“You're probably going to serve in an animistic culture.”

Mike Durning again reporting from the SGI conference.

The workshop was titled “Animism,” and was led by J.D. Crowley, who has spent 15 years on the field in Cambodia.

He began by asserting that almost every missionary was probably going to serve in an animistic culture—even many of those that are nominally Buddhist, or Catholic, or Muslim, can be largely animistic with a veneer of these religions, applied via syncretism.

He gave examples from Cambodia. He said about 2 billion people are practitioners.

What is animism? Gailyn Van Rheenen in his book “Communicating Christ in Animistic Cultures” (a must read) defines it this way: “The belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power.”

Examples of these personal spiritual beings: demons, gods, departed ancestors. Examples of these impersonal spiritual forces: astrology, karma, the evil eye

There is much syncretism between animism and other religions: Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam.

Anyone who goes to the Mission Field without being aware of it is crazy.

Key book: A thorough understanding of Van Rheenen’s book is helpful for most of the world’s mission fields.

Animism is, at heart, very selfish. It is about advantage, disadvantage, and power. I must determine what power (which ancestor, or spirit, or neighbor who has put a curse on me) is troubling me, and then plot a strategy.

Most of the rest of the discussion was about pure animism rather than the syncretistic kind.

In most villages, there will be a diviner who determines what spiritual being or force is at work. This person would be, from our perspective, a demonized individual. There will also be another individual—the sorcerer—who then acts on the information gathered. All of this is done for a charge.

  • So, Animism is a belief in beings and forces.
  • Animism is a belief in power—“power of his dead ancestor to control those of his lineage, power of an evil eye to kill a newborn or ruin a harvest, power of planets (and stars) to affect earthly destiny (astrology)…”
  • Animism is discovering (divining) which beings or forces are responsible for the events in one’s life.
  • Animism is manipulating or appeasing spirit beings and forces.


Animists tend to be very receptive to Christianity. Most of Christianity’s growth in history has been at the expense of one or another form of animism.

Why do animists find Christianity appealing?

  • Christians speak their language. We believe in God, angels, demons, healing, power. They resonate with our message.
  • Christianity offers freedom from the fear and control of animism.
  • Christianity offers reconciliation with the Creator God.
  • Christianity provides real power.
  • There is also a financial incentive to abandon Animism: the rituals required can be costly.

The relationship of the animist to the world is a lot like that of a store owner to an extorting mobster. They pay up, and believe it works, but would rather be free of it.

Key themes in animism:

I. Location

Much like in real estate, it’s about location, location, location.

The spirit of the forest is something to fear in the forest. Crossing the river, you’re afraid of the river spirits. In this sense, they have it right: demons are spatially restricted rather than omnipresent. Hints of this are seen in the story of Balaam. The king says “let’s try over here” when Balaam cannot curse Israel.

II. Size & Height

High places for prayer, giant rocks or large trees for sacrifice, all reflect animism.

III. Rank

“My spirit being is more powerful than yours” is the goal.

And nothing astonishes them more than Christianity’s revelation that the Creator God is so far above the demons and such that their rankings don’t even count.

IV. Words

Words are inherently powerful. It’s not about their meaning, but the words themselves are packages for power.

Note that among Charismatic Christians, many of these concepts are increasingly prevalent.

He indicated that his next workshop would be on “Animism’s cure.”

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Susan R's picture


It's true that animists are more receptive to Christianity- at least they already acknowledge a 'spiritual world'. I've seen that when witnessing to folks who are newly immigrated to America. But Cambodia et al are not the only places where animism is widely accepted and practiced- the American entertainment industry offers favorable portrayals of alternative belief structures and the current emphasis on the occult/mystical/supernatural in the media is much 'sexier' and more exciting on the surface than what Christianity offers, ie the aforementioned Avatar, about two dozen tv shows and a bazillion books and movies. There is a strong animist sub-culture right on our very own doorstep. Animism and all its kissin' cousins are portrayed as offering beauty, power, wealth, and control. I wonder how to help an American animist find Christianity more appealing...?