evangelism, understanding, contextualization, patronage, folk religion


Faced with an unusual question from a Cambodian friend who had heard stories from God’s Word, I embarked on a quest for an answer. He worshipped an unusual and unfamiliar object and wondered whether he must abandon it to serve Christ. I knew he did, but I needed to explore the meanings ascribed to that object of worship to communicate the gospel more clearly, just as Paul did in Acts 17 while in Athens. According to Jesus’ parable of the soils in Matthew 13, fruitful evangelism involves understanding. How might individual missionaries and evangelists aid in that crucial need? With that question in mind, as well as my friend’s question, I embarked on extensive interviewing, qualitative research, and participant observation. In that process, I followed a novel framework I termed “ethnoscopic analysis” or “ethnoscopy,” which examines the problem scenario and the findings through four critical lenses. Through this grounded theory study, I came to understand that a spiritual entity, a “kru gom-nigh-uht” or birth teacher, was believed to dwell within the unusual object. That entity was perceived to offer benefits to the worshipper in exchange for keeping its obligations. I recognized this as a form of patronage and called it “spiritual patronage.” Acquiring that insight felt like Paul finding the altar to an unknown god. I was able to use the concept acquired through ethnoscopic analysis to begin sharing from their known beliefs and bridge to the previously unknown gospel, resulting in fruitful evangelism.