Global missions’ researchers, like those of the Joshua Project, do not often use the term “animism” to describe a group’s primary religion. Instead, they typically say something along the lines of “ethnic religions.” Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that people have never quite been satisfied with common definitions of animism. Many definitions are superficial or vague.
Missiologists observe a historical trend: “The great mass movements into the church have, generally speaking, involved people of broadly ‘animistic’ background” (Stott and Coote, viii). Something deeper than mere traditional beliefs shape the cultures of animistic peoples. We must be careful that shallow terminology (e.g., “ethnic religions”) does not blind us to better ministry practice.
What definition, then, might highlight fundamental aspects of animism? Animism is the belief that spiritual beings or forces must be appeased because they have power over human affairs through curses, blessings, and oppression. We must understand what animistic people are thinking in order to communicate the gospel so they can hear the gospel and be transformed.
Animistic People Groups of China
The most obvious animistic people groups in China are well-known. Such peoples have shamans and ritual practices to drive away demons. Most of these groups are in China’s south and southwest regions. The larger groups include the Zhuang, Yi, Miao, Dong, Naxi, Bai, Li, Lingao, Buyi, and Yao.
Some minority peoples are less obvious, such as the Buddhist groups. These include the Tibetan and Mongolian peoples, who are further north and west, as well as other Buddhist groups like the Dai in southwest China. These peoples are also strongly animistic in that their rituals and concerns are not part of their pure Buddhist beliefs but resemble other animistic groups. Even the Han, Muslims, and some Christian peoples, located all across China, have strong currents of animism in their folk practices.
In these groups, power and fear are primary concerns. In Asian collectivistic societies, the influence of honor and shame is pervasive. However, with certain groups, peoples’ daily concerns are shaped by a worldview that emphasizes religious practice and is more akin to the worldview of traditional African religions. In short, shades of animism exist.
Shades of Animism
This article primarily engages those groups that are predominantly animistic. That is, power-fear is the deepest answer to their “why?” questions, even if, on the surface, their more immediate concerns seem to be social and expressed in honor-shame language. Further, their faith practices seek to manipulate spiritual beings and forces in order to gain their desired type of blessing. Hence, even the prosperity gospel falls strongly into the “shades of animism” paradigm.
Recognizing the Anxieties of Animistic Peoples
Animistic peoples desire security and blessing, but they live in uncertainty and fear. Their concerns are:
- Children’s future
Although these are the same general concerns as many other people groups, animistic peoples have a distinctive way of addressing these issues. Because of their “power and fear” perspective, the perceived means of solving their problems is directly related to the unseen world.
If outsiders speak about these matters from their own perspective, animists will miss what the outsiders are saying. For example, imagine that you talk about fear by giving an exact personal example, such as nuclear holocaust, one of my own fears before becoming a Christian. In that case, you would completely misunderstand the nature of animistic thinking. Instead, such people fear evil spirits that attack victims outside at night and when they are dreaming. Their fear is the uncontrolled impact of the spiritual realm.
Applying the Gospel to Animism: Three Suggestions
How do we communicate the power of gospel truth to animistic peoples? When Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Lystra (Acts 14:8–23), they spoke to polytheistic animists. Naturally, their evangelistic approach differed from their prior approach when they spoke to the Jews and God-fearers at the synagogue. They could not begin by quoting the Scriptures. Their time in Lystra was difficult. The people of Lystra did not perceive miraculous healing from the Jewish perspective, e.g., as a sign of the Messiah. Rather, their animistic perspective caused them to perceive Paul and Barnabas as power-wielding gods.
When we share the Creation-to-Christ story, animistic people’s ears perk up during the first section of the story which speaks about the origin of spirits. God is the creator of all things—even the spirits. These powerful beings are often on an animist’s mind. So, biblical phrases like “the Most High God” seem to resonate with them as it must have done in the Old Testament context of polytheism that surrounded ancient Israel. Tearing down idol shelves and refusing to do shamanistic rituals are important points of conversion for animistic people who choose to follow the Most High God only.
But power and fear do not explain every aspect of their problem. Being weak and needy is not enough motivation for a lasting heart conviction. Animists need to understand their sin as dishonoring God and disobedience to God. While the Ten Commandments are useful to speak of God’s commands at the surface level, we have found other helpful approaches. Among some groups, following Jesus’ tactic in the Sermon on the Mount truly hits people at the heart level. For example, they easily understand that murder and stealing are wrong. But when we ask non-Christian animists in more racially divided regions, “Have you ever hated a Han person”? they are immediately convicted of their own sin and bow their heads in shame.
Animists need to understand the character of God is different from their traditional gods and spirits, who are impersonal, vindictive, or easily manipulated. It is only by sharing more of God’s story that people will understand a glorious God who is powerful, loving, righteous, and forgiving.
A power-fear perspective of the gospel is one that drives people to understand that their anxieties and uncertainties are only relieved when they “learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deuteronomy 14:23). Christians do not need power, control, or manipulation because they only need trust in the power of God alone apart from other futile methods. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for their redemption and the glory of God. We ought to desire the most powerful God rather than power over God.
Animists who turn to Christ need time to grasp what it means to live out the gospel. This is especially true after they have for so long attempted to manipulate higher powers. Perhaps this is why pseudo-Christian sects, such as the 门徒会 (the Disciples Sect), so easily invade animistic areas. The prosperity gospel has corrupted churches whose members have come from animistic backgrounds. Manipulation is a difficult practice to break.
The story of King Saul (1 Samuel 9–31) is a negative example of a follower of God who lost his way and veered towards what looks more like animism. The Spirit of God was clearly on Saul (10:10; 11:6) during the time of his anointing and at his first battle where he proclaimed that “the Lord has worked salvation in Israel” (11:13). Before a later battle, however, Saul placed more value on the sacrifice itself as a means of securing God’s favor and ignored the Most High God’s command to wait on the prophet Samuel to offer the sacrifice (13:8–14). In 1 Samuel 14:24–26, he sinned by sparing the Amalekites because he feared the people rather than heeding the word of God. Saul’s spiritual descent spiraled out of control. The severity of his condition became evident in his unlawful séance with a medium in effort to bring Samuel’s spirit back from the dead (28:1–25). The monotheist had become a functional animist.
For animists to learn that “to obey is better than to sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22), they need to have Scripture in languages and forms that they can understand and apply. Didactic passages are not enough. They need concrete examples of the narrative passages of Scripture. Such texts illustrate what it looks like to fear God above all. Vivid examples show the consequences of not fearing God.
Animist background believers can compare proverbs from their own traditions with Scripture. In this way, they can see which proverbs accord with the Scripture and which ones do not. Some people have grown up with proverbs like the Yi saying: “Don’t tell truths to your wife while you are alive, for after you are dead she will be the wife of another.” Surely these people will need time to rethink such proverbs in light of the Bible. They will assume the truth of their original worldview at any point there is a void of Christian teaching.
How has the gospel transformed people’s lives? Along with others, I have seen believers forsake traditional animistic practices. For example, they will no longer join their family at annual shamanistic practices or ancestor veneration. This is an ongoing struggle for some believers. People often deal with this situation at the surface level saying that they are acquiescing to family pressure.
However, when we finally see people boldly refuse to participate in the old religious practices, we notice a common pattern of expressing themselves. They speak of complete trust in God. They confess that previously they had to “cover their bases” just in case. Their experience arises from overwhelming wonder at the grace of God and without any motive to manipulate God. Discipleship should use the gospel to address the root issues of fear and manipulation.
3. Theological formation
Both advanced theological education and informal pastoral training are important, yet they often overlook crucial areas for pastors and churches within animistic contexts. If we are to reach the animist peoples for Christ, we must help local leaders deal with questions that are important for them. These include:
- What/who causes a woman to be barren and how are we to deal with her?
- What is a biblical theology for the role and status of our ancestors?
- How do Christians help a church member whose grandfather passed away but their non-believing relatives demand a traditional funeral with shamanistic rituals?
Most often, teachers from Western backgrounds have never thought about how to address these concerns. They are not prepared to answer these pastoral questions.
Animistic background Christians in China have used at least three effective ways to deal with these types of issues. They include (1) worldview discussions, (2) Culture Meets Scripture workshops, and (3) songwriting.
First, activities that raise worldview questions have been very simple to apply. Recently, leaders from one people group thoroughly enjoyed spending two days discussing a long list of worldview questions about their own culture and later discussing how these particular elements relate to the truths of particular Bible stories. Second, a Culture Meets Scripture workshop is a more advanced option, yet it helps to identify immediate actions for dealing with a few specific parts of culture, e.g., funeral rites. Third, many people groups in China write their own songs that deal with funerals and holidays. More importantly, the songs of Scripture become more memorable and are repeated more than any of the sermons. The songs are the theology of the churches.
To effectively reach the animistic people groups in China, we must bring a robust message of the gospel. We must go beyond what works for our own culture without reducing everything to a power-fear perspective. The well-rounded gospel also has elements of innocence-guilt and honor-shame perspectives (Georges, 12). However, we should use a power-fear perspective to understand animistic peoples and communicate gospel truth in our evangelism, discipleship, and theological training. When these peoples learn to properly fear the Lord like king David did, perhaps they can teach us, in return, if we will listen (Psalm 34:11).
- Stott, John R. W. and Robert Coote. Down To Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture: The Papers of the Lausanne Consultation on Gospel and Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
- West, Amy, and Shetler, Jo, “Crisis meets Culture, Culture meets Scripture: a Workshop Report,” FOBAI, 2010, http://www.scripture-engagement.org/content/crisis-meets-culture-culture-meets-scripture-workshop-report
- Georges, Jayson. The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures. TimePress, 2014.