Terror gripped Simon and his family. Their neighborhood mutt had howled and barked incessantly the previous night at the front door of their one-room home. Simon explained that the dog's behavior signaled an impending death in their household.
While many may simply dismiss Simon as foolishly superstitious, others would not. In fact, millions of people see the world as Simon does. Traditional Religion, as it is called, is common in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and yes, North America. Vestiges of it can be found among many followers of the major religions, including Christianity.
Christians find it difficult to imagine a world filled with spirits, ancestors, deities, powers, magic and the specialists who interpret and manipulate these forces. Moreover, our perspectives strongly affect the way we share the Gospel with Simon and those like him. Ignoring or disparaging his traditional religion views, concerns, explanations and questions limits the effectiveness of our disciple making.
African Traditional Religion (ATR) has many similarities with other variations of traditional religion worldwide. Consider three aspects of ATR followers when sharing the Gospel among them.
Three aspects of ATR
Personal wellbeing holds the highest value for ATR followers. Health, wealth and long life are ultimate concerns. Their world has many spiritual dangers that prevent wellbeing, so they seek protection and deliverance from spiritual forces they believe are problematic. Only then can they have peace.
Secondly, ATR followers are pragmatic. They focus on spiritual power as a way to achieve and maintain personal wellbeing. Accordingly, they are manifestly concrete -- not abstract -- in their thinking. Rather than philosophizing about personal problems, ATR adherents address problems through such tangible means as amulets, formulas, rituals and specialists.
Thirdly, ATR followers are pluralistic. Pragmatism leads them to employ whatever means they can to solve personal problems. They mix practices from other religions, including Christianity, with traditional religion. They will say a prayer or "get saved" if they think it will provide another advantage in the fight for wellbeing. They don't become true believers, but remain staunchly ATR in their belief and practice. Similarly, they are likely to show interest in the Gospel in hopes of enhancing their personal wellbeing.
5 ways to share Gospel
The good news is that an ATR person easily engages in spiritual conversations. He understands and views the world through spiritual eyes. Here are five avenues for sharing the Gospel in ways that will profoundly touch their core beliefs:
1. Connect wellbeing to God's provision.
Listen for ATR practitioners to express their heartfelt needs, and recount a biblical story of how God met a similar need. If the need is food, you might tell the story of God's provision for Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. If a woman is barren, share how God gave a son to Sarah after years of infertility. If evil spirits afflict the person, tell how Jesus set free the Gerasene demoniac. But be careful not to make promises that the same will occur for them. Then, share the Gospel message and pray with them.
2. Emphasize significance of sin nature.
In ATR, sin is primarily social, not moral. Sin is considered an act that breaks relationships in the seen or unseen world. Consequently, the ATR follower needs to see the double side of sin -- that sin is not merely an act but also one's nature. Help adherents understand that obedience to God's commandments is insufficient to remedy one's sin nature. Emphasize the fact that Adam and Eve rejected God's law, and God cursed them. That curse passed from generation to generation. Today, all of humanity lives under the curse. Our relationship with God is broken, and we are enslaved to sin and Satan. In ATR, generational curses are broken by sacrifice. Jesus is the sacrifice who breaks humanity's (generational) curse and enslavement to Satan.
3. Present salvation as a new relationship made possible by God's grace.
ATR views salvation primarily as physical wellbeing. We can correct the ATR view by tracing the salvation story from the Fall to the Resurrection. Two elements deserve much attention: the sin nature and God's provision in Christ. By emphasizing grace, we lead adherents to rely on what God did in Christ, rather than thinking he can manipulate God for physical blessings, protection and deliverance.
4. Use concrete, rather than abstract, images of the atonement.
Convey redemption and deliverance from the powers of evil by using the images of Passover, the Old Testament sacrificial system, and Christ's substitutionary death. Other possibilities include analogies of slaves redeemed from the auction block and estranged parties who are now reconciled. Reemphasize that Christ alone removes the curse from humanity. Finally, highlight the victory of the cross over evil powers, spirits and fear of death.
5. Use biblical stories of deliverance that portray persons freed from spiritual powers.
Examples from the ministry of Jesus include the woman bent over for 18 years by a spirit and the demonized daughter of the Canaanite woman. Share concrete examples of how Christ delivers and protects His own from evil spirits.
The ATR follower holds a worldview that has commonalities with the biblical worldview. He believes in God, spirits, miracles, and God's intervention in the world. We need not convince him of these things. He needs to meet Christ, who will transform his worldview and provide him power to live in the midst of his spiritual battles.
Randy and Kathy Arnett serve in Africa as International Mission Board theological education strategists.