Barriers to faith – Ancestor Worship

  • Although a young student knows what might happen, she still decides to get baptized. And, sure enough, her father disowns her!
  • A young mother wonders how to break her decision to follow Christ to her mother-in-law, even though her husband accepts her faith.
  • A mother hears that her daughter has become a Christian and fears that they will not be together after death.
  • A middle-aged father is keen for his children to go to church. He feels the young people at church rarely go off the rails during middle school. But he says he could never become a Christian. And even though he does not personally believe that worshipping ancestors is necessary, he continues to do so to preserve family harmony and out of respect for his parents, grandparents, and other family members.
  • Another mother wants her children to attend church, but pleads to the group leaders not to let her mother-in-law know.
  • A student returns home for Chinese New Year after coming to faith at Christmas. How will he handle the family expectation that he takes incense sticks and worships in front of the ancestral tablet? He remembers a student whose parents “kidnapped” her in order that she would not go through with baptism.

The practice of ancestor worship is the most common and difficult hurdle to be crossed by any Taiwanese person who is considering becoming a Christian.

At its heart is the belief that there is a strong continuing link between departed ancestors and the living members of a family. It is believed that the living and the dead can mutually influence the harmony of each other’s lives. When the living perform certain rites such as offering incense, burning “hell money,” and supplying the “spiritual elements” of food offerings on appropriate occasions, the afterlife is believed to become more comfortable for the ancestors. They in turn are believed to be able to influence the fortune of the living for the good.

Missionaries can do several things to help Taiwan people struggling with these issues:

  • Pray for and with those they are counselling. Behind the psychological and social issues there lies the spiritual issue.
  • Give Biblical counsel to establish a new worldview that emphasizes even greater respect for family and care of elders while reserving worship for God alone.
  • Underline the fact that salvation is through Jesus alone, and therefore true filial piety will be to accept the gospel. Taiwan Christians should be prepared for some turbulence, in the hope that many family members ultimately might also be able to enjoy salvation.
  • Counsel proactive love and appropriate acts of respect towards living family elders, who are often neglected in favor of elaborate and expensive rites after their departure.
  • Involve believers who have walked through this in the past. If the missionary is western, they are not perceived to really “get it” at a deep enough level, having mostly not gone through the same difficulties. The testimony and support of contemporaries and older Christians who have been through the same experience is extremely valuable.
  • Suggest ways of demonstrating respect for the memory of ancestors without worshiping them.
  • Meet with the family to help them understand and perhaps alleviate some fears.

In practice, the turbulence feared by Christians is often not as great and prolonged in practice.  Even in many of the cases when children are disowned, continued love and practical service towards the family quite often, but not always, achieves reconciliation.

Andy Wilson – Taichung

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