Christianity Today Reports on Dr. Priest

In it’s March issue, Christianity Today reported on Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s recent missiology conference and its focus on how to respond to accusations of witchcraft on the mission field. The article heavily referenced Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies and Director of the Doctor of Philosophy in Intercultural Studies Program Dr. Robert Priest.

An entire track of the annual missiology conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School this February was devoted to witchcraft, a topic usually neglected by the field.

“We had thought this was a phenomenon that would die out,” said Robert Priest, professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity. “Instead we are finding that the conditions of modernity—urbanization and social differentiation under capitalism—are contributing to accusations getting stronger and stronger.”

Missionaries have commonly responded in two ways, said Priest. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

Priest says the approach is unbiblical. “Nowhere in Scripture do we find anyone attributing affliction or death to a human third party acting through evil occult means,” he said. “We’re not questioning Satan’s power; we’re questioning the diagnostic system that blames another person.”

“Missiologists have not yet done an adequate job of wisely engaging these realities,” said Priest. “We have a solemn responsibility to mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this.”



Dr. Priest in the Wall Street Journal

Dr. Robert PriestTrinity professor Robert Priest is referenced in the latest Wall Street Journal Houses of Worship column, “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire.” Author Brad Greenberg writes about the decline in missions—or rather the decline in missions that include evangelization. “The overwhelming majority of American missionaries today are ‘vacationaries.’ Joining mission trips of two weeks or less, they serve in locales where Christianity already predominates,” Greenberg writes. “The purpose, then, of their visit is to battle the ills of poverty and to stretch their own spirituality.”

Greenberg then refers to studies by Priest in which he finds, “82% of short-term missions today go to countries in the most-Christian third of the world. Only 2% land in the Middle East.”

In other words, short term mission trips are not about the people being visited but the visitors. The trend toward providing physical care without spiritual care attached to it is also a part of longer term missions work. “Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel.”

An extensive discussion of this issue between Trinity’s Robert Priest and Calvin College professor Kurt Ver Beek is available at Christianity Today. In the discussion, Priest warns about the effect that funding short term missions (STM) can have on career missionaries. Using the justification that a mission trip will benefit others, it can be simply an excuse to fund a youth outing.

A case could be made that many American congregations and youth ministry programs have discovered a way to fund programs that benefit their own congregations’ memberships much more consistently than those they ostensibly serve (while in the process making the challenge of funding the career missionary enterprise more difficult). It raises uncomfortable questions about whose interests are truly being served when the rhetoric justifying the funding of STM stresses results in the lives of those being served, while virtually all research by STM leaders has focused on the benefits to the short-term missionaries and their congregations.

These are tough questions of course, ones that the Trinity community is seeking to engage.

Read the entire WSJ story, “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire.” →