"Animism is "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." (Van Rheenen, 1991, p. 20) This definition assumes that an interaction exists between the divine and the human, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the secular. Personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces are thought to be everywhere shaping what happens in the world. Humans with this worldview employ divination to determine what powers are impacting their lives and manipulate this power for their own benefit. The essence of Animism is power—power of the ancestor to control those of his lineage, power of an evil eye to kill a newborn or ruin a harvest, power of planets to affect earthly destiny, power of the demonic to possess a spiritist, power of magic to control human events, power of impersonal forces to heal a child or make a person wealthy."
~International Journal of Frontier Missions, VOL 10:4 OCT. 1993I will not try to expand on this definition of animism, as I would do it disservice. Suffice it to say that animism is a worldview of fear that holds to the belief that there are spirits connected with inanimate objects (trees, rocks, plants), earthly forces (wind, rain, sun, moon), and animals. These spirits hold power over us, yet can be controlled by our actions (dances, gifts, sacrifices etc.) and lived at peace with. (Romans 1:25)
An excellent simple example of an animistic tradition in Western culture is Santa Claus. It may seem laughable at first, because as a culture, even sometimes in the church, we have made light of this friendly spirit. But if you step back and examine just what is involved with the tradition of St. Nicholas you will see that it is an animistic ritual. Santa Claus is a spirit, that has authority over mankind in that he determines who is good and who is bad and rewards them accordingly. Santa Claus is omniscient and knows everything that all human beings do, yet he can be appeased and controlled by our behaviours throughout the year and by the simple act of leaving him cookies and milk on the eve of a Christian holiday. This tradition is ripe with the marks of animism, yet we accept it and make light of it because it is fun and familiar.
Another excellent example of animism can be found in the film Avatar. I do not wish to endorse the film per sé, however it does a fine job of highlighting the animistic ideas of connected spirits and the worship of impersonal forces (ie: nature, the tree of life etc.).
An animist will certainly not have just one or two spirits, they will have a tiered collection of perceived spirits, with whom they will have varying levels of interaction and relationship. It is important to note, that animists will not reject a new spirit that is presented to them, because it would be dangerous, even foolish to do so. Reject a spirit and you miss the opportunity to control it, and it may hurt you or bring you unfavourable luck.
There is a great deal that could be said about animism, indeed volumes have been written. But for the sake of this introduction, let this serve as an overview. Through it, hopefully you can clearly see the importance of a clear, studied gospel presentation to an animist. If Christ is simply presented as a spirit that can do us some good if we but pray a prayer, an animist would be crazy to reject Him, would recite the prayer and move on into a syncretistic, tainted and false understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Possibly insulating him/her against ever really coming to a genuine repentance and relationship with the Lord of Hosts. It is so very important to take the time to teach, to disciple and to present Faith in God as a new life in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Christianity is something completely different than anything else the world has to offer. But, to make such a presentation, the work of understanding the animists worldview through discipleship is vitally important.