How to Make Disciples Among Followers of African Traditional Religion

Editor’s Note: It is with a heavy heart we share that IMB missionaries Randy and Kathy Arnett, who authored this article, lost their lives March 15, 2018, in a car accident in Africa. We thank the Lord for their work and enduring legacy in missions. Yet we rest in the fact that we do not grieve without hope (1 Thess. 4:13–18).

Terror gripped Simon and his family. The previous night the neighborhood mutt had howled and barked all night at the front door of their one-room home. Simon explained that the dog’s behavior signaled an impending death in their household.

Fear Is Commonplace

While many may smugly declare Simon as foolishly superstitious, others would not. In fact, millions of people see the world as Simon does. Indeed, Traditional Religion is common in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and, yes, North America. We find vestiges of it 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.

The African version of Traditional Religion (ATR) shares many similarities with other variations of Traditional Religion worldwide. Experience has taught us that we must consider three aspects of ATR followers as we share the gospel among them.

“Followers of Traditional Religion are likely to show superficial interest in the gospel in hopes of enhancing their personal well-being.”

Three Aspects of ATR to Consider

First, the highest value for an ATR follower is that of personal well-being. Health, wealth, and long life are his ultimate concerns. For him, this world has many spiritual dangers that prevent well-being. Thus, he seeks protection and deliverance from the spiritual forces that create problems for him. Only then can he have peace.

Second, the ATR follower is pragmatic. He focuses on having spiritual power as a way to achieve and maintain his personal well-being. Accordingly, he is manifestly concrete—not abstract—in his thinking. He does not philosophize about his problems but employs tangible ways to address them: amulets, formulas, rituals, and specialists.

Third, the ATR follower is a pluralist. His pragmatism leads him to employ whatever means he can to solve his problems. He mixes practices from other religions—including Christianity—with his Traditional Religion. Therefore, he will say a prayer or “get saved” if he thinks it will provide another advantage in his fight for well-being. He does not become a true believer but remains staunchly ATR in his belief and practice. Similarly, he is likely to show interest in the gospel in hopes of enhancing his personal well-being.

Engaging Appropriately

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 his core beliefs:

  1. Connect his search for well-being to God’s provision.
    Listen for him to express his heartfelt needs. Then, 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 sterility. If evils spirits afflict the person, tell how Jesus set free the Gerasenes 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 the significance of the sin nature.
    In ATR, sin is primarily social, not moral. In other words, sin is an act that breaks relationships with others 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; it is also one’s nature. Help him 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. 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 well-being. 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 the listener to rely on what God did in Christ rather than leaving him to think that 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. Re-emphasize that Christ alone removes the humanity curse. 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 double for eighteen 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 good news is that they easily engage in spiritual conversations. They understand and view the world through spiritual eyes.”

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.