Understanding the Hidden World


A close observation of Animist groups and their societies around the world will reveal that religion is at the root of each culture and is the determining principle of life. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that in a traditional Animist worldview, religion is life and life is religion. In a simple way we can define Animists as a group of people whom in all things are religious.

Studying some reached Animist groups with different levels of Christian influence I came to realise that in many situations there is an abyss between the Christian worldview and the tribal cultural understanding of religion, what often generates great barriers for the Church growth in a context of historical Animist worldview. Uikiid, a Christian in Ghana from an Animist background, once said of his tribe, “We do not decide to be part of the Konkomba religion (Fetishism); we simply are part of it. The tribe is not a tribe without our tribal religion”. For many years observers believed Konkomba Christians understood Christian principals only when they were outside of the tribal influence. “Back in their villages they become Konkombas again”, said H. Stuart, an English Anthropologist.

We may understand that the Gospel message should not be either a foreign statement or an open dialogue but a proposal, answering cultural questions at their deepest level. Therefore it may be helpful to know the questions before giving the answers. Traditionally, missionary work involves bringing the Gospel as a closed packet that should be received and understood under the original background. However, without knowing the cultural questions, it isn”t possible to address the key areas of the tribal worldview; nor is it possible for the answers to be well received – especially if we are dealing with an Animist society where the whole social structure is based on a principle of solving local daily life problems. The result of a non-responsible cultural analysis before presenting the Gospel is normally religious syncretism where Animism and Christianity divide the same universe or simply a lack of understanding the Gospel’s meaning. We know that religious syncretism is the declination of the society when values and concepts are lost and the possible open door to re-present the Gospel is, at least, partially closed for two or three generations. The lack of understanding, on the other hand, creates an immature Church that hardly will experience a normal growth and be able to transmit a Gospel that will make sense to the remaining part of their people. One of the great challenges we have before us today is to learn from our past and to preach a Gospel meaningful to each society.

I believe that when trying to evaluate the true impact of the Gospel in a group with an Animist background there are three main questions we should try to answer:

– Do they perceive the Gospel to be relevant for their own universe?
– Do they understand the Christian principals under their web of cultural worldview?
– Do they apply the Gospel values as answers to the daily conflicts of life?

To analyse part of the problem, we first need to realise that a society with an Animist background has, in different levels, a portion of an integral, natural and source-based concept of religion. And when the Gospel is presented there will be a great expectation to see it as a power that will promote solutions in all these vital areas of life-conflict. The failure to address these concerns will normally result in syncretism or rejection.

1. An integral worldview demands an integral Gospel that deals with heaven and earth

In the Animist universe the religious is not distinguished from the non-religious, the sacred from the secular, the spiritual from the material, the body from the soul. Religion takes place in all life expressions – farming, eating, trading, fighting, resting or solving family problems – and we can understand the Animist universe as an integral structure. To be born in a traditional Animist society means to perform all the rituals and ceremonies of the community and to integrate all the beliefs and values which show that in such a society there are no atheists. Religion is essentially part of life. All actions, facts, events or phenomena have a religious meaning or are defined from a religious point of view.

“Animism” is a word derived from the Latin term “anima” which means “breath”, and it has come to be associated with the idea of soul or spirit that is present in all things, “animating” the world and universe. Trees, rocks, ground and water are believed to have spirits in control of the ordinary visible substances, although Animists do not believe that every object, without exception, has a soul. They believe that spirits can have certain objects as their habitat or abode and that they can be embodied in these objects and through them exert their influence. It means first of all, that we are dealing with a world that has a defined frame and values. Secondly, this world consists of a mixture of visible and invisible forces that relate with each other. However, looking at the ultimate goal of Animism as a religion, we see that most of it’s effects are expected to be seen on earth.

This utilitarian perception of religion in human life among Animists is also a central concept in the cultural values. Studying the prayers directed to spirits, ancestors or gods in the traditional ceremonies we see that they are mostly requests for material blessings such as: fertility, health, peace, healing, longevity and vitality – not for salvation. Normally ceremonies, sacrifices and prayers are the art of using the powers of supernatural beings to promote human welfare. Note that religion here is primarily utilitarian and practical – not a way of union between men and God.

I have noticed that leadership courses among Christians from an Animist background have a great impact when spiritual biblical principals are applied to guide people through these daily conflicts. A Chokossi man once told me, “you Christians need to learn how to speak more about the effects of salvation while we are alive, because we already know that in heaven it will be wonderful”. The probable result of a non integral gospel communication from a missionary force to an Animist background is that it’s impact will be diminshed.

2. A natural world needs more than a logical and systematic presentation of the Gospel to understand God’s plan

Animists do not rely on organised religious doctrines or on theology – evidenced by their complete lack of any systematic theology. They base their beliefs entirely on experience. And experience tells them that fortune and misfortune happen.

Generally, traditional religion is a “natural” religion where there is no evidence of a systematic revelation. There is no one person claiming to have received a divine message directly from God for use as a guide to the spiritual and moral life of a clan or for the whole tribe. There is evidence only of “messages” received at a local level, but because these “messages” received are sporadic they can hardly constitute an elaborate and coherent basis of the moral values of the people. Therefore it is impossible to point to a specific time when the traditional religion in a group or area was founded. The implication for the Gospel communication is that any logical attempt at convincing the community that Christianity is the way to God will not have as deep an effect since truth is not based on historical evidences but in daily experiences. In other words, a person from an animist background will observe far more readily the practical daily proofs in the visible world of what you are preaching than the logical evidence with historical proof of your message. If you say, “God is good” they may expect to see healing, prosperity, fertility, good harvest and longevity even when your own concept of “goodness” is different.

Among the Quechuas in Peru the Church almost collapsed because the theology of prosperity clashed against the decade of suffering when a terrorist group killed many leaders and closed several churches. I believe the Lord used three Quechua leaders to re-evaluate and apply the Bible to their situation answering present questions for the people. After that we could see that the Church survived and expanded, even during the decade or terror. One Quechua song that I heard during a service when all of us were afraid to be discovered by the terrorists summarises it:
“God is great and has all the answers.
Even when He is quiet, God is greater than men.
When the suffering comes we’ll pray and wait.
Even when He is quiet, we don’t suffer alone”.

3. A source-base Animist concept of religion demands an explanation why misfortunes happen

We need to understand that, in the Animist worldview, cause and consequence are not seen in the Western conceptual way. They start with a situation that calls for explanation and perhaps intervention by the ancestors and his related spirits or messengers. The situation could be an individual or community misfortune such as disease, barrenness, famine or an epidemic. To them these misfortunes must not only have a cause; they must also have a source.

If a Westerner has pneumonia, normally the reaction is to treat it according to the history of treatments and statistics of cure. It is seen as another case of pneumonia. In the Animist worldview this pneumonia will be seen as an individual and unique problem. No action will be taken before they get the answer for “why” the person is facing the situation. The source of the problem is the most important factor and requires an initial study by the elders, medicine man, or fetish man.

In a village called Jimoni I experienced this in a classic situation when one man was almost dying of heart complications. I drove a few hours to a place near by and crossed the Molan river with a canoe to convince the elders to release him to be taken to a hospital. They met together and spent about two and a half hours trying to figure out why this was happening to him. One of them finally concluded that they should allow me to take the man, as the reasons were not yet clear. The question behind most happenings in daily life among Animists is why and this understanding should also direct the way we present the Gospel to such society. Therefore it is very important in a church planting context to start presenting a biblical theology of human sin, the Lamb’s sacrifice and the divine forgiveness. Eternal life, santification and divine blesses will be better understood when the causes of tranformation in human life are clear.

Conclusion – Applying Biblical theology to the ‘anima’ world

Our concern so far has been to avoid Jesus Christ being presented as the answer to questions that missionaries ask, or the solution merely to the outside world.

Tippett stressed that “when the indigenous people of a community think of the Lord as their own, not a foreign Christ; when they do things as unto the Lord meeting the cultural needs around them, worshipping in patterns they understand; when their congregations function in participation in a body, which is structurally indigenous; then you have an indigenous Church”.

To contextualise the Gospel is to translate it so that the lordship of Jesus Christ is not an abstract principle or mere doctrine, but the determining factor of life in all its dimensions and the basic criterion in relation to which all the cultural values that form the very substance of human life are evaluated.

To do so we may need to observe some criteria of Gospel communication:

1. All Gospel communication should be based on biblical principals and not merely be guided by both the giver or receiver culture, as we understand that the Bible is both cross-culturally applicable and supra-culturally defined. It is for and above all men.

2. Gospel communication has the aim of seeing the Church built in a new cultural universe: indigeneity. The local church must see itself as the Church of Christ in its local expression. Also the Church must be indigenous in its self-functioning and interacting with each other. It must also have a self-determining capacity.

3. Gospel communication can be an activity done in terms of observing, studying, applying and evaluating the message inside in the cultural frame we are associated. The result of which should be a local society coming closer to a Gospel that makes sense in their universe and worshipping the Son of God who speaks their language.

Doing so we hope to present a Christ that answers the questions that Animists will ask. A Christ of their own, solution of their world. Soli Deo Gloria

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