Social scientists have come to the conclusion that peoples’ beliefs have a powerful influence on their thought patterns and behaviors. African scholars, like John S. Mbiti and E. Bolaji Idowu, have argued that Africans are very religious; hence, the religion of Africans influences every aspect of their daily lives. What is the religion of Africans and what do they believe? These are things that we need to know as we seek to reach Africans with the gospel of Christ.
Background to African traditional religion
African religion involves the whole of the African’s life: the environment, values, culture, self-awareness—a complete worldview. Religion considers the dynamic interaction of various activities that take place in every African community, and it permeates all phases of life. According to John S. Mbiti,
Traditional religions are not primarily for the individual, but for his community of which he is a part. Chapters of African religions are written everywhere in the life of the community and in traditional society there are no irreligious people. To be human is to belong to the whole community, and to do so [belong] involves participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, and festivals of that community.1
Still on the centrality of religion in the life of the Africans, E. Bolaji Idowu has this to say, There is a common Africanness about the total culture and religious beliefs and practices in Africa. This common factor may be due to either the fact of diffusion or to the fact that most Africans share common origins with regard to race, and customs and religious practices.2
Preview of African traditional religion
Before we launch into the important task of sharing the gospel to members of the African traditional religion, we would do well to identify this religion and know its basic tenets. African traditional religion has no sacred literature and no human founder, therefore, this religion has not been named after anyone, such as is the case in Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. A revealed religion, it came into existence through the peoples’ experiences with God from time immemorial. Passed from father to son, this religion has no zeal for membership increase, yet it is displayed everywhere for all to see. How do we identify African religion?
It should be stated that when it is said that African traditional religion has no sacred literature, it means it has no document similar to the Holy Bible of the Christians or the Koran of the Muslims.
Identification and sources of African religion
The two major ways of identifying this religion come through primary and secondary sources. The primary sources could be oral or concrete. The oral sources include myths, traditional events told as stories, as well as proverbs and wise sayings that contain the philosophy and worldviews of the people. Liturgy, worship recitals, and songs are also integral parts of this source. The concrete sources, on the other hand, include the ecological landmarks and artistic objects. The ecological landmarks refer to sacred trees, rivers, mountains, forests, and rocks. Every ecological landmark is not regarded as being sacred by Africans. But those believed to display supernatural qualities— such as protection in times of danger, or those that act as sources of supplying the needs of the people in times of scarcity—are deemed sacred. It is important to note that this worship is not directed to these landmarks but to the Supreme Being who put these objects in their strategic locations for the benefit of man.
The secondary sources are the various published works of anthropologists, social workers, scholars of religion, as well as religious leaders. Specifically, these secondary sources include books written by scholars on African religion and some have been referenced in this article. Also available are academic journals published by educational institutions, research agencies, and individuals. In addition to these are photographs and various electronic documentaries on the subject under discussion.
Fundamental beliefs of African traditional religion
P. A. Talbot wrote that African traditional religion is made up of four important elements: polytheism, anthropomorphism, ancestor worship, and animism.3 E. Geoffrey Parrinder posited that this religion should be given a fourfold classification based on belief in a Supreme God, divinities, ancestors, and charms with its accessories.4It was Ralph Tanner who maintained that African traditional religion should be seen as a threefold religion based on the Supreme Being, the ancestors, and the diviner-magician. But according to E. Bolaji Idowu,
Taking Africa as a whole, there are in reality fi ve important elements that go into the making of African traditional religion. These are belief in God, belief in divinities, belief in Spirits, belief in the ancestors, and the practice of magic and medicine, each with its own consequent, attendant cult.5
These five basic beliefs that make up the African traditional religion are corroborated by the work of Vincent Okungu, who argued that a slight difference might be observed in these component elements with different people groups in Africa to demonstrate the peoples’ understanding of God in their locality.6
These basic beliefs are:
1. Belief in God. With this belief based on God’s revelation of Himself to the Africans, God became real, and every African community has a local name for God. God has always been real and never an abstract concept to the African. The names which various African communities give to God project their best expression of Him in their religious experiences. These names are descriptive in nature because they portray the character as well as the attributes of God as understood by the people.
For instance, in the eastern part of Nigeria, God is known as either Chukwu or Chineke, which means “the big God” or “the God who creates,” respectively. The Akan people of Ghana call Him Onyame to confi rm their belief in this Supreme Being. The Mendes of Sierra Leone call Him Ngewo, which means “Creator of the universe” as well as “Father,”7while the Kikuya people of Kenya call Him Murungu, which means “Creator of all things.”8 God in the African worldview is the Controller, Protector, and Provider for the whole universe.9
2. Belief in divinities. These divinities are the functionaries, as well as ministers, in the theocratic government of the world. The divinities are there as messengers of the All-powerful God. Their power and authority are derived from the Deity in order to enable them to render acceptable services both to the Deity and to man.10
3. Belief in spirits. This concept is anthropomorphically conceived, since the spirits are both immaterial and incorporeal beings. These spirits live in rocks, mountains, rivers, trees, bushes, waterways, among other places. Another important dimension associated with this belief is the “born-to-die” idea, which is closely connected with reincarnation. This aspect of the belief claims wandering spirits specialize in finding their way into the wombs of pregnant women in order to be born and later to die. In a similar manner, it is believed in many parts of Africa that the activities of witches, who operate as mystic living creatures such as birds, bats, rats, and other living things, should not be ignored. The objectives of the witches are to inflict harm: insanity, disease, miscarriages, deformities, or any other unexplainable problem.11
4. Belief in ancestors. The ancestors are neither Deity nor divinities; they are however, the dead members of the community—known as “the livingdead”— and are believed to exist in communion with their living loved ones.12The ancestors are regarded as heads of their respective families or communities, with death as just a continuation of ancestors and their services, but now in the afterlife. Those qualifi ed to become ancestors must have lived to ripe old ages, lived godly lives, and must have had children. Indeed, where the ancestors live permanently is the “paradise” or “heaven,” which the average African longs for when he or she dies.13
5. Belief in the practice of magic and medicine. Magic and medicine could either be used in their destructive or protective forms. Protective forms are used to avert illness or calamities for the individual or communities; destructive forms are used to cause individual misfortune or communal calamities.14 The medicine man (pure herbalist) in Africa uses herbs, roots, rhizomes, and other natural materials that can be beneficial. On the other hand, the native doctor works with herbs combined with mystic powers, oracular consultations, sacrifices, and incantations. This is the most dreaded form of magic because of its secrecy shroud.
Applying Paul’s approach to adherents of African traditional religion
With this background in mind, we ask, How, then can we share the good news of Jesus Christ with the adherents of this religion?
Several methods could be applied in sharing the everlasting gospel with adherents of African traditional religion. Knowing what the Africans believe will help the Christian preacher know how and where to begin. When the apostle Paul traveled to Athens, he got the people’s attention by speaking to them on a subject already known to them, the unknown god (Acts 17: 23). Paul started where the people were, and he finally guided them to where he wanted them to be.
This method will also work well in Africa today. A sound knowledge of the basic beliefs of the people should be mastered to enable the preacher to go from the known to unknown.
Christ’s method of soul winning15
Another successful way of ministering to adherents of African traditional religion would be to apply Christ’s methods of soul winning. Ellen White outlined five unique steps that Christ applied during His earthly ministry. The first was by mingling with the people He had come to serve because He desired their good. He spent time with the people—both great and small, rich and poor, men and women, the sick and the healthy—and He made Himself available for this interaction both day and night. He did this in order to find ways to benefit the people.
Next was Christ’s humanitarian ministry. In this context Jesus Christ ministered to the people by meeting their needs. He met their needs by providing food for the hungry and healing for the sick. This ministry is needed more than ever before in Africa today, where sickness and hunger have become a daily companion to millions. How can anyone accept that Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life on an empty stomach?
Christ also demonstrated sympathy to the people. He ministered to the people in all life situations by identifying Himself with them in their times of sorrow and sickness. At Bethany, He wept because of the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). He sympathized with the people on the account of the death of His friend and because of their ignorance that He was the Resurrection and the Life. When the people were hungry and moving about as sheep without a shepherd, He had compassion on them (Matt. 9:36). By His actions He demonstrated His love and care for these people. We cannot do less for the adherents of African traditional religion today.
With all the above accomplished, Christ was able to win the people’s confidence and tell them to follow Him. Certainly some people followed Christ because of the food He provided, but the majority came to Him because He met their needs, showed sympathy to them, and worked with them as Someone who desired their good. These methods will produce the same results in soul winning when properly applied today in every African community.
Conventional methods of soul winning
The conventional methods of soul winning consist of personal and public evangelistic outreaches; mass media (radio, television, satellite); literature ministries; and educational, health, and medical institutions. These, as well as other means of sharing the good news, can also be used in ministering to adherents of African traditional religion. The second coming of Jesus Christ should be made the central theme of such soul winning. A survey from 12 African countries between 2005 and 2006 revealed that most Africans expect preachers to talk of the blessed hope.16It’s not surprising that 52.5 percent of the respondents believed that the second coming of Jesus Christ should be emphasized in every sermon. After all, the second coming of Jesus Christ will end human suffering. War, disease, and death, so common in AIDS-stricken Africa, will finally be over. No wonder so many Africans long for it!
Yes, the second coming of Jesus has become the hope for all of us, Africans included. This is the message all the adherents of African traditional religion need to hear. Using Christ’s method of soul winning, Paul’s method of sharing the good news, conventional methods, as well, in sharing the blessed hope, we will have success in this important work.
1 John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969), 2.
2 E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition (London: Scan Press, 1973), 13.
3 P. A. Talbot, The People of Southern Nigeria, Vol. 2, 1926, 12.
4 E. Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion (London: 1961), 12.
5 E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition (Ibadan: Fountain Publishers, 1991), 139.
6 File://c:Documentsand setting/all users/documents/ad.htm
7 Amponsah Kwabena, Topics in West African Traditional Religion, Vol. 1 (Accra: McGraw Feb, 1974), 20.
8 E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, 152, 192.
9 Gabriel Oyedele Abe, Yawish Tradition Vis-à-vis African Culture: The Nigerian Milieu (Akure: De-Trust Honesty Publishers, 2004), 21.
10 J. N. K. Mugambi, et al., Jesus in African Christianity: Experimentation and Diversity in African Christology, 12.
11 Benjamin C. Ray, African Religions: Symbols, Rituals, and Community (NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 132–144.
12 Elisha O. Babalola, Traditional Religion: Islam and Christianity-Patterns of Interaction (Ile-Ife: Olajide Printing Works, 1992), 24, 25.
13 Ibid., 27.
14 Kwabena, 83.
15 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, 143.
16 Philemon O. Amanze, Preaching the Everlasting Gospel in Today’s World (Ibadan: Goldfield Publishers, 2007), 215–217.