In answering this missional and practical question, after a sampling of supernatural experiences, I would propose the following two main explanations. This list is based on my own missionary experience, observations, and research.
A Sampling of Experiences of Supernatural Power
This section showcases empirical supernatural experiences in the non-Western world. Historical records attest that in the majority world, there had been religious anticipation of healing. Hence, healing is a part of religious practice and expectancy in Christianity and in other religions. Such belief systems and experiences help people to anticipate the Christian God to heal when healing is warranted. In this environment, supernatural healing occurs more frequently across Christian traditions. People with various ailments, including different cancers, experience healing through God’s power.
For instance, a 14-year old boy in a tribal community in the Philippines had ulcers on his leg due to a fall seven years prior. With his leg broken right at the knee, he lived a very difficult life because his bones were growing. His leg was abnormally developed, bent and stiff, and he was not able to straighten it. His deformed leg could not touch the ground.Understandably, supernatural healings result in the growth of Christianity across nations in the majority world. As he could not walk, he hopped along with the help of a stick or just crawled on the ground. The treatment by witch doctors did not help. Eventually, his parents gave up on their pagan worship and decided to try Christ, and he was miraculously healed.Elva Vanderbout, “Report on Trip to the Alsados,” in The Missionary Challenge (Springfield, MO: April, 1954), 3.
In the same continent, people in the Himalayas were drawn to Christian faith with an openness to the supernatural manifestations of God’s power, particularly healing. Suresh Tamang’s testimony is a prime example. When his mother was languishing from numerous diseases, his father and the village priest sacrificed goats and chickens to their gods and implored for her healing with no effect. The priest went to other villages to purchase more animals for sacrifice, but the mother soon died. In his grief, Tamang went to a Buddhist lama and beseeched him to bring back his mother’s life. The lama visited the house and chanted prayers for a few hours, but with no result. Finally, upon hearing that the Christian God has the power to heal, Tamang decided to call a group of Christians from a nearby village. They visited his home and prayed for his mother, while the whole village kept an eye on them. To Tamang’s astonishment and delight, his mother came back to life. As a result, he and his family, along with twenty other households, totaling more than 160 people, accepted Christ as their Lord. Today Tamang leads around twenty new fellowships in the Himalayas, closely partnering with Asian Outreach.“A Miracle for Tamang,” Asian Report 222 (March, 1997), 8-9.
Understandably, supernatural healings result in the growth of Christianity across nations in the majority world. For example, the Evangelical Church of India in Tamil Nadu grew exponentially from a few hundred to fifteen thousand in sixteen years. And the growth occurred primarily through the ministry of healing and exorcism. Furthermore, in many churches in China, a large number of new believers have come to Christ as a direct result of healing experiences.Julie Ma, “The Impact of Healing on Growth of Christianity in Asia: An Empirical Investigation” Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology, 2019: 4(2), 283-296.
Similarities in Religious Worldviews
Many non-Christians in the majority world are followers of established religions, such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Taoism. The majority of these religious followers, including Christians, maintain the widespread animistic beliefs manifested in the worship of ancestor spirits.On the other hand, especially in the case of Christianity, such an encounter can challenge Western, rationalized versions of religion and thereby recover the supernatural dimension of faith. On the one hand, this encounter between an established faith (such as Christianity) and pervasive animistic assumptions can result in what is called syncretism, creating a hybrid religious system. On the other hand, especially in the case of Christianity, such an encounter can challenge Western, rationalized versions of religion and thereby recover the supernatural dimension of faith. As a result, in many places in the majority world, Christianity has been more open to the supernatural work of God found in the Bible.
People in Asia, Africa, and Latin America tend to have an animistic worldview, and tribal groups are more pronounced in their beliefs and practices. According to Britannica Book of the Year, close to 100 million people practice traditional religions in Africa alone. They worship many deities and countless spirits. Their own priest or priestess serves each major deity.Britannica Book of the Year (England: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003), 306. In Asia, religions played a crucial role in providing solutions to life’s diverse challenges. In this vast continent, which is the birthplace of all the world’s established religions, animism is widespread. Even despite the advent of modern education and economic development along with political independence from the middle of the twentieth century, native and foreign religious faiths persist in this largest and most populous continent.Julie Ma, “Pentecostal and Charismatic Movement in South and South-East Asia” in Edinburgh Companions to Global Christianity, Ed. Ken Ross (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).
Most tribal groups in the majority world practice ancestor worship and spiritism. The role of religious specialists, often called priests, is essential. They are thought to have the power to connect people with (ancestor) spirits. On this view, ancestor spirits are never detached from reality; they always associate themselves with the living. The spirits have the power to heal the sick, bless or curse the family, or ward off misfortune. Therefore, when a family member becomes sick, family members will follow the advice of the priest by offering a sacrifice to appease the spirit. In this religious environment, people are wary not to neglect appeasing the ancestor spirits, lest misfortune befall the family.
The first similarity between animistic religions and Christianity in the majority world, especially among tribal groups, is the perception that the spirit world not only exists but also interfaces with the world of the living. For example, in such settings, the ancestor spirits are never considered to belong to a distant world; rather, they dwell with their living descendants.The indigenous worldview, which is now shared among Christians, enables them to be open to the supernatural power of the Christian God. They believe that there is a connection between the seen and the unseen world. Christians have a similar viewpoint that God is not only transcendent—he is also immanent. The Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, assists in our times of need. He enables believers to produce spiritual fruit in their lives, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). He empowers believers with natural and supernatural gifts (e.g., 1 Cor 12). In short, the Bible demonstrates that God intervenes in his children’s lives.
The second similarity between these two systems is the belief in the potency of supernatural beings, including the Holy Spirit, to heal and bless. The indigenous worldview, which is now shared among Christians, enables them to be open to the supernatural power of the Christian God. Any supernatural work, whether directly experienced or witnessed, becomes one of the key components to the reception of Christ.
To typical African minds, the spirit world plays a vital role in human belief and experience.Allan Anderson, “Pentecostalism and the Pre-Christian African Spirit World,” (Unpublished paper, 5), 2018. Asians generally have similar experiences and beliefs in the spirit world. These similarities in worldview may help explain the success of Christian mission and the frequently reported supernatural healings and exorcism. The experience of the power of God serves as an unquestionable proof of God’s supremacy and the authenticity of the claims of the Bible.
Abstract (Western) vs. Concrete (Majority World) Minds
People think differently. Some may think in concrete terms, while others in abstract ways. Concrete thinking focuses on the external, while abstract thinking refers to thinking indepth or going beneath what appears on the surface. Abstract thinking is based on conceptual ideas, but concrete thinking is based on what they see and also on evidence. Commonly, it is understood that Westerners are abstractly minded, whereas people in the majority world are concrete minded.
M. T. Tang states, “the ‘Abstract West’ refers to a phonetic-image linguistic determination, while the ‘Concrete East’ refers to a visual-image linguistic determination.”Man-to Tang, ‘The Distinction between the “Abstract West” and the “Concrete East” from a Linguistic Perspective,’ KRITIKE: An Online Journal of Philosophy, 2018: 12(1), 201–214. That is, most people in the majority world are concretizers who are oriented by “visual-image.” However, the introduction of Western education has converted a growing number of people in the non-Western world to abstract thought.
Related to these two thought process systems, one’s belief system influences perception. For a Christian (and a Jew, I believe), the biblical account of the fall of Jericho’s walls is sufficient to believe that God was pleased with Israel’s obedience and gave them an extraordinary victory.Commonly, it is understood that Westerners are abstractly minded, whereas people in the majority world are concrete minded. “Whether the walls fell from an earth-quake, sympathetic vibrations when the Israelites shouted, or in the wake of angelic bulldozers is of little consequence for believers.”Wayne Roberts, Assumptions and Faith (Broadview, IL: GIBBS Publishing Company, 1974), 38-39.
My question then is how abstract minded Westerners analyze these supernatural phenomena? Abstract thinking goes below what one sees, and the mind will search for a “reasonable” cause for the fallen walls. On the other hand, the concrete thinker accepts the presented report or realities seen on the surface. For the latter, the walls fell because God performed a miracle. Due to such a mindset and thinking process, the concrete thinkers tend to be open to the supernatural work of God and experience them far more than abstract thinkers (that is, Westerners).
It is possible for abstract Westerners to acquire a concrete thinking process, just as concrete majority-world people can achieve abstract thought. As noted above, concrete thinkers believe what they physically see and experience. This would explain in part why this divide between the abstract West and the concrete Rest is only relative, and why some Westerners are open to and do experience the supernatural work, while a substantial part of the majority-world believers find it difficult to accept miracles and healings today.