Ancestor Worship

ancestor worship 1

In witnessing to Chinese in Taiwan and SE Asia, one big issue that often comes up is ancestor worship or veneration. Sometimes it’s not that the person does not understand the gospel, or that he does not want to believe. He may very well want to repent and follow Christ to deal with his sin problem, but being Chinese and deeply steeped in filial piety, he is hesitant to make a commitment to trust in Jesus.

He remembers his parents telling him, “Who is going to burn incense for us if you become a Christian?” To many Chinese, becoming a Christian and reverencing one’s parents are polar opposites. To worship Jesus Christ as Lord is not to love one’s parents, and to dishonor them. So even though cognitively he knows this is what he should do, volitionally he did not want to do it because of the ancestor worship burden.

What can be done to overcome this hurdle? Most Westerners will try to deal with the issue intellectually. They may try to convince the person that his ancestors are not gods, and only God should be worshipped. Therefore he should not worship them. This is true, but his problem is not intellectual, it’s emotional, and volitional.

Others may try to persuade him by pointing out that he can honor his parents in ways other than burning joss sticks. It is more important that he love and respect them before they pass away, and remember them after they are gone by using flowers. This is better, because it deals with the emotions, just with an expression different from traditional folk religion. For some, this may be sufficient for them to decide to follow Jesus.

To complement this, I believe it helps to work on the source of the pressure itself, namely the elders of the family. The pressure on the sandwich generation comes from the grand-parents. If the grand-parents become Christians, then the burden of worshipping ancestors is lifted off all generations following. Therefore while it is important to evangelize adults and youth, it is just as important to evangelize seniors because it removes the dilemma from all younger generations, and de-bottlenecks the family.

Aren’t the elders subject to the same pressures, the stigma of being labeled as abandoning their ancestors? Yes, but they are also ranked the most senior in the family, and closer to the end of their life journey. They are less distracted by career and other pursuits, and more concerned about what happens after they leave this world. In the end it is the Holy Spirit that convicts the heart, but if you approach seniors with love and care, they will listen. Never underestimate the importance of seniors. Sometimes they hold the key to unlocking whole families to Christ.

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