What is folk religion? 6 Attributes of folk theology


There is a religion that masquerades itself as Christianity, but it is not. It’s adherents often present themselves as Christians, but many are not. It is a dark and powerful force that may be trying to suck you in. Are you prepared to fight this false religion?

According to Dr. Robert Ellwood, a theologian and sociologist who wrote Cycles of faith: the development of the world’s religions, this unique type of religion is called “folk religion.” And contrary to our imaginations, this type of religion does not live in the jungles of Haiti or the mountains of Tibet, but far closer. It has been stated by numerous theologians, and even published in a book by Dr. Roger Olson, that many of today’s Christians do not adhere to Biblical Christianity, but to a version of this “folk religion” with bits and pieces of Christian ideas mixed with folk theology adopted from elsewhere. So what is folk religion? Are you in danger of falling into it? How can you tell?

Below are six trademarks or characteristics that define “folk religion Christianity.”

1. Based on feelings

(Experience drives doctrine and practice)

In a folk religion setting it is very rare to find a lot of time and attention given to rational and mental pursuits of truth, but rather an emotional or experiential focus. Experience outside of the Bible is a huge source of truth and sacred wisdom that is widely accepted. And even the Bible itself is taken in as an esoteric book that invokes emotion, rather than a source of truth that one should engage both intellectually and spiritually. In Biblical Christianity we try to understand it with the mind, to avoid misinterpreting it, and receive it spiritually with thanksgiving and obedience. In folk religion, one would view the Bible as a sacred object and primarily focus on the tantalizing emotional reactions in response to reading it or holding it. In Christianity one can read the story of Noah, learn about the way God saved his people, and consider character of God. In folk theology one can read that story, without carefully scrutinizing what really happened, and retell it to others based on the way it made him feel, and teach as doctrine his emotional reaction to the story. Ultimately folk theology shares “what’s on my heart” rather than “what’s in the text.”

2. Grounded in folk traditions

(Traditional practices are religiously revered)

While every culture has symbols, patterns, and traditions that define and enhance the daily experience in that culture, folk religion views those things as essential, not merely enriching. In fact, most folk religion is strongly defined by its traditions, and apart from those traditions, it just “doesn’t feel the same way.” Whereas a true Biblical church could be rooted out of their church home, country, or style, to be scattered, and still remain a church, people who belong to folk religion (will feel lost without all the traditions. If you take away the wooden pulpit, the pews, the slide projector, the hymnbooks, the order of service, or the church dress code, most “folk churches” would be unable to feel as if there was a “sacred religious event” going on. This principle also applies to a more modern and commercialized version of folk religion as well, if you take away the church growth traditions, such as programs, snazzy graphics, crafty lighting, and modern worship, for those participating in folk religion, the church will lose its “church-ness.” In any case, the issue is that within a church practicing folk religion, the tradition defines the doctrine and beliefs, not the other way around.

3. Stems from short sayings

(Theology comes from bumper sticker phrases)

The Christian tradition I grew up with was very young and not keen on making written statements. I think the first written statement I ever saw about our doctrine and beliefs was in my late teens (I’m sure it was around, but not widely circulated). So these kinds of statements were less popular in it, though I do remember statements like “just believe” were popular and prominent. The American church and culture is the opposite, it is so immersed with written theological material, there is an information overload, yet few are immersed in sorting between this mess. Instead many opt for shorter phrases. In many places one can find bumper sticker phrases that have glued themselves in between the pages of Scripture. A folk religion church, takes these kinds of statements, and runs with them. They are given profound spiritual significance, and instead of being poor clichés are viewed as deep wisdom. For example statements like “invite Jesus into your heart to be saved” grossly mischaracterize the repentance and atonement of Christianity, yet they join others in being the driving theological ideas of folk religion.

4. Rooted in devotional literature

(Poetry, stories, and songs are elevated as creeds)

There is an old Russian song that comes to mind when I think of how music drives theology.  It was called “О молитва” transated as “Oh Prayer.” The song is written directed at “Prayer” as if prayer were a person. It briefly mentions Jesus but the song’s focus is to glorify the act of prayer, saying it is prayer that is our intermediary between God and man. At one point the lyrics literally say “О молитва,о молитва! … Прославляю Твою силу” meaning “Prayer, I praise your power.” Merely trying to discuss this song, I always found myself quickly shamed, as if I was assaulting the Holy of Holies. Often I would be told about the history and tradition of this song, and how it was sung by those who were persecuted for their faith. That tradition and emotion, drove the acceptance of the song’s man centered theology that made “Prayer” the hero, rather than Jesus.  In the American culture, I thought I could avoid such things, but of course, turning on the radio, I found other songs that also dictated Christian theology. Songs with lyrics that must have been stolen from a Backstreet Boys CD, with “girlfriend” changed to “Jesus.” The whole culture is filled with works of art, from music to poetry, and many of those songs are the driving pastors and teachers of culture. This is what folk religion is strongly attracted to, when lyrics and art define theology.

5. Thrives on urban myths

(Unverifiable stories and legends are widely circulated)

Partly due to the fact that I grew up in the Pentecostal movement, my early years were riddled with “Christian tall tales” that still are very prominent in giving that unique flavor to folk religion. One story I remember, was of a man who was miraculously protected on a month-long escape from the freezing tundra where he was left to die, but after a long speaking career he was caught on a lie and admitted it was all false. I still remember sitting in a building crowded with Christians, all of us eating up his every word. Biblical Christianity does give due to God, especially in the miraculous. Folk religion, on the other hand is built on folk tales. It is common for the driver of the theology-car to be personal stories, many of which are hard to believe but even harder to prove. In a more westernized Pentecostal culture (America) many of these stories include near death experiences and vision of heaven. Some of the most recent books on the best seller lists have been heaven or hell oriented. It is common for a story of a five year old kid who went to heaven to be read with more trust than the Bible. In a more modern society, these stories often talk about miraculous weight loss, gold dust from the sky, or other manifestations of the supernatural, none of which are ever provable. Or they are wild stories of dead being raised and cancers healed, all of which happened in some remote “not on the map” village in Africa, and came to us by the world’s longest game of telephone. Whereas a follower of Christ will praise God for the true, and focus everything back on God, an adherent of folk religion is focused on the stories.

6. Dictated by spiritual specialists

(Shaman-like leaders take an intermediary role between God and man)

The scripture states that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). In the Old Testament, the priests and prophets carried this mediating role, to represent the Christ that was coming come, and then in the new testament we see the advent of Christ who becomes the only intermediary and the only priest between man and God (Heb 9:11-15). The New Testament does have elders and pastors who are called to lead God’s flock, but their task is a new one, to encourage every person to know Christ themselves, and to equip each person for their personal ministry. Folk religion does not heed this testament change, and often follows the Old Testament paradigm. Leaders within the folk religion movement are seen as gurus and spiritual specialists. They take the role of priest and stand between man and God. In a cessationist context, they are “only teacher who gets the Bible right” and their followers refuse to listen to anyone else. In a charismatic context, they become the “anointed man of God” who gives direct prophecies. They are sought out as healiers, shamans, or mediators between man and God. I know of many stories, where this is quite literal. One example is the proclivity of some Pentecostals to seek out a modern prophet before marriage and seek a “direct prophecy from the Lord” saying “Yes you can marry this person.” Folk religion is strongly centered on the persons who drive theology, rather than Christ, who is the focus of all theology.

How is real Christianity different from all of these? It is based on Scripture, grounded in Jesus, rooted in the Gospel, Thrives on Christ-centeredness, and dictated by the Holy Spirit. Real Christianity is more about the God of the Bible than about us and our expectations. Real Christianity teaches us to keep our focus on the preeminence of Jesus over all things.

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One response

  1. Very informative and based on realism.
    I’m currently studying for BA Hons in Theology and have come to realise how folk Theology may have been governing my life to some degree.
    I thank God for this enlightenment.

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