New Survey of Mongolian Christians: Troubling Signs of Syncretism

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In July 2011 AMONG Mongolia initiated a research project to learn about the condition of the Mongolian church as related to syncretism. The survey was conducted by Mongolia’s Press Institute using a set of questions provided by AMONG Mongolia. Our goal was to discover if there are traditional religious practices not related to Christianity that have been combined with Christian belief and expression. If so, what is the potential damage to Mongolian Christianity and can it grow spiritually with these combined elements?

There were some positive developments indicated by the survey. Brief examples:

Overwhelmingly, those who identified themselves as Christians did not avail themselves of advice by a monk or shaman, but preferred to bring their problems to their local Christian pastor (90.2%).

When asked who Jesus Christ was, 70.6 percent identified him as the only son of the only God.

78.4 percent identified the Bible as a unique book, unlike any other.

68.6 percent of Christian respondents say they have read the Bible (39.2) or the New Testament (29.4).

These answers represent a positive development. In fact, these issues are foundational for believers to understand if they are going to grow spiritually and replicate themselves with others.

However, there was also some troubling news regarding beliefs and habits. Specifically, it has long been said that many Mongolian Christians are syncretizing their Christianity with traditional Mongolian religious beliefs. There are many anecdotal stories that circulate about this trend, but no previous research, to our knowledge, that might quantify what these practices or beliefs are, to verify what many leaders believe is taking place. This survey does not provide comprehensive data supporting that hypothesis. But it does provide a strong, first-ever look into some basic beliefs indicating that syncretism in the Mongolian church is very significant and needs to be addressed by its spiritual leaders if Mongolian Christianity is to thrive with a sound and solid theology. However, a word of caution is appropriate.

This survey was taken of people professing to be Christians, but not Christian leadership. This survey does not address any possibility of leadership involved in syncretizing their faith in practice or from the pulpit. Certainly, if this survey is accurate then it is safe to assume that there must be some level of syncretism among some leaders—even anecdotal evidence points to this possibility. However, we don’t know this quantitatively since this survey does not address that dynamic.

Summary of Christian Respondents to nonChristian Survey Elements

This report will focus on six questions related to religious belief and practices. These questions were designed to discover where practices of Buddhism and Shamanism might be integrated into the religious expressions of Mongolian believers.

How often do you depend upon astrological readings?

If you have an idol or several idols in your home that you honor, please indicate which ones you have.

Do you believe the Burhan of the Buddhists is the same as the Burhan of Christians?

In your understanding, who is Jesus Christ?

When a person dies, do you believe their spirit enters another living being? (This is a question about the Buddhist concept of rebirth, not possession.)

If a deceased person is not properly honored by Mongolian religious rituals after they die, will that person’s spirit return to harm or trouble their relatives?

Answers to these questions presented some troubling facts. For instance, 68.7 percent of Christians stated that they depend upon astrological readings at some level from time to time. To the Westerner this might not seem like a significant question since astrology is not really taken that seriously in the West. However, in many Asian countries astrology is taken seriously. This is troubling because astrology represents a way of thinking about reality that is contrary to Christian truth.

When asked if they keep idols of one kind of another in their homes, 23.5 percent of Christians responded that they keep an idol or idols in their homes, with more than half of those being of the Buddhist or Shamanist variety. Curiously, when asked about idols, 56.9 percent answered that they kept a Christian image in their home. The question was posed in such a way as to ask about religious worship. In other words, 56.9 percent of Christian respondents essentially admit that they keep a Christian image in their home for the purpose of worship as they might a Buddhist or Shamanist image. The fact that 23.5 percent of believers keep nonChristian idols in their homes is troubling enough, but this additional statistic is also worrying. It seems to strongly indicate a more significant level of syncretism than anecdotal evidence indicates. Is this a failure to understand the exclusive nature of Christianity? It would seem so. This may also indicate greater trouble for countryside believers as countryside people tend to be more superstitious than city people.

Regarding the third question there was some good news. 49 percent of those identifying themselves as Christians responded that the Burhan of Buddhists is not the same as the Burhan of the Christians. One of Mongolian Christianity’s most significant debates is over what kind of vocabulary should be used in the Bible and Christian expression. Some might interpret this as lending some credence to the idea that Christians may be able to successfully infuse Christian meaning into what are traditionally Buddhist or Shamanistic terms. However, there is the flip side of this question to consider as well. 27.5 percent answered that the two “Burhans” were the same. This is a clear indication of a significant number of people syncretizing Buddhist belief into Christian belief. Approximately one in three Mongol Christians cannot separate the two. Additionally, 23.5 percent of respondents did not know if the two were the same or different. Combined, this represents 51 percent that don’t know the correct biblical response to the question. This is alarming, especially so, since Buddhism and Christianity are fundamentally different in their tenets about God, Buddha, and the spiritual. The two belief systems do not run in the same sphere, therefore, a Christian well-educated in the Bible would understand the difference between the two. This, however, does not seem to be the case with 51 percent of respondents.

When asked who Jesus Christ was, 19.6 percent answered that Jesus is someone who gives enlightenment (as in the Buddhist concept of enlightenment). In other words, Jesus is simply another Buddha. 3.9 percent stated that Jesus was just another spirit or deity just like any other that might be in Shamanism. Remember, these are answers coming from those who identify themselves as Christians. Combined, this puts the Christian response to these questions at 23.5 percent, nearly one quarter of professing believers holding a false view about the identity of Jesus. This is critical. Without a proper view of Jesus’ identity there can be no salvation.

When Christians were asked if a deceased person’s spirit enters another living being, 35.3 percent answered in the affirmative, with 23.5 percent answering that they don’t know. Combined, that’s 58.8 percent of the respondents not knowing the correct biblical answer. This is perhaps as equally alarming as the above-mentioned statistic. Essentially, more than one-third of those identifying themselves as Christians report that they continue to believe in the Buddhist concept of rebirth. 58.8 percent of Christians believing in rebirth or not knowing if rebirth is false is a significant problem for the Christian church.

To the question, “If a deceased person is not properly honored by Mongolian religious rituals after they die, will that person’s spirit return to harm or trouble their relatives?” 19.6 percent answered yes, with 23.5 percent not knowing. Again, combining these categories reveals 43.1 percent not knowing or believing the biblical perspective for this question.

The trend indicated from these questions may point to significant ignorance by Mongolian believers where the Bible is concerned. Clearly the Bible’s position on these questions can be easily understood. Why then do such large percentages of Christians hold views in these areas that are contrary to biblical norms? Some questions present themselves.

Is this a simple matter of discipleship or pulpit teaching? Are Mongolian believers not reading their Bibles? (In fact, 31 percent of Mongolian believers say they have not read the Bible or have read very little of it).

At what level does this survey indicate a failure by missionaries and pastors to encourage new believers to be rid of idols and their former religious practices?

The vocabulary most used in Mongolia for Christianity is sourced from Buddhism. In Asian countries language, culture, and religious beliefs are not necessarily separate things. What role does pre-existing religious vocabulary play in contributing to syncretism in the church?

Conclusions & Recommendations

The Christian movement in Mongolia is now more than 20 years old. One would assume that with a church of this age that understanding of biblical principles would drive Christians away from syncretism. This, however, does not appear to be the case. This survey seems to reveal that syncretism is more than significant, perhaps even driving. Syncretism can be the most dangerous enemy of the church. Historically, because of the mixing of two different religious systems, syncretism changes the belief structure and expressions of the church over time until it is no longer recognizable as Christian. Does this survey indicate that this happening in Mongolia?

More research should be done on the specific details of what this syncretism looks like and how the church community can develop creative and engaging ways to educate current believers as to the Bible’s requirements for living a holy life.

In terms of ministry, how can spiritual leadership make a significant and lasting difference on Mongolian believers to help those trapped in syncretism and foster a desire to follow Christ without reverting to former religious practices and beliefs? Three areas come to mind.

First, the Mongolian church needs improved discipleship. There are a significant number of para-church ministries that offer leadership training and some theological training. However, most para-church ministries do not reach the bulk of the Christian population. This is normal. Such ministries work on training the small number of people with whom they have relationships. Many pastors around the country have attended some of the training offered, but according to Mongolian Evangelical Alliance (MEA), they do not always apply what they have learned in their actual ministries since the training is usually not adapted to how Mongolians process information and learn. This means that people attending churches, the very place where they should be receiving the necessary teaching, may not be receiving the discipleship they need despite the efforts that are made. What are they receiving? It would be impossible to say without a monitoring project designed to observe and evaluate a broad range of teaching by churches.

Second, ministries should foster an increased emphasis on leadership development. People follow their leaders. If leaders become more open and direct about leaving behind false religious practices and strongly emphasize daily Bible reading—perhaps even a Bible reading project lead by church community leadership—many people will follow their lead and dedicate themselves more wholly to Christ.

Third, theological training for leaders is still needed, as evidenced by the responses of believers who are syncretizing traditional Mongolian religions with Christianity. Theological training for leaders is absolutely critical to help local pastors get a better handle on what is theologically acceptable and what is aberrant.

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