The African worldview

The African worldview: a serious challenge to Christian discipleship

What are some of the cultural issues that African Adventists face in their quest for spiritual growth?

Zacchaeus A. Mathema, DMin, is professor of leadership at the Adventist University of Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.

John Fowler defines the term worldview as “a construct about the make up of life as it struggles with the questions of reality, truth, ethics and history. It is a construct that provides a point of departure, a sense of direction, a locus of destination, and a strategy of unity for human thought, life and action.” 1Accordingly, this construct satisfies a fourfold need: first, the need to unify thought and life; second, the need to define the good life and find hope and meaning in life; third, the need to guide thought; fourth, the need to guide action. At the core of every person’s being lies the worldview that constitutes what Charles H. Kraft writes of as the “control box” of culture that determines thinking, acting or doing, and determining values.2Worldview, therefore, exerts a strong, shaping influence and power on a person’s life.

In the same manner, the traditional African worldview has a strong influence and shaping power on the African in that it unifies the African’s thoughts and life. It defines the good life that must be pursued, preserved, and protected; and it guides the thinking, choices, and actions. The traditional African worldview often hinders the internalization of Christian message and practice among many African Christians. Thus, the traditional African worldview throws a serious challenge before a church that seeks to “make disciples of all nations,” as the Lord mandated (Matt. 28:19, NIV). Those who seek to disciple men and women, as the gospel requires, find that the people who are being discipled frequently regress or revert to unChristian practices, and some may even manifest spiritualistic phenomena that warp and twist human life.

The centrality of a worldview and its functions

Anthropologists and missiologists confirm what Fowler states. Some regard worldview as “the pattern of assumptions a people holds about reality that determines what they think, feel, and do.”3It exists at the foundational level of culture and at the core of the same cultural expressions and permeates everything that a people think and do by defining reality, truth, and values. Moreover, worldview gives meaning to life and comprises a crucial role in identity formation and integrity. Kraft further points out that a worldview plays a cardinal role in molding individuals and society. It “serves the evaluational—judging and validating functions” and “provides psychological reinforcements for that group.”4 A worldview “bridges the gap between the objective reality outside people’s heads and the culturally agreed-upon perception of that reality inside their heads.”5

John Mbiti describes the vacillations between Christianity and traditional African customs among Christians as “religious concubinage” because the professed Christian seems to find satisfaction in African traditional practices that has not been met in Christian living and practice.6What we see as aberrations in Christian formation among many African Christians indicates to us that something has been amiss in the discipling process among many African Christians.

The importance of transforming a worldview in discipling people

The centrality of a worldview as the “control box” of a culture underlines a need to take cognizance of the worldview in the discipling process of persons. During the early missionary thrust on the African continent, the aspect of the traditional African worldview was not factored in the process of discipling many Africans and in many situations still happens today.

B. J. van der Walt points out that Christianity was weakened when missionaries ignored the traditional African worldview and packaged the gospel with colonialism and Western culture. This approach “produced dualistic Christendom which brought about schizophrenia in the life of the African.”7The unfortunate result of this approach was a divided soul. Van der Walt further asserts that the average African “convert” was not helped to “experience the gospel as adequate for life. For that reason we get the phenomenon all over Africa today that Christians, in time of need and crises, (such as illness or death) often revert to their traditional faith.”8 There was a problem because the “gospel was not brought as a new, total, encompassing worldview to take the place of an equally encompassing traditional worldview. So, the deepest core of the African culture remained untouched.”9 Only a veneer of Christianity was embraced.

Selected aspects of the traditional African worldview

Aspects of the traditional African worldview that impact the Christian faith include, but are not limited to, the following: belief in hierarchies and entities of power, a strong sense of community and belonging, strong orientation to power, and belief in mystical powers.

Belief in hierarchies and entities of power. For the traditional African, in general, human existence remains orderly and structured although the construct of the hierarchies varies from culture to culture. Whatever the setup, systems are such that each person lives under those entities of power and depends on them for the good life pursued by most human beings. Hierarchies and entities of power are there for the good of the people who fall under them.

Zebron Ncube draws from Hubert Bucher a construct of hierarchies from the Shona people of Zimbabwe and others of southern Africa. According to this construct, the critical hierarchical arrangement and entities of power have God as the ultimate reality. In between are divinities, ancestors, mystical powers, sacred days with specific features and events, rites of passage, religious specialists, and prohibitive laws and taboos. At the lowest level of the hierarchy is the sacredness of interpersonal relationships and kinship.10

While the traditional African believes in a supreme God, they also believe that this God lives far from those who are alive. In order to access Him, His power, and all His other benefits, the living have to go through intermediaries who are between those on the level of human existence and the supreme God Himself. Individuals should benefit from God if they recognize the entities of power in their descending order down through the elders and other specialists.

The difficulty lies in attempting to break ties that bind the individual to these hierarchies and entities of power. To break away from this system or to be “converted” to another system means that one gets cut from the connections that make life complete, meaningful, and safe. This kind of worldview should be taken seriously when traditional Africans are being evangelized and discipled. Some scholars refer to aspects of the traditional African worldview as the religio-cultural heritage of the African that must be addressed, or the person who claims to have been converted to Christianity has only a veneer of Christianity. Breaking away from the system invites ostracism and other forms of social punishment. No wonder many African Christians become hijacked in their spiritual journey.

In one situation, Adventist Christians in a particular district were being persecuted by traditional leaders and other villagers for flouting regulations concerning Chisi(a Shona word that is not translatable). Chisi has to do with a day set aside for recognizing the entities of power that bring blessings to people. On this day, no member of the community may work in the fields. Adventist believers asked for help from conference leadership because they were threatened with banishment and other forms of punishment for refusing to comply. To the local chiefs and elders it made sense to have these “enemies of the people,” who violated orders from God through the established mediators, to get out of the way so that others who comply and cooperate do not have to suffer.

Since some individuals may not approach God directly and present their case, it becomes difficult for them to break ties with the system. Those who seek to make it on their own without this established hierarchy do not have a chance. A strong sense of community in the mind and heart of the traditional African also exerts pressure with a strong pull to remain tied to the system, even if this negates a newfound faith in Christ that compels them to engage in unChristian practices from time to time.

Community solidarity. One of the greatest gifts of the Africans to the world consists of a strong sense of community. In the turbulent environment of our contemporary world, redemptive communities have become important in shaping human beings. For the traditional African, harmonious relationships are central to the formation of people and are, therefore, imperative to cultivate and maintain relational harmony within the community. Laurenti Magesa stresses this fact about the importance of community: “We cannot understand persons, indeed we cannot have personal identity without reference to others persons.”11“Bondedness,” Magesa adds, “is the key to the understanding that ‘what falls on one, falls on all.’ ”

 A strong sense of community also contributes to the African religious concubinage. The religious formation of the traditional African—the socialization and the cultural conditioning—work together to fortify close family bonds among people of the same tribe, clan, or community.

How then does this strong sense of community affect the African Seventh-day Adventist Christian negatively? The arrangement that each person belongs to the family, community, or clan has a strong influence on what the individual member of the community decides and does. A person exists corporately as a member of the extended family. Whatever happens to the individual happens to the corporate group. Mbiti further helps us to grasp that this is the “cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man,” that is, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”12

Thus, it becomes difficult for the individuals who have accepted the gospel to live a truly Christian life and to disengage from their community. Davidson Razafiarivony writes, “If a member dares go against the tradition, such a person would be rejected, and would lose all the rights and prerogatives of the members of the circle. It is the fear of this rejection that brings syncretization of the gospel message.”13

The constraints of belonging to the community also hijack Christians in their journey because the force of the traditional African worldview carries a system of encouragement or stimuli to continue with life at points of anxiety, stress, and crisis. The crisis times, such as death, birth, and illness, and the transition times, such as puberty, marriage, planting, and harvest, are all moments of practical applications of the provisions of this kind of worldview. At these points of crisis and anxiety a person needs psychological reinforcements that come from the traditional worldview. Unfortunately, many of the rituals that may be performed to mark the points of transitions carry spiritualistic overtones.

How can Christians avoid participating in those unChristian rituals and practices when they are expected to participate just because they belong to the family or clan? Rites of passage or rituals with religious significance must be performed to mark each stage of growth and development —like transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, starting on a new job or promotion, and at death. Unless the Christian ministry addresses adequately this African religio-cultural heritage, vacillation between Christianity and African traditional practices may be difficult to contain as long as people in these communities of solidarity are forced to “toe the line.”

The traditional African’s orientation to power. Ncube quotes Bucher who asserts that the main ancestor cult of Zimbabwe “is a religion that revolves around the quest for power—how to acquire and retain power for protection and prevention against forces of evil.”14 In one way or another, this power must be acquired and retained. Many traditional Africans believe that some persons and other invisible entities wield this power.

There are two main concerns in the traditional African belief system: The first one is to make life possible and to sustain it—which explains the concern about fertility and food. The second has to do with finding solutions for that which disturbs life. Setbacks, illness, death, and all forms of suffering must be dealt with, and power to counteract these is necessary.15 Bad magic, demon possession, sorcery, and witchcraft are among the mystical powers that should be counteracted and overcome.

When the traditional African ignores the clear word of Scripture to consult with “experts” in manipulating power, they are actually seeking for power to counteract evil. Since this traditional person wants life in its fullness and as completely as possible, they have a need, therefore, to affiliate with powers that command the power of life.16Richard Gehman makes this observation about traditional African religions and worldview: “The whole emphasis is on a man gaining power needed to live a good life.”17It is not surprising that the traditional African who joyfully receives the gospel relapses to traditional beliefs when life gets difficult as they search for power to alleviate suffering. There are many Christians in Africa who profess to be worshippers of the true God, but secretly, in times of crisis, visit medicine men, traditional healers, and other specialists.

Mystical powers and the traditional African worldview. The most disturbing element of the African traditional worldview can be identified as the fear of power that may be harmfully used, as evil magic, witchcraft, and sorcery are considered to be at work all the time. Bad people, who know how to tap this power, use it to harm other people. There is, therefore, a need for good people who have access to good power that can be used to counteract power from evil forces.18

For the traditional African worldview, mystical powers such as demon possession, divination, magic, sorcery, and witchcraft are real and can be used to enhance life or harm human beings. According to this view of life, “mystical powers are impersonal forces which pervade the universe and are an ever present reality.”19

Magic manipulates the use of impersonal powers through ritual and ceremony and is described as either “black” or “white.” Black magic, supposed to be used by witches, is detrimental to people and closely connected with sorcery and sorcerers who use it to harm others.

Christians are tempted to consult medicine men so that they may gain power to counteract their enemies’ powers. Unfortunately, even among professed Christians, the same practices are expected of the community. Spiritualistic activities are performed for the ancestral spirits, to seek their favor and blessings for power to live the good life that is full of wealth, prestige, status, honor, and authority.20 Unfortunately, the same pursuits and phenomena show up either due to unconscious fears or beliefs rooted in the traditional African worldview.

Conclusion and recommendations

The traditional African worldview poses a serious challenge to Christians. Mbiti did not come up with a solution, but the point he made was valid when he stated that the Christianity that was shared by missionaries was not sufficient for the religious impulse and need of the traditional African. “Mission Christianity failed to penetrate deep into African religiosity.”21

Africans have resorted to what used to be termed “African Independent Churches” but currently are referred to as “African Instituted Churches.” Such churches have mushroomed all over Africa, and they continue to grow. These are syncretistic and unorthodox; but by incorporating the African religio-cultural heritage, they have demonstrated that it helps to attempt to reach the traditional African at the core of their being. African Instituted Churches also show us that in order to deal with the traditional African worldview we should not just condemn it or only talk about it, but we need to establish strong church communities with strong fellowship that can nurture those who choose the Christian worldview. Adequate response from the church that is serious about accomplishing the mission of God has become mandatory and urgent because of a cry from many circles for the revival of true African traditions and heritage. The “African Renaissance,” which has many advocates from prominent African thought leaders, is, unfortunately, fraught with Afrocentricity that is not helpful in the formation of African people in a Christian way.

The challenge of the traditional African worldview to authentic Christian formation needs to be tackled expeditiously—not just to proclaim the gospel, but also to render a complete service of discipling persons and providing for the formation of these same people into a new worldview. To do so, there must be intentional discipleship programs that help people to internalize the Christian tradition. People who accept Christ must be helped to grow in Him and to cherish His new values in ways that supplant aberrant spiritualistic tendencies. They must also be rooted in an authentic Christian spirituality and anchored on the solid Rock, Jesus Christ.

1 John Fowler, in a presentation at the Faith and Learning Seminar University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, Kenya, 1998.
2 Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (NY:
Orbis Book, 2005), 44.
3 Institute of World Missions, “Worldview,” Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan (A Mission Institute Resource Material on Worldview), 1.
4 Kraft, Christianity in Culture, 44, 45.
5 Ibid., 298.
6 John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann Publishers, 1992), 264.
7 B. J. van der Walt, A Christian Worldview and Christian Higher Education for Africa (Potchefstroom, South Africa: Potchefstroom University, n.d.), 8.
8 Ibid., 8, 9.
9 Ibid.
10 Zebron Ncube, “Ancestral Beliefs and Practices: A Program for Developing Christian Faith Among
Adventists in Zimbabwe” (Doctoral dissertation, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, 1988), 57. [Ncube cites the construct that was published by Hubert Bucher in Spirit and Power: An Analysis of Shona Cosmology (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1980), 15.]
11 Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life (NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 64.
12 Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 108.
13 Davidson Razafi arivony, “Ancestor Worship in Madagascar: An Adventist Perspective” (Paper
presented at Faith and Learning Seminar at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, Kenya, November 22–December 2, 1998).
14 Ncube, “Ancestral Beliefs and Practices,” 57.
15 Frans J. Verstraelen, Christianity in a New Key (Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1996), 74.
16 Ibid.
17 Richard Gehman, African Traditional Religions in Biblical Perspective (Kijabe, Kenya: Kesho Publications,
1989), 20.
18 John Mbiti, Introduction to African Religions (Oxford: Heinemann Publishers, 1975), 42, 165.
19 Gehman, African Traditional Religions, 124.
20 Ibid., 55.
21 John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 233.





Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Zacchaeus A. Mathema, DMin, is professor of leadership at the Adventist University of Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.

October 2007

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

God of the Africans: ministering to adherents of African traditional religion

Five basic beliefs make up the African traditional religion. What are they? How does one successfully minister to its adherents?

Plagiarism: Alternate explanations?

Is it possible to duplicate the words of another without it being plagiarism?

Africa: a land at the crossroads

A look at the challenges of daily living throughout the African continent, and the humanitarian efforts that the Adventist Church undertakes to alleviate suffering.

The challenge to "growing in Christ" in Africa

Do African Adventists have a problem with African traditional beliefs and practices? Is African traditional religion an obstacle to socialization of members into Adventist beliefs?

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All

Latest Videos

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)