God created people — male and female — to be in fellowship with Him.
So, even in a fallen world, people seek relationship with Him. They are, by God’s design, religious. It should be no surprise that missionaries almost always find at least some spark of interest in God, even where the gospel is unknown.
As people have drifted from their Creator, they have created their own religions to fill the spiritual void. It is into this diverse world of religions that we are called to proclaim the truth that mere religion can be replaced by true relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
When pioneer missionary workers arrived in Africa, India, and South America more than a century ago, they found themselves among followers of animism, Hinduism, Islam, and a syncretistic Catholicism. In today’s world of almost 8 billion people, modern missionaries live and work among followers of these same religions.
Animism and Hinduism are both polytheistic. The former is the worship of spirits that are believed to inhabit rocks, trees, rivers, the sky, and every other aspect of God’s creation.
Hinduism worships the creation as a whole, with millions of gods associated with every conceivable activity of life. It also claims to be ultimately monotheistic, with an indefinable, ultimate “force” binding the universe together. Buddhism, another of the world’s major religions, grew out of Hinduism.
Islam is a monotheistic religion, worshipping one all-powerful Allah who has clearly identifiable characteristics. One of the world’s fastest-growing religions, Islam can be seen by Christians as a “spin-off” faith in which much Biblical truth has been lost and other concepts grafted in its place.
One of the Catholic Church’s greatest attributes has been its ability to communicate its message in ways that respect the culture of its followers. One of its greatest downfalls has been that too often, local religious traditions have been allowed to infiltrate the faith.
In many parts of South America, missionaries live and work among people who, while having been baptized as Catholics, still worship the gods of their ancestors. Sometimes these pagan gods are cloaked in “Christian” terminology. Most often they are not. This syncretism — the adaptation and mixing of religions — is a challenge to both Roman Catholic and evangelical Christianity.