This is an article from the January-February 1991 issue: The State of the World

To Every Tribe With Jesus

To Every Tribe With Jesus

Pith helmets, back packs and jungle boots are often regarded as synonymous with the evangelization of tribal peoples. This stereotype has developed because of the inaccessibility of many tribal peoples. The common perception is that tribals are incredibly isolated from the rest of civilization with their weird cultures, exotic languages and sheer geographic remoteness. And so, the tribal missionary has taken on an "Indiana Jones" image.

This popular perception about work among tribals is mostly correct. And your pith helmet? Don't leave home without it!

The Tribal Situation: Statistically

There are approximately 6,000 tribal people groups worldwide, representing as many as 99 million individuals, and more than 5,100 languages. Only about 3,000 of these peoples are classified as having been reached.

It is impossible to map out definitively the location of these tribes because they are situated all over the globe in virtually every country.

Places like the island of New Guinea and Africa have a high concentration of tribal peoples, but tribals are scattered everywhere-- from North American Indians (including Alaskan Eskimos) to Australian Aborigines and the wandering nomads who traverse many regions worldwide.

The Tribal Situation: Spiritually

Each of the world's 6,000 tribes function as a homogeneous unit of individuals who share a common ancestry. Many tribes have syncretized with their spirit worship an overlay of nominal Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism, but essentially they remain in bondage to tribal deities.

Tribal people are tormented by phobias. They are suspicious of everyone and everything. This has lead to in-fightings and revenge killings. Tribal clans often isolate themselves from one another, each village becoming a law unto itself. Typically, they are terrified to travel very far in any direction because outsiders are perceived as an enemy threat. This spirit of fear completely dominates tribal cultures.

What Do Tribals Believe?

Tribal societies are deeply religious. They are mostly animistic in their world view. The religion of animism focuses on an awesome awareness that the spirit world influences all of life. It is the belief that inanimate objects such as wood and stone possess a soul and can exert supernatural power over people. Animism is to be under the control of territorial and ancestral spirits.

Most often, tribals do not have a concrete monotheistic belief in God. Their immediate concern is to appease the spirits.

The great mystery of life for tribal clans is: How can we control the spirits? The assumption is that spirits are evil and unpredictable, and they must always be approached with deference and extreme caution. From the breast, children are taught about the power, presence and danger of the spirits. Their existence is lived out in fear and worship of a variety of spirits and much energy is expended in constant attempts to placate them through magic and sacrifices. These demonic entities aggressively participate in all of the affairs of village life. So the people are endlessly seeking to settle accounts with them.

In all of this, tribal people have become remarkably sensitive to the spirit realm. Once converted, they have an incredible capacity for sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.

The Man on the Moon

Five days' walk through deep jungle and towering New Guinea mountains are the uttermost part of the earth to the people of the tribe I worked with? I remember sitting around the village fire late at night trading stories with the tribesmen. I began to tell them how we had actually sent a man to walk on the moon. When they realized I was serious, they began slapping their legs, clicking their tongues and howling with laughter! They said, "Brother, we have our myths and legends and you have yours too!" Oh, how they laughed. It was then that I began to realize how, in one short generation, tribal peoples have been ripped from the Stone Age and thrust violently into our space-age world.

This encroachment from the outside world has forced tribals to grapple with previously unknown realities. These new revelations and the exposure to the wealth of expatriates is a tremendous threat to their limited world view. This rapid advance of civilization has intensified the problem of cargoism among many tribal people. The term is taken from the World War II random cargo airdrops into jungle positions throughout the Pacific. Cargoism has come to mean any tribal preoccupation with the mystery of foreigner's gadgets and treasures. Cargoism is the natural outworking of their world-view assumptions as they try to make sense of the traumatic upheaval that foreign contact has caused. Thus cargo cults have emerged to somehow explain their wild experiences with Westerners. They are especially eager to discover the mystery of the white man's wealth.

It is important that missionaries understand this hidden agenda when working with tribals. So often, their intense interest stems from their hope that finally the mystery of cargo (and how to get it!) will be expounded for them. Sometimes when tribals get excited about the Good News that missionaries bring, it is misunderstood to mean the good news of how to get material wealth. Before long the people become disillusioned. The importance of understanding this widespread belief is critical to reaping tribal fruit.

Tactics for Reaching Tribals

  1. Become acquainted with their felt needs; learn about the realities in which they are living.
  2. Work within their existing social structures. Realize that the people are community-oriented. Allow them the group decision process they are comfortable with and work toward the fostering of people movements. A high percentage of these movements in recent years have been among animistic tribes.
  3. Seek to preserve the basics of their culture, but to bring about a change in the object of their worship.
  4. Learn the importance of genuine power encounters in tribal societies. A power encounter is a deliberate act of God which is meant to confront traditional powers in a visible way, so that at the end of the contest the Sovereign Power is clearly known. God often uses these encounters to sway the allegiance of the people towards Himself. Tribal fears must be confronted and conquered with more than mere words (1 Cor. 2:4; Acts 13:4-12). Otherwise the new Christians will continue to rely upon animistic superstitions to deal with their inadequacies. Unless a power encounter of some kind is a part of tribal conversion, Christianity will appear impotent, and there will likely be a reversion to traditional practices.
  5. Seek to communicate the Gospel through traditional tribal arts. Tribals take great pride in their heritage of art, sculpture, dance, music and drama. Though these forms certainly contain animistic themes, they can be redeemed nevertheless for Gospel communication.

Tackling the Tribal Challenge

Historically, tribal peoples have been wonderfully receptive to Christianity. God's electing grace has rested powerfully upon them and a great ingathering has already been enjoyed. But the spiritual conflict for these dear people is raging hot. Satan has held these tribes captive for millennia. He'll not give them up without a titantic struggle.

Many of us believe that reaching the remaining tribes can be accomplished by the end of this present decade. But we must face up honestly with what this commitment will cost us in terms of an all- out, war-like approach to the goal. At the very least it will call for an unprecedented concentration of prayer power, manpower and money power. Are we willing to pay this price in full for the completing of the tribal task?


There are no comments for this entry yet.

Leave A Comment

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.