes beyond a momentary encounter.

The solution is not to stop engaging people’s mental capacity. However, if we want to see true, contagious life-change occur in our congregations, we must engage their hearts through meaningful discipleship.

Matters of the Heart

Heart engagement occurs through life being lived out one-on-one, which is a significant time investment. It can’t be relegated to a Sunday sermon series, otherwise people will be just like the Rimba, who only hear Islamic teaching when they attend a mosque, then generally stay true to life as they have always known it.

“If we want to see true, contagious life-change occur in our congregations, we must engage their hearts through meaningful discipleship.”

Even the Dayaks—many of who genuinely believed the gospel they received—had limited contact with early missionaries because of the vast geography of their native island. In both cases, without someone to model the message they chose, the Dayak and the Rimba fell back to their heart-led practices. In the same way, if we desire for the people we reach at home and abroad to live out their faith, the application of that faith must be effectively transmitted.

The idea of a remote tribe being practically forced to accept Islam is shocking to our western minds. The fruit of years of Christian missionary labors being marred by syncretism saddens us. Let us not make the same mistakes by assuming what comes out of our mouths is always sufficient for sustained heart transformation.

Praise God that he is able to bring others to salvation in spite of our mistakes. But let us also walk in obedience to the Great Commission, teaching discipling them to obey Christ with all their hearts.

Dr. Thomas Kay served in US churches fifteen years before moving overseas. He now teaches at a seminary in Indonesia. He loves equipping young pastors for success in church planting and exploring their island with his wife, Amy, and their three children.