Ancestral worship remains a significant hindrance to the gospel in many African countries. Generally, Africans do not have a problem with the gospel message. But a massive question hangs over the decision to repent and believe, related to worship of the ancestors.
A massive question hangs over the decision to believe the gospel, related to worship of the ancestors.
With the commitment to Christ comes the rejection of idols, others who compete with Christ for our devotion and faith (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Thus believing the gospel has significant ramifications for relationships, especially within families. Africans must ask: What will it cost?
Ancestor Worship Provides Protection
These concerns often stem from a place of love, whether it is for living or passed family members. But, for many others, they are driven by fear. During my time in Lesotho, I encountered both. One shepherd asked me: “If I come to Jesus, do I have to turn from the ancestors? If I turn from them, will I not face challenges, or attacks, and forfeit blessing? Must I renounce things I did previously to protect myself and my family?” Thus while genuinely considering the gospel message, this man was simultaneously crushed by fear.
By trusting in Christ he would be turning from family members, abandoning the security they provided.
I respect his questions. They show that he is counting the cost of following Christ. That is, what would the cost be for him as an African, entrenched in worship of the ancestors, to follow Christ? The questions he asked highlight the remarkable cost for many Africans. By trusting in Christ he would be turning from family members, abandoning the sense of security and protection, as well as the prosperity, they provide.
Jesus Said Faith Will Be Costly
Jesus did say there is a cost in following him. “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). He clarified this by asking: “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). For many Africans, part of the cost of following Christ involves renouncing their devotion to passed family members, their involvement in the worship of the ancestors. I’ve argued this in two previous articles at TGC Africa, here and here.
Refusing to worship the ancestors can affect our relationship with living family members.
As Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Varying with family background, this is the price we all have to pay.
Following Christ Disrupts Family Relations
The difference with Africans is that it involves severing connections we have with deceased family members. This can affect our relationship with our living family members because of their expectation of us to continue appeasing and consulting the ancestors.
Even though my mother was a sangoma, I was fortunate enough that when I became a Christian, she did not expect me to continue helping her with rituals. But I know a friend whose relationship with her family changed dramatically with her conversion. For even though she was now a Christian, they fully expected her to continue with the old practices.
Any Christian African that comes from a strong traditional background faces serious challenges.
She is not the only African who faces these challenges. Any Christian African that comes from a strong traditional background faces them and possibly worse. Especially if that family does not have any Christian background or are involved in syncretistic Christianity, which mixes worship of the ancestors with the Christian faith.
Christians Enjoy A New Family in Christ
Anticipating the costs, Jesus promises us a new family in this life and eternal life that follows it. When Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you,” Jesus replied, “There is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:28-30).
We see a fulfilment of Jesus’ promise in the church, both locally and globally. As Paul wrote, “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Therefore, wherever the church is, the Christian has family. Thus, as we consider the cost of following Christ, especially its impact on our connection with passed and living family members, we must remember that in Jesus we’re made members of God’s household.
Wherever the church is, the Christian has family.
God’s household defies geographical boundaries, racial differences, as well as death and time (Revelation 6:9-11). For we who are still alive look forward to our union with those who went before us (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18).
Other Believers Face Similar Challenges
Now, as Africans we have to be reminded that we are not alone in this struggle. We are not the only people group for whom following Jesus might mean losing our relationship with our family members. Nabeel Qureshi, the author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, has a wonderful testimony. He shares how as a Muslim converting to Christianity his relationship with his parents was drastically affected. This is one example, but Muslims face similar familial challenges when they come to Christ and renounce Islam.
As Africans we have to remember that we are not alone in this struggle. We have brothers and sisters who go through similar challenges. This does not take away the pain, it just means that the cost involved in turning from ancestor worship is not unique to Africans.