In Genesis 12:3, God said to Abraham, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Commenting on this particular text, Paul says, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:8-9). Continue reading
Animistic contexts present challenges to the preaching of the gospel. Many animists say they are believers, but at the same time, they tend to hold on to two conflicting belief systems. Growing up in the church, I was fully aware of the separation between church and what really mattered (cultural practices). As a child, I went to church, listened to the Bible preached, took communion, and followed the laws as laid out by the pastor. Yet after church, the members would carry out cultural practices that they believed necessary for the well-being of their families. For example, men would take chickens to offer to the spirits of the dead, in order to gain the favor of the ancestors. Never once was this practice addressed in the teachings of the church. Why?
The gospel often comes to the animist in simple and sometimes disjointed terms: “You are a sinner, Jesus loves you, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, those who believe will go to heaven but those who do not believe will go to hell, you must turn away from your wicked ways.” Why do I say disjointed? The gospel comes not as a story that has a beginning, a middle and end. The parts, though true, are not always connected. Worse yet, the content of the beliefs is never defined, and the relation of the gospel to specific cultural practices is often left untouched, leaving the hearer to decide for himself what it means for him to now follow Jesus.
Bringing the gospel in such a context requires that one be well informed. Following are some suggestions about how to bring the gospel in an animistic context in a way that is relevant and fruitful.
First, we must be spiritually mature (Eph 6:10-20). Rather than dismissing the belief system of the people, be sensitive and willing to have your own world-view challenged. It is clear in Ephesians 6:10-20 that we are indeed involved in a spiritual battle. People in an animistic context have believed this from the day they were born.
Second, we must be good students of culture. We go in with our western world-view.
We encounter a totally different world-view that does not make sense to us. Neither does ours make sense to them, resulting in world-views in conflict. It is easy to live and teach in a culture without really connecting culturally. But in doing so, our message cannot take root in the lives of the people. It is important that we take time to understand the culture and belief systems before we make a judgment about what is allowed and what is not allowed.
Third, declare what the people worship in ignorance. Having understood the culture and religious practices of the people, we can affirm that they are indeed religious but at the same time, that what they worship in ignorance, this we make known to them (Acts 17:22-28). This is where we walk through the Bible explaining who God is, how he has revealed himself, his purpose for creation, man, sin, judgment, Jesus as Savior (the promised Messiah), eternal life etc. The point here is to take note of the areas of their beliefs and in presenting the gospel, make sure that those are addressed. For example, does God really only deal with the world through the intermediaries of spirits? When one dies, what happens? Should people continue to offer sacrifices if the gospel is true? When the beliefs are addressed at the very beginning of the presentation of the gospel, conversion becomes a more complete event. They will turn from idols and animism to the one true and living God.
First, avoid the temptation to deny and reject the total belief system of the people. The problem with this approach is that you lose credibility, since they hold strongly that what you are discrediting is true, because they have experienced it. The gospel should not have as a first requirement a rejection of one’s culture in totality. Rather, we help point out the wrong aspects that must be rejected.
Second, affirm what is true in their belief system. The existence of God, reality of the spirit world and its influence on life, guilt of man and need for appeasement, fear of death etc.
Third, after acknowledging elements of truth in their worldview, declare to them what they only partially know. For example:
Their belief in the existence of God is affirmed, but wrong in its view of God’s holiness, goodness, nearness, role in creation etc. The gospel answers these issues. Animism correctly states that God is creator, but fails to understand the purpose of creation and God’s role in creation. We can help enlighten on the purpose of creation, God’s role in creation, sin and creation, and the consummation of creation.
Reality of the spirit world drives daily life. We can correct their view of the character of the spirits and their role in the world as well as their ultimate judgment. How has Christ’s death on the cross defeated the spirit world even though we wrestle against them now?
Spiritual nature of man. Animists agree that man is also a spiritual being, but are wrong in thinking that the dead stay in close contact with the living. The gospel is clear the dead go to heaven or hell, depending on whether they die as believers in Christ or unbelievers.
Substitutionary death. In sacrifice, the life of the animal is given in place of the life of a person. This is to set him free from any sins or evils committed, in an attempt to appease the spirits. Often, the sinner is required to make a confession publicly before the sacrifice is made. The gospel proclaims the true and only sacrifice that was offered once and for all. The gospel connects the blood of the sacrifice (Christ) and the forgiveness of sins and peace with God who is with us.
When the animistic context and its grip on people is fully understood, and the gospel is fully explained as it relates to that context, true conversion is the result. People will turn to redemption in Christ, seeing him as more perfect in every way, rather than simply adding him to their options in the spiritual realm.
My aim in this section is to describe the animistic worldview using the African Traditional Religion (ATR) as an example. Often, we attempt to preach the gospel or minister to people whose worldview we do not understand. To that end, confusion and misunderstanding arises, because we are giving answers to questions that people are not asking. By understanding their belief system, we can more effectively address them through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Supreme God Who is Creator
It has been said that arguments for the existence of God in the African context is like child’s play. This is because Africans have always believed that God exists. The existence of God does not need to be proven. The real problem for them is that God is not readily available. He does not deal with us directly but has ordained means to deal with everyday life. The spirits carry out his bidding, and we can appease or manipulate them through the use of charms and medicine. Thus, the stronger your medicine, the better.
Role of the Spirit-world and Mystical Powers
Unseen spirit forces exist, who are the cause of everything that happens. These are spirits of ancestors as well as good and bad spirits that watch over us. Sickness, death, barrenness, storms, and poor harvest are all seen to be caused by the spirit world. Their role is to carry out God’s bidding and maintain order in society. Sickness and death is an attempt by the spirits of ancestors to bring order in society. Thus a sick child may be an attempt to contact the living and alert them to something they must do or to indicate that the ancestors are not happy with how things are going. Again, the role of the spirit is to bring misfortune with a view to establish order. Therefore, you appease the ancestors by doing certain things in the presence of others, in order to appease the spirits and bring calm to your family.
Ancestors are in contact with us and control our affairs. They must be appeased with sacrifices and offerings. Their presence is continuous and family leaders have the task of maintaining peace between the ancestors (often called the living dead) and the family. Names are given to newborn babies to maintain the ongoing connection with the dead. I never knew why I had 7 names. I knew that one was my Christian name, and the other was my father’s name. I could not understand the other five. One day, when I was 30 years old, I traveled home with my wife and children to meet my extended African family. When my great aunt came to visit, she sent for me to come and meet her on the way and usher her into the compound (group of houses where we were staying). When I met her on the path, she proceeded to dance and pronounce each of my other five names. One of the names was the name of her dead father and she was addressing questions to him through me. It occurred to me at that time that it was not so much about me standing there but the fact that through me, she was somehow making connection with her dead father.
People can move about in their spirit sometimes in different forms and even take on the image of another person. One can call this “witchcraft stolen identity.” I will share my own experience, though there are many similar stories. The test of my mother’s faith was real to me at age 10 when she was accused of practicing witchcraft against another family member. The family member said that she was being attacked at night. To protect herself, she got medicine that enables one to see the face of the attacking witch. Each time, she saw my mother’s face. My mother denied it, and it was decided that a sorcerer would solve the problem once for all. My mother refused to go to the sorcerer on the grounds that she was a Christian. This was taken as admission of guilt. The others went anyway to verify their conclusions. On coming back, they said that actually, it was not my mother but one witch in the village who appears as my mother during her witch outings. In this example we see that witch doctors (sorcerers) are important societal figures in animistic cultures.
Power is necessary for survival, not just of individuals but also of whole families. Power is sought in charms. The male family head is responsible to provide his family with what it takes to protect them from possible enemies. Wearing rings, carrying charms, and building secret altars or shrines are all intended for protection. These are common practices even among believers. Though they affirm everything Christian, there seems to them to be no contradiction with having these protective charms to protect them against the evil spirits. Often the reasoning is this: God wants me to be safe. The charms make me safe. Therefore there is no conflict. I carried one of these rings for four years and experienced amazing powers in it. I am thankful to God that he delivered me from its grip.
Effect of such a Worldview on the Individual
People in animistic cultures live in constant fear, and therefore are preoccupied with how to make things right. If I do not build a house in the village, my ancestors may be displeased with me. If you do not give the exact number of goats and chickens to the elders when your family member dies, you risk your family’s safety.
It produces bondage. Life is a vicious cycle with no hope at all. What this systems lacks is any sense of hope for the future. One is born, and is at the mercy of the spirit world. One’s whole life is spent trying to appease them. What happens when one dies? This system fails to give a clear answer to the afterlife, since only a few really qualify to be ancestors. If you die young, you miss out, because you are not old enough to have any authority. In effect, the spirit of the ancestors is limited to a few in the family line.
Animism offers unreal solutions to people’s actual needs. The need to be free from fear of condemnation, the need to be free from guilt, the need for a mediator between man and God: these are not addressed in the animistic worldview.
In the end, it is a system that only produces fear and bondage, and it is a hindrance to hearing the gospel message. Yet, it remains a system that must be addressed BEFORE the gospel can take root and have lasting impact in the lives of the people.
What then is the role of the gospel in an animistic context? See next post!
The majority of missionaries around the world serve in animistic contexts. Simply put, animism is the belief system in which humans, animals, plants, and land forms are seen to have souls. Thus, there is the common attribution of human attributes (love, anger, gifts, punishment, etc.) to inanimate objects. In this belief system, there is no separation between the spiritual and physical realms.Within the animistic belief system is the practice of ancestor worship. Driving the practice of ancestor worship is the belief that souls of the ancestors are watching over the affairs of men. In this context, the spirits of the dead, and other spirits (good and bad, ordained by the god who created the world) are tied to the physical world, thereby requiring one to appease them in order to avoid punishment. This is the context into which we go as missionaries to bring the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The question is, how do we go about preaching the gospel in a setting that has such a strong world-view? How do we train pastors who have a background of beliefs so far removed from ours?
Some years back I was teaching a modular course on the doctrine of Christ in a small seminary in Cameroon, West Africa. When I got to the incarnation of Christ, students quickly informed me that they knew many stories of incarnations. I knew what they were saying because I, too, grew up hearing similar stories but had never met a person who had witnessed it first hand. When I asked them to explain, they informed me of instances where men turned into different animals to carry out evil activities. In the discussion, it was evident that they deeply believed these stories to be true. Some offered to take me to their villages where these things had actually happened and where I could talk to many witnesses.
If you are feeling a little uneasy about this story, let me throw in a few more just to make you a bit more uncomfortable. The incarnation account is only one of many in animistic cultures. Here is a listing of some statements that one hears: 1) On the way home from the farm today, I met a man I knew but he passed me without greeting. On arriving home, I learned that he had died earlier in the day. 2) During the night, I heard my grand aunt speaking to me from outside of my window as I slept, giving me counsel on life. A few hours later, people showed up in our house to inform us that she had died earlier that evening. 3) Whenever I visit my father’s home, I am tormented by evil spirits who choke me and I cannot breathe. One time, my father used his medicine and could tell what person was tormenting me. 4) Once, my mother was accused of practicing witchcraft in the village. It turns out she was a victim of “witchcraft identity theft” where a different person shows up using my mother’s face. 5) For many years in my life, I carried with me a ring that my father got from a medicine man in the village. It protected me from other evil spirits. During that time I experienced strong powers in the ring and gained respect from many people who could feel its power when I was present, even when they were not told of its existence.
When faced with these situations, those from a non-animistic culture are inclined to deny their truthfulness. When that happens, people will not share what really matters to them and what they are wrestling with in the spiritual realm. I have personally experienced most of the examples given above and there is no one who could convince me that those were not real experiences. Does affirming the truthfulness of these stories as narrated by the speakers mean that one is embracing the same belief system? No.
When an animist becomes a Christian, these beliefs and experiences remain, and he finds himself struggling to make sense of them. Some continue practicing and holding on to them, while at the same time practicing Christianity. What happens when we come to teach in these contexts is that when students realize our skepticism on these matters, they may learn and receive what we are bringing to them as true. But at the same time, when our teachings do not address their core beliefs and experiences (true or false), the people are left holding on to them in parallel with the gospel they have received. The result is that while the gospel is passed on as it was received, the preacher is not addressing the issues of the heart that people must turn away from when they turn to the one true and living God. Conversion must necessarily involve a conversion of a whole belief system. For that to happen, the gospel must address those beliefs, showing that we understand them and know that they do not lead to the truth.
We go to a people who are very religious, and yet ignorant of the true object of worship. We bring to them good news: we proclaim the God who alone is the true God who is to be worshipped (cf. Acts 17:22-28). Animism, after all, is an attempt to make sense of this world and relate to the God who created it. Animists believe that the spirit world is the way to God, and that is bondage. They are indeed blinded by the god of this world so that they will not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).