BOSTON — Can the 'spiritual DNA' of a community be altered?" That's the question posed in a Christian video called "Transformations."
Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee is convinced that it can be. In 1988, he and his wife, Margaret, were "called by God to Kiambu," a notorious, violence-ridden suburb of Nairobi and a "ministry graveyard" for churches for years. They began six months of fervent prayer and research.
Pondering the message of Eph.6:12 ("For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world..."), they prayed to identify the source of Kiambu's spiritual oppression, Mr. Muthee says. Their answer: the spirit of witchcraft.
Their research into the community revealed that a woman called "Mama Jane" ran a "divination clinic" frequented by the town's most powerful people.
After months of prayer, Muthee held a crusade that "brought about 200 people to Christ." Their church in the basement of a grocery store was dubbed "The Prayer Cave," as members set up round-the-clock intercession. Mama Jane counterattacked, he says, but eventually "the demonic influence - the 'principality' over Kiambu - was broken," and she left town.
The atmosphere changed dramatically: Bars closed, the crime rate dropped, people began to move to the area, and the economy took an upturn. The church now has 5,000 members, he says, and 400 members meet to pray daily at 6 a.m.
From just such experiences, a global movement of evangelicals has developed over the past decade that seeks to free cities and neighborhoods from social scourges even as it "takes them for God."
Through "spiritual warfare" and an in-depth research effort called "spiritual mapping," they aim to bring people to Christ and, in their words, "break spiritual strongholds" holding communities in their grip, whether they be vices, "false religions," or "territorial spirits."
The more aggressive, potentially confrontational aspects of these practices raise concerns within and beyond the evangelical community.
C. Peter Wagner, head of Global Harvest Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., is in the vanguard of the movement. He defines three levels of spiritual warfare: "Ground-level" involves casting demons out of individuals; "occult-level warfare" involves more organized "powers of darkness" [They target here New Age thought, Tibetan Buddhism, Freemasonry, etc.]; and "strategic-level warfare" directly "confronts 'territorial spirits' assigned by Satan to coordinate activities over a geographical area."
Spiritual warfare has been practiced most vigorously in other countries - particularly in Latin America and Africa - where the idea of demons has greater parlance. But its influence is growing in the United States, along with spiritual mapping.
Even as conferences on the subject attract larger numbers, these practices serve as a source of controversy. Among evangelicals, some question how much of a biblical basis there is, and just how far such prayer should go.
"A lot of people in the conservative camp say Scripture is fairly unclear about how aggressive one is to be, particularly in praying directly against demons or territorial spirits," says Jonathan Graf, editor of Pray! magazine. "They say, 'Just pray to God.' But more charismatic believers say, 'Scripture says we have all authority in Christ and can come against principalities and spirits, and we need to do that.' "
Mapping is the research tool - "the discipline of diagnosing the obstacles to revival," and it answers the questions: "What is wrong with my community? Where did the problem come from? What can be done to change things?" says George Otis Jr. Mr. Otis, president of The Sentinel Group, in Seattle, produced the "Transformations" video and has written a handbook on mapping: "Informed Intercession: Transforming Your Community Through Spiritual Mapping and Strategic Prayer."
He has visited cities worldwide and offers pastors a road map, including questions on the spiritual history and dynamics of their cities. They should gather, for example, detailed information on the status of Christianity, prevailing "social bondages," historical events that caused trauma, predominant philosophies and religions, and human groups and demonic powers that pose spiritual opposition.
Otis points to vivid examples in the Americas:
*In Hemet, Calif., a new pastor began noting on a map sites where what he believed to be negative spiritual influences were located: controversial religious centers, cults, youth gangs, and the West Coast's largest methamphetamine manufacturing facilities.
After years of research and targeted prayer, participants say, drug production has been dramatically reduced and corrupt police have been fired, gang members have converted, the "power of a demonic strongman" was broken, cults left town or were burned out, and Christians are in key leadership positions.
*In Cali, Colombia, home of the infamous drug cartel, pastors carried out a spiritual mapping campaign "gathering intelligence on political, social, and spiritual strongholds" in each of the city's 22 administrative zones. They began holding all-night prayer vigils involving thousands in the soccer stadium.
When vigils were followed by periods without homicides and the arrests of major cartel leaders, "a new openness to the Gospel was felt at all levels of society," and churches began to see "explosive growth."
Larry Showalter, pastor of Ruggles Baptist Church in Boston, is now exploring mapping and spiritual warfare and says the ministers' group he prays with weekly considers the spiritual dynamics of the city, though they haven't yet done systematic research. What they've recognized, he says, includes a "rampant spirit of unbelief," which tends to be fostered in the area's universities.
"We would pray against that spirit, in the opposite way, for faith to rise up and to dominate," he says. They also consider the social and religious history of the city. He hopes to revitalize The Boston Prayer Foundation, a city-wide ministers group, which could pursue mapping and spiritual warfare more vigorously.
Cause of controversy
While all evangelicals believe in the existence of demons, a great many are uncomfortable with the emphasis placed on them in spiritual warfare and mapping. "When you move into the area of why things occur in a city, some will say it's just social or economic or cultural trends," says Derrick Trimble, of the World Prayer Center. "Others will say that it has to do with demonic influences over an area."
"The church is coming to a level of spiritual understanding in the area of warfare that is more mature than ... in perhaps several centuries," insists Glenn Sheppard, of International Prayer Ministries, Conyers, Ga.
Yet Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, who is familiar with the world of Christian publishing, says, "Within the evangelical Christian community, there is a good deal of looking askance when somebody says 'spiritual warfare,' though there is much lip service to it. There certainly is a hard core who ... think that way, but the bulk do not."
Russell Spittler, provost at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif., suggests that the practices flourish most among Pentecostals. "Pentecostals approach Scripture literally, so they see the world populated with demons. It is not a far step to start naming them, assigning them territories, devising prayer strategies. For Pentecostals, 'spiritual warfare' is not a metaphor - it's reality."
Outside the evangelical community, the discomfort rises quickly when prayer targets other religious groups with the apparent aim of eliminating their influence and converting members. Otis has written in Pray!, "We are not asking God to 'make' people Christians.... Such requests violate human free will.... What we are appealing for is a level playing field, a temporary lifting of the spiritual blindness that prevents [people] from processing truth...."
Yet just two weeks ago, the Anti-Defamation League was outraged at the Southern Baptist Convention's promotion of a prayer guide urging members to pray for the conversion of Jews worldwide during the High Holy Days (see page 12).
"We are deeply offended," says Abraham Foxman, ADL national director, "that it's done on the eve of the most holy period on the Jewish calendar - and then to track and identify Jews by name! That means you target somebody by research."
The impulse to convert is natural to people of faith, says Martin Marty, of the Public Religion Project. "The offense comes in what looks like the breaking of the rules of the game when you begin to target.... It's when you name a proper name of someone devoted to God in a different way or even, you might say, to a different god, that people get their backs up. In a sense, you're saying, 'We're not really at home with American pluralism' - that sense that if we don't want holy wars, we do well to be respectful of each other."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society