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Why Pentecostalism has succeeded among animists

Contextualization among the tribal people in Northern Luzon, Philippines. An article by Julie Ma.

Photo via [link]Lausanne Movement[/link].

Contextualization is intertwining an idea or a word with elements of a particular cultural and social context to ensure the relevancy of the concept.

Therefore, identifying a commonly-held idea or concept is critical to the contextualization process.

During my mission work among the tribal people in Northern Luzon, Philippines, I observed how the gospel message was being contextualized by Pentecostals among these people.

There are similarities between the worldviews of the tribal group and that of Pentecostals.

In this article, I conclude that the crux of the tribal people’s openness to the Pentecostal message lies in the similarities between the two worldviews, particularly in two specific areas.

The first is the mutually held belief in supernatural power to heal the sick. By experience or observation, they are also convinced that the Christian God is more powerful than their spirits.

The second is the shared faith in blessings from divine beings. The net result is an exponential growth of Pentecostal churches among various tribal groups.



The Kankana-ey tribe believes that their gods are unchangeable and almighty. They associate spiritual beings with power, trusting that the spirits can solve the challenges of life.

The Kankana-eys believe in the presence of numerous spirits in the sky-world and under-world. As animists, they believe that all creatures have spirits, and ‘the spirits join other spirits after death.

These spirits intimately interact with people, associating with their lives as if they were living, local resident creatures.’ They also believe that these spirits communicate with humans through dreams and various signs.

Mediums are religious specialists who receive the spirits’ message through rites and rituals. For generations, the Kankana-eys have cultivated such a belief structure as part of their life. [1]

When somebody in a family gets ill, the family seeks a village priest for his advice. Upon examination, the priest prescribes a specific ritual requirement, such as the date, time, and location of the ritual performance, the kind and number of animals for sacrifice, and detailed instructions for the ritual.

I observed one such ritual where several people killed a pig with a sharp bamboo piece. The priest examined the shape of the pig’s internal organs, particularly the liver. If they were not perfect, and thus, not acceptable to the spirits, the family had to kill another one.

Then a ritual dance was performed with prayers. Upon the successful performance of the ritual, the sick person was expected to recover.

Pentecostals acknowledge healing as the work of the Holy Spirit that takes place today. And they also believe that healing has a special place in introducing God’s kingdom, as seen in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles (eg Luke 10).

Thus, when healing is needed, they regularly invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because of its experiential impact, the testimonies of healing spread fast and wide.

Recounted and retold words of healing bring people in the immediate and nearby communities to Christian meetings, adding more to the Christian faith, often by families and clans.

We need to remember that this explosive ripple effect takes place in the social context where medical service is nil. It is no wonder that healing has become a distinct characteristic of Pentecostal ministry.



The Kankana-eys often perform rituals to receive blessings. They believe that the spirits have acquired ‘arbitrary power’ to bring affluence or disaster to their descendants.

The blessing encompasses every aspect of life, including abundant harvest, protection from drought, landslide, or pestilence, many children, good health, increase and health of herds, increase of wealth, successful business, and influence on the villagers. [2]

The Kankana-eys trust that their desires and wealth will come through the diligent and appropriate rituals and prayers to the spirits.

The village priest plays a key role throughout the whole process with his mediation for the family and the execution of meticulous details of the ritual. In this way, ‘the ritual provides a meaningful avenue by which the people have their felt needs met.’ [3]

Although the Pentecostal belief of blessing does not appear much different from that of traditional Christian beliefs, their theological assumptions are sufficiently dissimilar, as manifested in their spirituality and praxis.

First, Pentecostals believe in the immediacy and tangibility of God’s work in his people. Anchored in God’s supernatural work to meet the needs of his people, as recorded in the Bible, Pentecostals exercise their literalistic hermeneutics to apply them to their contemporary life.

They will base their belief in God’s miraculous rescue from unescapable danger on God’s preservation of the three Hebrew lads, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, from the furnace, or Jesus’ calming of the storm. They expect God’s intervention here and now in tangible ways.

The second is the dependability of God. God loves to bless his people as he keeps his promises: ‘Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God…’ (Deut 7:9; Ps 89:8; 1 Thess 5:23-24).

Thirdly, from Oral Roberts to David Yonggi Cho, the goodness of God is a widespread attribute for Pentecostals. Many Pentecostal denominations believe that healing is in the atonement of Christ, as is the restoration of blessing.

Cho preached frequently that believers are now free from poverty and sickness, the symbols of the human curse, through the atoning work of Christ who completely canceled the curse of sin and death.

Thus, Pentecostals believe that God’s blessing is the believers’ entitlement (eg Ps 100:5).

Fourthly, building on the empowerment theology of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals, especially the tribal believers, frequently ‘confront’ evil spirits in the name of Jesus.

This bold attitude is revealed in praying for the sick, casting out impending dangers as revealed in dreams or omens, rebuking a storm from causing a landslide, and ‘binding’ any evil spirit from harming children and animals.


Analysis of religious worldviews

The majority of non-Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are followers of traditional religions, such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Taoism. ‘

According to 2003 Britannica Book of the Year, close to 100 million people practice traditional religions in Africa alone. They worship many deities and countless spirits. Their priest or priestess serves each major deity.’ [4]

In many places, the widespread animistic beliefs, often manifested in the worship of ancestor spirits, have permeated these religions. As animistic ancestor worshippers, they believe in the power of their ancestor spirits to heal, protect, and bless their descendants.

In Asia, religions have played a vital part in providing answers to life’s varied challenges. On this continent, where most of the organized world religions were born, animism is prevalent.

As a result, organized religions, including Christianity, have appropriated animistic assumptions and perspectives. Understandably, this tendency is more noticeable in the beliefs and practices among tribal Christians.

The majority of tribal groups in the Global South are traditionally spirit worshippers, including ancestor spirits. These spirits are never disconnected from the real world; they permanently engage themselves with the living.

They have also obtained the power to cure the sick, bless or curse the family, or ward off misfortune. Thus, the course of action is set when a family member becomes sick. They will, first of all, establish communication with the spirit which would be responsible for the illness.

Then, they will offer an appropriate sacrifice to appease and satisfy the responsible or offended spirit. Throughout the process, the priest mediates the communication with the spirit and issues a diagnosis. He also leads the sacrificial performance.

What are the major resemblances between animistic religions and Pentecostal beliefs in the majority world, particularly among tribal groups, that contribute to the reception of the Christian message?

The first is the awareness of the existence of the spirit world and its association with the world of the living. The ancestor spirits are never perceived to dwell in an aloof world; rather, they reside with their living descendants.

Pentecostalism shares a common perspective that God is not only transcendent—he is also immanent. The Holy Spirit, who resides in us, helps in our times of need. He empowers Christians to yield spiritual fruit in their lives, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

He bestows believers with natural and supernatural gifts (eg 1 Cor 12). The Bible reveals that God intimately engages with his people through the Holy Spirit. [5]

The second similarity is the belief in the power of spiritual beings to heal and bless; both the ancestor spirits for animistic believers and the Holy Spirit for Christian tribal believers.

However, even though religious allegiances may shift from traditional animistic spirits to the Christian God, the ‘crowded’ spiritual realm does not simply disappear. And this often erupts into spiritual warfare between the Holy Spirit and evil spirits.

The supremacy of the Christian God is vindicated, often through the manifestation of his power to heal, bless, or ward off misfortunes. The Pentecostal experience of new believers empowers them to confront spiritual activities in the name of Christ. [6]

Thus, these religious commonalities have contributed to the rapid spread of the Christian faith in the Global South. This serves as indisputable proof of God’s authority and supremacy over other spirits.


The unrelenting pursuit of God’s goodness

The Kankana-ey Pentecostal experience or witness of healing from God motivates them to turn from their traditional religious beliefs to Christ as their new Lord and Savior.

Their empirical experience of God’s healing and blessing gives them the courage to overcome peer pressure in their closely connected communities.

Once a family makes this change of religious allegiance, others soon follow, resulting in the birth of a faith community.

Many small churches in the mountain villages steadily, or sometimes rapidly, grow to bring the entire village under the Christian faith. A large number of young people later receive theological training and return to their village churches or take up ministerial responsibilities.

Their unrelenting pursuit of God’s goodness through healing and blessing has significantly contributed to the growth of the Pentecostals among many mountain tribes. And this story repeats in many tribal groups.

Julie C. Ma (PhD) is professor of missiology and intercultural studies at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma (US). She previously served as a Korean missionary in the Philippines and as research tutor of missiology at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in the UK.

Her publications include When the Spirit Meets the Spirits: Pentecostal Ministry Among the Kankana-ey Tribe in the Philippines. She was a general council member and executive committee member of Edinburgh 2010, the centenary conference of the World Missionary Conference of 1910.

This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.


1.  Julie Ma, When the Spirit Meets the Spirits: Pentecostal Ministry Among the Kankana-ey Trible in the Philippines (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000),104. See also, W. D. Sacla, Treasure of Beliefs and Home Rituals of Benguet (Baguio: BCF Printing Press), 1988, 10-11; W. Scott, A Sagada Reader (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1988), 151.

2.  Ma, When the Spirit Meets the Spirits, 214.

3.  Ma, When the Spirit Meets the Spirits, 214-15. See also, Susan Russell, ‘Ritual Persistence and the Ancestral Cult Among the Ibaloi of the Luzon Highland,’ in Changing Lives Changing Rites: Ritual and Social Dynamics in Philippines and Indonesian Upland, eds S. Russell and E. Clark (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1989), 17-41.

4.  Britannica Book of the Year (England: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003), 306.

5. Julie Ma, ‘Miracle Divine Activity and Religious Worldview’ in Areopagite (Jan, 3, 2020), 3.

6. Ma, ‘Miracle Divine Activity and Religious Worldview,’ 3.





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