There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:
- It’s all wrong
- It’s all good
- There’s truth in failure
Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.
The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.
The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.
Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).
That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.
One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).
If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.