Spiritual Conflict and the Mission of the Church: Contextualization

Dr. Marguerite Kraft


Even today most Christians in the West and often those non-western Christians trained in the West, or trained by westerners, have limited understanding of spiritual powers. This involves how spirits affect human activity, the power of curses and blessings, the need for harmony with the spiritual forces, and the constant battle being waged in the spirit world. Furthermore, the western church under great pressure from rationalism and science, has failed to teach and practice a theology of the spirit realm. This has resulted in a lack of awareness of God’s power, including the Holy Spirit power within Christians, and its relation to other existing spiritual powers.

Many societies of the world are spiritual power oriented. In these cases the world is seen as dynamic with one power pitted against another in daily living. However, Christianity as carried by emissaries from the West, has not focused on a God of power as clearly presented in the Bible. This has caused problems for new believers and the established church as well as for the future growth of the church.

This paper will deal with gaining a greater understanding of the spiritual dimensions of the receptor’s society in crosscultural missions. Spiritual conflicts will be examined and suggestions made for carrying out a contextualized ministry. Hopefully the result will be allowing God to be God in all his power rather than God being limited by the worldview of the West


The field of anthropology has provided many definitions for worldview, the central control box of culture. Worldview, as I am using it, refers to the basic assumptions, values, and allegiances of a group of people. It can be seen as the way people perceive of such things as the self, the in-group to which they belong, outsiders, nature around them, and the non-human or supernatural world. Worldview is formed unconsciously as we learn our culture and it enables us to feel comfortable in our environment. It is a picture of what is and ought to be and permeates all of our customs and behavior. Since we are usually not aware of these basic assumptions, values, and allegiances, the natural way to proceed in crosscultural situations is to follow our cultural ways.

A. The West And Powerless Christianity

A Navajo Christian explained his Native American life experiences: born and raised on the reservation, then moved to the city suffering further oppression, and finally living on the inner city streets of Skid Row. He joyfully spoke of his faith in Christ and his faithful family who helped rescue him from the streets. But he reported that as he tried to interest other Navajos to follow Christ they were uninterested, saying, “There is no power in Christianity. We need power to survive in this world.” He was aware of the Navajo worldview with lots of spirit activity, and he had not been taught how to handle this as a Christian.

Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out that Christianity is the most secularizing force in recent history (1966:18). The reason behind this is that a form of Christianity that is comfortable in the West has been transferred to other parts of the world. It fails to deal with the whole person as a spiritual being. The categorizing of life influences the establishment of institutions to provide for various areas of life: church for religious life, schools for the educational area, hospitals and clinics for the physical/medical area, organizations promoting developmental technology for the production and health area

For the Westerner, faith in and commitment to science gives humans control over the material universe. C. Kraft describes the situation well.

Western societies passed through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and a wide variety of ripples and spin-offs from these movements…The result: God and the church were dethroned, and the human mind came to be seen as savior. It is ignorance, not Satan we are to fight. And our weapons are human minds and technology. God, if there be a God, only helps those who do it all themselves. Thus, by the nineteenth century, God had become irrelevant to most Westerners (1989:31-32).

Christians in the West, then struggle to combine a secular worldview and the God of the Bible. Spiritual powers and their place in the universe are given very little attention or relevance in daily living.

A Holistic Approach To Life

In many societies of the world supernaturalism is the center of life and the integrating factor. Humans are seen as weak and needing increased strength to survive in a world full of spirit activity. In such societies spiritual power is viewed as necessary for success, wealth, guidance, and meeting daily crises, e.g., illness, accidents, barrenness, drought.

The Navajo illustrate clearly a holistic approach to life with the concept of harmony as a central focus. They believe that everything was brought into being in perfect harmony—a balance between human beings and the physical world around them, between human beings and the spiritual powers around them. Unity in the spirit realm generates a feeling of understanding, concern, peace, and identity with the surroundings—in nature, people, animals. When disharmony arises (for example, sickness, misfortune, strained relationships, breaking of a taboo), harmony must be restored. Disease and injury are often perceived as of spiritual origin, caused by witchcraft, sorcery, or contact with ghosts. “Positive health for the Navajo involves a proper relationship to everything in one’s environment, not just the correct functioning of one’s physiology” (Witherspoon 1977:24). Because of this belief, the traditional and Peyote ceremonies deal with the whole person, his/her family, clan, animals, fields, origins, and the spirit powers around the person.

My own experience living in a Nigerian village and since then interacting with people from many other countries has raised many questions in my mind. Should all Christians have the same concept of God? How does God respond to other spiritual powers that are so real to those of other societies? How can the God of Scripture be the God of power for the everyday lives of Christians in spiritual-power oriented society? How can the God of the Bible become the integrating factor in life?

Other questions, however, I hear coming from the minds and hearts of Christians or potential Christians from other societies. Does the foreign doctor know how to take care of the spirits who are making me ill? How will I know when to plant my crops if I do not go to the local diviner? Does the pastor have enough spiritual power to deal with my wife’s barrenness? How can I survive the curses of my father when he hears of my Christian faith? Where within the church is there power to protect me from witches? In fact, when discussing Christianity with a non-believer from another society, the question raised is often not, Who is this Jesus? but What can Jesus do? In my reflecting I consider the validity and significance of this question.

Specific Felt Needs For Spiritual Power

Basic felt needs include the need for food, shelter, protection, identity, communication, belonging, and security. These are common to all human beings and have been described and categorized in a variety of ways by a number of psychologists and anthropologists (Barnett 1953; Maslow 1970:53; Herskovits 1951; Linton 1952:646).

Felt needs are the source of motivation to action. To illustrate, the need for wealth motivates some to work hard, others to steal, others to make things right with spiritual powers, others to have large families. In one society the belief is if you work hard you will be rich. In another group the belief is that you deserve more than you have, so you can take from others to get your due. In another society you do not get rich without the gods making it so with their blessing. Still another society defines wealth as the extended family, so the larger the family, the wealthier you are. Felt needs motivate, but the societal beliefs and values shape the resultant action.

Human beings seem to know they have limitations and seek help beyond their own capabilities. Each society has its own way of obtaining spiritual power for times and events that are filled with unknown dangers and for situations that are beyond human control. In many societies of the world the quest for spiritual power for daily living is at the forefront of the people’s minds. I use the term “spiritual-power oriented” to describe such societies. Seeking spiritual power in Africa has been described by D. Westermann:

This craving for power is the driving force in the life of African religion…Man is weak, and what he needs is increased strength…The absorbing question for him is how to acquire some of this power so that it may serve for his own salvation or that of the group for which he is responsible (1937:84).

The need for the spiritual to enable human beings who are perceived as weak and limited to survive each day is real in many parts of the world today.

In my research of concepts of spiritual power in three different societies (M. Kraft 1995), I found that spiritual power was sought for common basic human needs. Perpetuity needs included ensuring fertility for reproduction within the family and also as it relates to the land, crops, and livestock. Prosperity needs included the dangerous transitions through life (e.g., childbirth, puberty, marriage, death) and building a new house, opening a new business, etc. Health needs drive one to spiritual power depending on the society’s theory of sickness and accident. Spiritual causes and the need for harmony demand attention to spiritual power. Security needs include the dangers perceived when venturing into new territory or traveling, natural disasters such as floods and droughts, and the dangers of sorcery and witchcraft. Restitution needs deal with the prescribed ways to restore order after someone has broken the rules of society. This includes dealing with the ancestors and with other human relationships. Power needs for situations humans cannot control or explain drive one to seek help from the spiritual realm also.

Worldview and human felt needs are interrelated. Worldview shapes a people’s felt needs; felt needs shape the worldview. To illustrate, human felt needs for safety influence a people to form basic assumptions and values that will result in action that meets that felt need. In western societies, safety was at one time conceived of as in the hands of spiritual powers. Belief in God’s protection and belief in the power of prayer were important assumptions. As worldview changed over a period of many years, with science replacing belief in spiritual power, the basic need for security persisted, resulting in law enforcement agencies, insurance policies, and locks and safety alarms on houses, businesses and cars. The assumption now is that safety is provided by using material means and is under human control.


For many peoples, the world is seen as dynamic with one power pitted against another. Often there is no sharp dividing line between sacred and secular because the material and spiritual are intertwined. Power encounters, the confrontation between two or more spiritual powers, are a common occurrence. The spiritual powers that are involved when there is a power encounter may be personal or impersonal, evil or good, greater or lesser, within a person (demonization) or outside the person. When people destroy their fetishes, they are recognizing that they have available to them a power stronger than that in the fetish. Among the Navajo when lightning, which is perceived as a malevolent spiritual power, strikes a house and the people refuse to abandon it, but pray to God for protection, this is a power encounter. Whether or not a particular event is perceived as a confrontation of two spiritual powers is, however, in the mind of the beholder and is dependent on his/her worldview.

Alan R. Tippett in his book, Solomon Islands Christianity , reports:

When Christianity arrived the religious encounter was not between a pagan deity and the Christian God…The encounter had to take place on the level of daily life against those powers which dealt with the relevant problems of gardening, fishing, war, security, food supply and the personal life crises…In the eyes of any potential Melanesian convert to Christianity, therefore, the issue was one of power in daily life. The convert could not stand with the missionary and conceptualize in terms of psychology and Western thought-forms. Rather the missionary had to stand with the convert and help him to understand what Christ meant in terms of power encounter (1967:5).

For Christ and the church to be relevant to life missionaries must be aware of the active existing spiritual powers and on what occasions they are called on for assistance.

The mission of the church is to introduce people to Christ, make them aware of God’s purposes for all human beings (the creation, the fall, and reconciliation), and assist them in responsibly becoming bearers of His good news. Spiritual conflicts are involved at all levels. God’s design has always been to meet mankind where they are and then gently move them closer to himself. With most of the world heavily involved in spiritual power activities, the initial communication of the gospel must deal with spiritual power. When people give allegiance to Christ, spiritual conflicts will arise over spiritual power for each day’s needs. The form and corporate practices of the church will need to be shaped to meet the felt needs for spiritual power. Christian theology must give creedal attention to specific areas where spiritual powers are involved.

A. The Church Needs to Meet Felt Needs in The Initial Communication Of The Gospel

Communication theory affirms the importance of the receptors because they are the ones who decide the credibility of the message and the communicator. The message must be relevant to the receptors’ values and practical for their context. In fact, it is the receptors who construct the meaning of the messages according to their worldview, experiences, and conditioning.

To illustrate, for the Navajos nature is very sacred and harmony between mankind and nature is paramount in their thinking. Christians should emphasize the biblical relationship between humans created in God’s image and the created universe. Harmony between all he created was in the heart of God as he gave humans the responsibility to keep it alive (e.g., Psalms 104, Genesis 1 and 2). Many passages in the Old Testament speak of the physical environment and of how God works and speaks through it. He demonstrates his power to keep nature in balance. Inclusion of these concepts in presenting the gospel could very well catch the attention of the Navajo and enrich their journey of faith in God.

When something goes wrong (e.g., sickness, death, accident) it is often perceived to be the action of evil spirit power. The crosscultural communicator must recognize the activity that takes place between the spirit world and humans (Eph. 6:12) and be ready to let God be victorious. For example, when a non-Christian child is ill (whether the perceived cause is offending a tree spirit or germs), the one bringing the message of Christ needs to be ready to pray audibly for healing from God to claim the power and authority God gives us (Luke 9:1) and to recognize his power over the spirit world. Being aware of the difference in causality in the worldview of the receptor allows the outsider to show God’s relevance and position in the universe and in daily living.

Consciously seeking common ground is important in reaching out to spiritual-power oriented societies. Some of the basic assumptions provide fertile ground for establishing a vibrant, all-encompassing Christianity. First, in these societies people recognize the existence of both good and evil spiritual power apart from human power. Good spiritual power is needed due to human power being limited and in order to ward off the evil powers. Second, spiritual powers, both good and bad, are active and involved in human daily experiences. However, often more attention is given to ritual for warding off the evil powers who bring harm and danger. Third, human beings have access to spiritual power and may use it to harm other human beings or for their own safety and health. Fourth, some spiritual powers are stronger than others, and the strongest one wins when there is an encounter or spiritual conflict. Fifth, the struggle with spiritual powers continues throughout life. God’s pattern of outreach is to meet people where they are and move them to faith in and obedience to himself. Recognition of the starting point will assist us greatly in our involvement in the task. Furthermore, those who accept Christ and sincerely study God’s Word from these basic assumptions will have great insights to share with Christians who have science-humanistic basic assumptions. Due to the westernizing and secularizing effect of Christianity in the past we have failed to reap these benefits.

B. The Church Needs to Meet Felt Needs In Bringing About Spiritual Growth

The worldview of the convert is important because people interpret new truth from their own viewpoints, looking through their worldview lenses. We must recognize that it will require considerable time to bring the basic assumptions and values in line with what the Bible says. This can be illustrated by how difficult it is to have a biblical view of wealth in America even today. For instance, for Christians wealth should be used to meet immediate needs and shared with others (Luke 6:30; 2 Cor. 9:11; 1 Tim. 6:9-11).

The problem of “dual allegiance” is a very serious problem in worldwide Christianity today as Christians have found themselves without the spiritual power to handle life’s crises (C. Kraft and M. Kraft 1993). This happens often when people come to Jesus but continue to depend on other spiritual powers for protection, healing, guidance (e.g., shamans, diviners, amulets, sacrifices) or when they add to their Christian commitment a dependence on occult powers (e.g., fortune-telling, New Age, astrology, psychic healing).

Most important for spiritual power oriented societies is solid instruction on the greatness of the power of God and the existence of the powers of evil. Passages to be studied and learned would include 1 John 4:4; 5:4-5, 19. God at work in the Old Testament reveals his power over other gods and spirits (e.g., 1 Samuel 5; 1 Kings 18; Isa. 44:6-20).

Since warding off evil spirit attack is real in the daily lives of those in spiritual power oriented societies, the new believer needs to learn to employ the power of God to overcome (not simply placate) these spirits. Passages that speak of God’s protection should be studied, memorized, and used (i.e., Ps. 27:1-6; 28:7; Luke 10:19-20; 1 Pet. 4:11; and Col. 1:9-14). Jesus gave all Christians the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 12:13) and also the power and authority over all demons and all diseases (Matt. 10:1; Luke 9:1; 10:17-19). Christians must realize that the greatest spiritual power in the universe is available to them through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

God’s power is given not for protection only, but for enabling his people to do his work. Christ in each Christian in the form of the Holy Spirit is the source of power for doing God’s work (Rom. 15:13-17). Wayne Dye points out how the power God gives is to serve his purposes.

God gives power to be the right sort of spiritual person, to be morally strong and to react as a Christian should to the trials of life. (Col. 1:10-11; Phil. 4:3; 1 Cor. 10:13; Eph. 6:10-12; Luke 22:32; Acts 16:5)

The second biblical purpose of spiritual power is to be able to do God’s work more effectively. This means to speak prophetically and also to see healing and other miracles in answer to prayer and to serve other believers in practical ways. (Mic. 3:8; 2 Cor. 13:4; Eph. 3:7; 2 Cor. 12:12) (1982:43-35)

Those who convert to Christ must know in practice that the Holy Spirit within them empowers them for living and confronting the spiritual powers that exist around them.

C. The Church Needs to Be Shaped To Meet Felt Needs

Cultural voids often emerge if felt needs for spiritual power are not reckoned with and met in the structure and practice of the church. Since areas of life in which a person feels the need for spiritual assistance still exist after conversion, the church must seriously deal with how to meet these needs. If there is a cultural practice that needs to be rejected when one accepts Christ, the church needs to deal with two questions: What were its functions in society? and What kind of Christian substitutes could take its place?

Functional substitutes must be designed by the insiders of the society if they are to become permanent. When the church leadership senses that members of the church are struggling with unmet needs or when followers of Christ continue to seek assistance from non-Christian practitioners, it is time for the church leadership to consider a functional substitute:

The concept of functional substitute permits amazing diversity in application. A functional substitute may be a form, a ritual, a symbol, a role, an idea, a craft, an occupation, an artifact, an economic pattern, or it may even be the Christian religion itself under certain ideal circumstances (Tippett 1987:186).

The missionary can assist in this process by helping the church become aware of the freedom to change current practices to meet current felt needs. Whereas the first generation converts to Christianity were often most harsh in rejecting old customs having to do with power, later generations no longer see those customs as sacred, but only as cultural symbols. Sometimes practices that were prohibited by the first Christian missionaries and their converts are years later revised with Christian meaning by the local pastors in order to meet felt needs.

In societies where spiritual powers are perceived as the cause of illness the church needs to have in its structure a means of dealing with physical illness. This could be a regular part of worship or a prayer team available to go to homes or even separate prayer teams for each extended family group in the church. It might be good to have a member of the pastoral staff who is trained and gifted in healing and deliverance to be available at all times. Familiarity with power encounter is essential training for Christians. Tippett emphasizes the fact that Scripture demands that the people of God be willing to be involved in power encounter:

The works of the devil have to be destroyed. Sinful man is bound. Christ came to unloose him…I have given you…power-with authority…over the power of the enemy….If the Christian takes up his place in the world, he is involved as a soldier of Christ both defensively and offensively (1973:89-90).

Christians are told to be on the watch and ready to defeat the powers in faith and loyalty to God (I Pet. 5:8). Even though Christ unmasked and disarmed the powers at the cross and the victory is certain (Col. 2:13-15), yet the battle continues (Eph. 6:12; I Cor. 15:24).

Rosalind Hackett, who has researched new religious movements in Nigeria, notes that African independent churches have allowed women a great deal of independence in religious activities. The emphasis on healing attracts women especially because of their felt needs:

Given the pressures on women to perpetuate the lineage and the problems surrounding childbirth and rearing healthy children in a developing country whose medical facilities are still far from adequate, it is not surprising that women turn to these churches for total or supplementary support. We should not ignore the supernatural beliefs or fears which surround conception and childbirth and which the independent churches treat as existential realities (Hackett 1985:263).

These churches are meeting women where they are in their needs and worldview. Hackett also notes that the independent churches provide opportunity and an acceptable place in society for women who have become “displaced persons” (through childlessness, divorce, or accusations of witchcraft) (1985:265). Mission churches can learn from the independent churches in the area of meeting felt needs.


What has been most detrimental to effective mission work in regards to spiritual power is the lack of a sense of the necessity to learn about where the nonbelievers are in their spiritual journey. Since behavior reflects felt needs, it is important to investigate the meaning and function in the observance of pre-Christian ritual. This investigation makes it possible to define the felt needs for spiritual power that need to be met and dealt with in the framework of Christianity. It is always helpful for a Christian to be able to look at life through someone else’s lens in order to better understand their needs and behavior.

Four universals of worldview help in the collecting and organizing of data: 1) classification, 2) the person-group relation, 3) causality, and 4) the perception of time and space. Classification of spiritual powers is the way people categorize them (i.e., gods and goddesses, ancestor spirits, malevolent spirits, guardian spirits), how/if they distinguish between supernatural and natural, the arrangement of the spiritual powers ( i.e., hierarchical, geographical), and the interrelationship of each group with human beings.

The way in which spiritual power relates to the person/group varies from society to society. In Thailand skilled artisans and performers, such as the bronze casters and boxers, express their respect before a performance to their teachers and to the spirit masters of their professions who are seen as the “owners” of the art and the giver or withholder of successes in it. Respect and a consciousness of knowing one’s place in society is observed in language and behavior. For the Kamwe a hierarchical arrangement of spiritual powers exist, with the ancestors closest to the family. The older members of the family are closest to becoming ancestors, so they must be respected. Therefore, it is very serious and even dangerous to disagree with an elder, because he/she may place a curse on a person that could cause barrenness, death of children, illness, or death.

Causality deals with the forces that are at work in the universe. Many societies see sickness and misfortune as caused by offending a spirit or an ancestor spirit, being cursed by an elder, failing to show respect where needed, or a bad interpersonal relationship. Often the good things that happen to a person are seen as due to help from the spirit world, too.

How time and space are perceived affects working with the spiritual. The appropriate time and place for meeting the spiritual, the arrangement of people to interact most effectively with spiritual powers, the flow of spirit power, and the use of objects with spiritual power are all part of the basic assumptions of a society and affect the behavior of the people. If the time for dealing with the spiritual powers is after sundown, it may be best to have Christian worship at that time. If spiritual activity/gatherings are centered in the home, church could more effectively center in the home and for the extended family group.

To understand the process of contextualization, the crosscultural worker needs to distinguish the difference between cultural forms and their meanings. “Forms” are the customs and structures both visible and invisible that make up a culture, whereas “meanings” are the personal interpretations of the people within the culture. Meanings since they are in the people who use the forms can then be changed by these people. In contextualization we are assisting Christians in attaching new meanings to their cultural forms by using them for new purposes. For the Kamwe in Nigeria, some of their local music with drum accompaniment was usable for praising God and other was not. The decision for what was usable was in the hands of the local believers. Dancing these songs of praise when the moon was full proved to be a natural way of communicating the gospel to new areas as the dance attracted outsiders and non-Christians. Again, using the dance at this time and place and in this way was suggested by the local believers.

The tendency in the past has been to refuse certain cultural forms that may have been used in interacting with the spirit world, and the result has been a form of Christianity that looks and feels foreign. As a result those not interested in abandoning their traditional ways are not interested in following Christ. The challenge we face today is to capture local cultural forms and empower them for God’s purposes. However, if these forms have been empowered for evil, that power will need to be broken before the forms can be used for God. Again the local Christians can best know the meaning and whether it has spiritual significance or not.

Besides being able to approach another society as a learner with an open mind, the missionary must learn as much about the spirit world as possible before entering the new environment. A careful study of spiritual power, both God’s and Satan’s, in Scripture is essential. There are also many books available today to enrich one’s understanding and challenge one’s faith in a God of power. Courses on spiritual warfare are available at some Christian Universities and Seminaries. Seminars on spiritual warfare sponsored by churches and mission organizations are available in many parts of the world. But the most valuable training of all is to experience doing spiritual warfare by arranging to work alongside of a Christian with such a specialized ministry or be on a team focusing on ministry to those who are oppressed by evil spirits. This experience will increase your understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit in believers and the activity of the Evil One in the world today.


The shortest and most effective bridge for reaching those in spiritual power oriented societies is simply moving from a pagan power source to the true God as power source. This involves little or no conversion from spiritual power to secular power. The cultural results of this change of power source are likely to be forms of Christianity that look very similar to their non-Christian predecessors but with God as the power source. Places of meeting God and the rituals conducted as well as the practitioners would reflect the previous ways but would also be limited to being appropriate to biblical Christianity and using only the power of the true God.

I have shown how many of the practical everyday problems in the world today involve spiritual powers. The church must develop a reputation of dealing with both the physical and spiritual dimensions of these problems always seeking a Christian solution. The past has shown us the dangers involved in “transplanting the church” from one society to another. The theological abstractions of the West often have very little relevance to life as people of other societies experience it. It is far better to carefully define the church and what it means to accept Christ from a scriptural base, and then let believers develop and grow as a church through God’s Word and Spirit. They will find answers to their needs from the Bible, and in this way their spiritual power needs will be met.


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Date: 22 Aug 2000

Gathering: 2000 Nairobi

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