The ‘Wanbel’ Factor & Its Affect on the Gospel Reception in Remote & Unreached Places…Ten Years Later
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:17-18
A Tale of Two Testimonies and a Decade to Prove It
Many of you will remember the day – exactly 10 years ago today- when the Story of God & Mankind culminated in the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. On September 19, 2007, we wrote:
“The people sat and listened to the story of the cross today and then watched the short drama. As we broke into groups afterward, we were encouraged with what we heard. It was a long day as we sat and listened and talked, but they are very much in awe of the fact that He was perfect and clean and yet he died…in fact without fighting back when he COULD have. He had all power to do whatever he wanted and yet he WILLINGLY DIED FOR SINFUL UNDESERVING MEN!!!!
That was an amazing day – and week. We remember specifically hearing the testimonies of “Alambarə” and Gumentige in particular and rejoicing. But, as we listened to testimonies, we listened with ears and hearts which knew from our culture study that Wanbel Factor was going to skew what we would be hearing initially and that the litmus test would be time…discipleship…and then more time. Today, ten years later, only one of these two men ever showed the fruits of belief. What happened?
What is the Wanbel Factor?
Social Harmony is a phenomenon of unity in PNG. It is called in the local dialect ‘wanbel.’ This means literally ‘one belly’ or ‘one stomach’ and exposes one of the major themes of their culture, which is to live in agreement and for the village to “sit down together with cool stomachs.” Other cargo cults beliefs can also play into this as some cultures believe that once a society finds the right words and actions to do with ‘wanbel’, they will find the literal road to western cargo and the margin between the living standard of the west and this third world culture will finally close. ‘Wanbel’ exists in cultures throughout PNG, although the implications and rituals will differ from culture to culture. Do you see some possible conflict of interest when the gospel is presented? Even reading this very modest definition of ‘wanbel’, the spiritual mind, although unfamiliar with PNG culture, begins to see the potential for “rice Christians” – people who are committing verbally to Christ for other underlying reasons. As Christians, we are never promised health, wealth, prosperity or ‘wanbel’ here on earth across the board. Luke 12:51 reminds us that Jesus himself asked, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you but rather division.” The theme is throughout the entire Bible from beginning to end. We see the burgeoning effects of sin on mankind culminate into a stream of constant divisions between those who repent in humility and those who rebel in self exertion. In many times and cultures, confessing with your mouth would result not only in division, but in instant persecution and possibility of death. But, what about wanbel cultures where the gospel is sometimes embraced without thoughtful consideration as a societal expectation?
The “Wanbel” Factor & Its Effects on the Gospel in Remote Unreached Places
So, how is the presentation of the gospel affected when dealing with the PNG ‘wanbel’ system which accepts the gospel as a whole society and what does the serious church planter and missionary do about it?
First, we must know the languages and cultures in which we work. This understanding is essential. We are bringing Christ’s very own good news to men. It is an important stewardship and calls us to predict, preach…and then disciple well. We must study culture well and understand that in many unreached and isolated societies where they have no formal religion prohibiting them from hearing the gospel, there usually has been a hopeless feeling of disconnect from the modern world and very little outside influence of any kind. When the missionary arrives and seemingly has life and material goods figured out and since there isn’t much else vying for the village’s attention, the missionary can often expect a village-wide turnout. Part of culture study is realizing that if the gospel is at that time truly believed and accepted by a majority of the village, it may be expected that ALL members of a wanbel society make a profession to this new allegiance together in hopes for true social harmony that will lead to the other cargo cult fulfillments. In this type of ‘wanbel’ society, it can also be predicted that any change, including the gospel, will most likely be embraced initially in full by the entire society with little to no persecution. This is very good as it provides the long-term church planter with an open area to work for many years. This is also very bad because the purity of the universal church and the church’s growth throughout history has been brought about by such persecution.
Secondly, as church planters, we must pray for wisdom and be in it for the long haul. Time will tell. That’s discipleship. We must take the time to finish the work. We know from Scripture that God’s Word will not return void and he calls us to more than just preaching. He calls to “make disciples of all nations” which requires that we spend time with people, hearing their testimonies and asking questions to make sure they understand the gospel well. And then, we wait. While we wait, we do life with them. And while we do life, we give time for the Word to do its work – to divide the wheat from the tares. We keep teaching and exhorting and praying. This is a time for waiting on Christ. Abiding in him and trusting him with the results. When we first presented the gospel, almost every adult in the village made a verbal profession of faith. Ten years later, in accordance with the parable of the sower, about 50% of these are still following, faithful or fruitful. Like the parable, many never had any change of heart or change of allegiance. Some have even become cargo cult leaders who are actually persecuting and hostile towards the present day leadership of the village church once their cargo cult dreams were not realized. They followed the gospel like Judas who followed Christ while the going was good, but time tells the whole story.
In conclusion, as church planters working among the unreached and isolated, the gospel may be accepted well and without hesitation, which will require wisdom. When church planters are dealing with cultural implications on every universal level of life, they must think clearly. Know the culture. Know the worldview. Be able to predict the response this particular culture will have to the gospel. And, then stay to help them wade through the aftermath of the gospel impact on their culture. Stay long after the “new” of the teaching has worn off and the confessions grow cold. Stay courageously through the sicknesses, the deaths, and the persecution. Help those who are walking in their new faith to keep their eyes fixed on that greater weight of glory and the hope that we have been promised.
Ten Years Faithful
As we continue to pray for “Alambarə,” we rest in the fact that he has heard the truth – many times. And we rejoice in what the Lord is doing in those who have believed and their ongoing burden for those who have not believed and those who still have never heard. Take a look back at some of the first confessions of Kletus Gumentige, who has been functioning as a church elder for 7 years. Gumentige saw his sin and repented and then began to see the entire culture around him with clear spiritual eyes:
September 19, 2007 ~ Today as Bill talked with Gumentige (Kletus) and some of the guys today, he read in Isaiah where it says that all who fashion idols for worshipping are fools. Gumentige said to Bill, “That’s us right there…fools. Remember when we went over to the other village and you saw our custom where we blow the bamboo pipes for the spirits? Well, we had a meeting before that and said…maybe if we show the white man our biggest custom, they’ll show us their customs and we can find the road to money. That was so stupid! Now, I am thinking that God let us think like that and used our bad thinking to put our sin right out in the open.”
This is only the work of a good, and sovereign God and He alone is worthy of praise. May we all see our own cultures with as clear a view today. Please pray for Gumetintige and the other church leadership. Pray for us as we continue to work and serve the Inapang church and finish the translation. Our Itutang elders will be coming out to the orientation campus next week to share with the new missionaries and teach a couple of modules. Please pray for them and Promise as they travel out via canoe/road. Thank you for your faithful prayer and support these many years. We LOVE being your ambassadors and serving side by side with you for the glory of the Only One Who Is Worthy!
By God’s Grace and For His Glory~