When I think of Animism, I think of witch doctors, dead ancestors, and spirits in the rain forests – not people with mobile phones.
I got a phone call the other day (more like 50, one after another), and after getting annoyed that this person persistently called me, I finally just picked up. “Helo,” I said in the best pidgin accent I could muster.
“Who is this?” He answered. A weird question I thought, since, you know, he called me.
“Mi Coleton, nem bilong yu husat?”
Without bothering to tell me his name he asked, “yu marit, ya?” (you’re married right?) A little creeped out, I tried to make small talk to avoid more questions, not really knowing who this guy was. He continued, and told me he knew I was married. More creeped out, I asked why he thought that, and he responded, “long wanem, meri bilong yu, em I susa bilong mi” (because your wife is my sister).
“Sorry, but that’s not true. I’m from another place, so my wife couldn’t be your sister.” After I cleared things up, he asked me where I lived, and after not telling him, he finally hung up.
Like you, I wouldn’t know what was happening in this situation, but after having a conversation with a missionary about something similar a month earlier, I figured out what was going down. The deets: there’s a practice going on right now in slowly-modernizing Papua New Guinea – families bury the dead with their mobile phones. As months go by, people will call that phone from time to time to try to contact that person in the spirit realm, just so they can get the secrets of getting wealth. After a year, the phone company gives up the dead person’s number to a new customer, and in my case, I must have gotten this guy’s dead sister’s digits. When I answered it, he knew that as his dead sister’s husband, I had his sister’s phone… which is why she didn’t answer.
This is happening not only in the deep recesses of the jungle, but in busy towns with plenty of churches around. Why? Well, I believe this is happening because there has been a serious lack of worldview change. They are “churched,” but their core beliefs about spirits, death, and the afterlife aren’t addressed with the Word of God, and therefore mixed with whatever system of religion they choose to hear from. This is why we put such a huge emphasis on learning language and culture, as well as teaching foundationally through the Bible. We first must know their heart beliefs, then we can put them beside the Biblical worldview of who God is, who we are as mankind, and what importance is God in our day-to-day lives and allow them to see where their worldview has cracks. Without this (this is the case even in America), people simply change their behavior, even their words, but their hearts are still stuck in the animistic system of appeasing the spirits of the dead.
Please pray for us as we work among the Chimbu. Pray that we will have wisdom to see their worldview clearly and be able to show them the rad truths of the Scripture in a way that will result in heart/worldview change!