World War II ended many, many years of geographic isolation for some of the inhabitants of certain South Pacific islands. Many of these islands were used by the allied forces as supply depots as planes would drop cargo from the air via parachute or unload the supplies after landing on temporary airstrips. Natives who lived on the islands beheld such wonders as Zippo lighters that produced flames from one’s hand, Jeeps roving over the landscape, power tools and machinery that leveled trees and moved earth, and food eaten from cans. The tribes came up with an interesting, but erroneous, line of thought. The “rituals” performed by the troops (talking into a radio, marching around with guns, having hangers with small planes inside them) would usher in the arrival of larger planes from the gods, laden with “magical” wonders from the modern world. So, when the war ended, “shrines” began to be erected on the islands: bamboo and vine cargo planes inside mock hangers near crudely-constructed landing strips lined with native-built (non-functioning, of course) control towers. Some natives went through “drills” that entailed marching around in ranks with sticks resembling guns and talking on coconut headsets. Objects such as lighters, cameras, pens and any other modern trappings became venerated icons. All the while, they watched the skies, waiting for the gods to smile upon their efforts in replicating the details of the “rituals” and reward them with a low-flying cargo plane heavy with treasures.
Sadly, some missionaries found great difficulty in evangelizing these groups because they weren’t looking for the God, but for what a god could bring to them. Even showing up on the islands with modern items would give the natives great joy because they believed that finally, the second coming of the cargo gods had occurred.
It’s easy to dismiss the “cargo cults” with a chuckle and a shake of the head, but stop and consider the questions and statements that are posed to God today: “What does Jesus have that I need?” “What is in church for me, because I deserve a lot?” “I did my part, now this is what I want to see happen from you God!” Essentially what is being said is this: “God, where’s my cargo?”
Colossians reminds us that “All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (1:16b-17). He created all things for Himself…that includes me. God doesn’t exist for me, I exist for Him. My acts of worship are to be offered to Christ because He alone is worthy of the praise, not because I’m trying to get something out of Him. As one great preacher of old said, “[It’s] not what you can get from Him, but what He will get from you.”
You don’t have to be living in America in the 21st century to be materialistic, and you don’t have to be a native in the South Pacific to have the wrong view of God.