Imagine with me for a moment that you were in the business of selling forks. (It’s kind of a crazy analogy but just bear with me) Your work takes you to a country called India where you have heard people don’t typically use forks to eat but instead prefer the use of their fingers. You figure selling forks to this culture should be easy. So you take an allotment of forks into a village, demonstrate to them how to use it and then leave each family with a package of clean polished forks. You return 3 months later, sit down with a family in the village for lunch and you are served a heaping dish of roti, rice, and curry… with no fork! Startled, you begin to question where you went wrong. In North America most people only eat certain foods such as carrot sticks and sandwiches with their hands, but never mashed potatoes and gravy or pork chops. But for people living in India, Ethiopia and various other places across the world eating even the sloppiest of foods with their fingers is natural and common.
And the real surprise to most North Americans is: It’s not because they are unhygienic or unsanitary it’s actually quite the opposite! They prefer this choice in order to be more hygienic!
Here’s a quote from an Indian concerning silverware: “You know in India we look at it differently. I always wash my hands carefully before I eat, and I only use my right hand. And besides, my fingers have never been in anyone else’s mouth. When I look at a fork or spoon, I often wonder how many other strangers have already had them in their mouths!” (1)
Selling forks in India is probably not a successful business venture, for good reason!
In business, taking the time to understand a culture prior to selling them a product is important.
The same can be said when it comes to sharing the gospel cross-culturally. Though as Christians we aren’t selling a product, we are sharing a message that requires a mindset shift and lifestyle change.
Understanding a Worldview
Every culture has deeply rooted beliefs that contribute to the way they act, live and make decisions. This is called a worldview.
“A worldview is a set of beliefs and assumptions that comprise the mindset of an individual and determine what they value and why they behave.” (2)
In one culture the worldview might say that witches cause illnesses not germs. Another culture might say that a llama buried in a field will produce fertile crops, or that the earth god lives in corn and thus corn is a sacred food. Whatever the worldview belief may be it is shaping the way that people group lives and operates.
As a Christian hoping to share the gospel cross culturally, it is crucial to take the time to understand the worldview and belief system of the culture you are ministering to.
Why do they behave as they behave? What is their belief about life, death and afterlife? Why do they treat each other as they do, and listen more intently when certain people speak? Why do they offer alms to their ancestors or dance to appease the dead? Why do they do as they do, live as they live and act as they act? Such questions will give you insight into the worldview and beliefs of the culture you seek to love and witness to. From that point, you can then speak biblical truths into the lives and beliefs of those you share with.
Theologian and anthropologist Paul Hiebert explains the connection between the understanding of anthropology and mission. I believe his ideas connect very closely to this topic of worldview. I have taken three of his thoughts and outlined them here.
1. Understanding worldview can help missionaries understand the processes of conversion, including social change that occurs when people become Christians.
For many believers a change of life towards the gospel means a change of life away from certain lifestyle choices and beliefs. It may mean a complete halt of certain practices that contradict the principles of scripture. It’s good to know this in order to help the potential convert through those changes.
2. Understanding worldview can help us make the gospel relevant to our listeners.
A vital part of accepting the gospel is an understanding of need. One can’t surrender their life to Christ without first realizing their need for Christ. In some cultures a worldview of self-reliance may prohibit a person from recognizing and admitting need. How a missionary explains the relevance of the gospel to that culture and its belief system is part of effectively sharing Christ to those people.
3. Understanding worldview can help us relate to people around the world in all their cultural diversity and assist us in building bridges of understanding between them.
Creating trustworthy relationships is one of the keys to sharing the gospel effectively. If someone knows you care about them as a person they are much more open to hearing your message. Grace and love for people is much easier to give when you understand why they act as they do.
The bottom line is that as Christians it is important for us to take the time to study and understand the deeper beliefs that drive a person to the decisions they make. The Bible says that truth can set us free. (John 8:32) The more deeply we understand the lies that hold a culture and their worldview system in bondage the more directly we can apply and share God’s truth with them.
There is certainly no formula to effectively evangelize cross culturally. At the end of the day the Holy Spirit convicts hearts and transforms lives, not man’s actions. However, as Christians we can be wise in our sharing of the gospel and loving in our acts of serving. Take the time to understand their worldview, why they are who they are and maybe your ability to speak truth into their lives will be way more effective.(1) Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985. (2) Miller, Darrow L. Discipling Nations. Seattle WA: YWAM Publishing, 1998. Image Courtesy of Leslie Erin / Flickr.com