Teaching Christ to Kids raised to Worship the Ancestors

The language of ancestral worship is prominent and pervasive in Africa. The ancestors, who are known as the ‘living dead,’ are regarded as a source of refuge by many Africans. I remember when I was growing up, my dad was devoted to worship of the ancestors. When I speak ancestry worship in a Zulu context, I am referring to: amadlozi (ancestors), apaphansi (the lowly ones), abakithi (our own people), and abangasekho (those who have died). Ancestral worship is a form of religion that is highly respected and practiced by many people on the African continent.

What Ancestral Worship Involves

The burning of incense (impepho) is used in order to communicate to God through ancestors. As a result most Africans claim to know God through their ancestors. The worship of ancestors often includes appeasement, as well as requesting provision or protection. It can be a form of celebration too, which typically involves the sacrifice of an animal or fruits and sorghum beer.

The Bible refers to ancestral worship as another form of idolatry, the worship of other gods rather than the God of the Bible

Though these forms vary between cultures and tribes, in many places it is the belief that deceased family members serve as mediators between us and the living God. The Bible describes ancestral worship as another form of idolatry, the worship of other gods rather than the God of the Bible.

Blending Church and Ancestral Worship

However, my parents were born into a religious family, so they also had a high regard for the Christian church. They would take me to church with them and I became part of Sunday school. This meant that simultaneously practicing ancestral worship and going to church was normal in our family. Yet the God of the Bible condemns all worship of other gods. As one of the notes in the African Study Bible comments on Exodus 20:3-4, God sharply declares that, “You must not have other god but me, for I am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection of other gods.”

The Gospel Changed my Life

As I grew up, I heard the true gospel about Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose again on the third day. This Jesus came to save sinners and bring us into a relationship with God. As a result, I have learnt that it is by grace I have been saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). And this is not my own doing but it is the gift of God. This gospel brought about real change in my life. Since then I was never the same. I became besotted with the God of the Bible. I desired to know him. And the Holy Spirit used God’s Word to teach, convict, transform and correct me.

Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “The word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”

I became besotted with the God of the Bible. I desired to know him.  And the Holy Spirit used God’s Word to teach, convict, transform and correct me.

Embracing a Relationship with God

I started to understand that a relationship with God involves two-way communication. We speak to God in prayer and he speaks to us through his Word, the Bible. This truth began to make sense in my life. I was now able to draw a distinction between worshiping the living God as opposed to ancestral worship. For the god of my ancestors required certain rituals before any communication. But being in a relationship with God – because of his grace and through his Son – grants me direct access to talk to him. No sacrifices are required, and no rituals are left to perform.

Can I Worship the Ancestors as well as God?

Praying to God may be thought to be in parallel with talking to ancestors, since both are invisible. But the Bible teaches us that God lives in us by his Spirit. Furthermore, as his children we live with the eternal hope that one day we will see him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). We cannot deny the fact that we will see our ancestors who have died in Christ and we will reunite with them in heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). However, our ancestors who have died as Christians or non-Christians have no control of what is happening with the living. For they can never transcend God’s sovereignty. Thus, the ancestors cannot be worshiped in parallel to God. Both adults and children should be reminded of this truth.

being in a relationship with God… grants me direct access to talk to him. No sacrifices are required, and no rituals are left to perform

How do we Reach Kids Raised to Worship the Ancestors?

Now, how do you help children who grew up under these circumstances in your church? How would you make the gospel alive to them? What will help them see that the gospel is about Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose again on the third day? We must teach children that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ has the power to save them from their sins (Romans 1:16). It is the power of the gospel that will help children to disprove the worship of other gods and the mediation of ancestors. Therefore, even children can trust Jesus as their King and their Ruler. They can also know and live with him forever.

Jesus is God, more powerful than any other gods or ancestors

Pray for the Children

As a teacher, you need to pray and ask God to give you wisdom as you teach the gospel to children and prepare well. Pray for the children that God may open their hearts to be receptive to his Word. Pray that God may help you by his Spirit to teach his Word faithfully and clearly to children.

You can teach these biblical truths from a children’s song called “Jesus is the King, Ruler over Everything”, written by Paul Sheely. I have chosen this song because it summarises the message of the gospel clearly, using the book of Mark in the New Testament. Also, the song has good theology and sound doctrine which we can learn from. Perhaps you may be encouraged to teach the entire book of Mark to your Sunday school over a longer period.

A Gospel Song to Sing

Through this simple song, your Sunday school can know who Jesus is, what he came to do and why he came. You can start by reading the Bible passage each verse is about. You could even plan to teach one verse each week with its accompanying passage. For example, read Mark 1:1-11 then go back to the chorus to affirm to children that Jesus is God and there is no other god beside him. In this way, children will understand that Jesus is the only one who deserves our total worship as opposed to the worship of ancestors.

Chorus (see Mark 1:1-11)

Jesus is the King
Ruler over everything
Jesus is the One
Promised one, the Son of God
Jesus is the Lord
He’s the One you can’t ignore
Jesus, Jesus, he is the King

Verse 1 (see Mark 1:16-20)

He commanded the fishermen
“Hey, come follow me!”
And they did, and they did, and they did…
Because (back to the chorus)

Verse 2 (see Mark 1:21-28)

He commanded the evil ones
“Hey, come out of him!”
And they did, and they did, and they did…
Because (back to the chorus)

Verse 3 (see Mark 4:35-41)

He commanded the wind and waves
“Hey, be still, be still!”
And they did, and they did, and they did…
Because (back to the chorus)

Verse 4 (see Mark 14-16)

He promised that 3 days after death
He’d rise again!
And he did, and he did, and he did…
Because (back to the chorus)

Teach Children the Truth

When you teach sound doctrine to children, the Word of God transforms their hearts and moves them to realise that Jesus is God, more powerful than any other gods or ancestors. And when you bring the truth of Christ’s work before them, they will realise that the ancestors are not necessary. Children will desire to trust and obey Jesus as their Lord and King. Children will desire to love Jesus more instead of loving other things more than him. Even if they were raised to practice ancestral worship.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit will enable your Sunday school to say, “No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). Remember, the Bible is the greatest tool which you can use to teach children. Keep teaching it faithfully. Keep learning and keep growing in the Lord. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

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