Part V: Theological Basis for “Christ centered worldviews”
What would this worldview look like if Christ was Lord?
I remember the time a young believer brought a friend to me so that I could explain the gospel to him. We were living among the Muslim Sindhi people of Pakistan working with FEBInternational. The friend was illiterate and lived in a rural part of the Sindh province. As I tried to talk to him about the gospel it quickly became clear that we could not communicate. The problem was not language, but worldview. His understanding of life and reality was so far removed from mine that I was unable to bridge the gap in any significant way. If the gospel is to penetrate his family and community, it will not come about by convincing him of a universal “Christian worldview.” Such an approach would only be greeted with incomprehensible stares. Instead, a believer must be found who is capable of entering that man’s reality and who can relate the gospel to him according to his worldview.
All societies, through the process of “making meaning” of their context, work out a view of the world that enables them to consistently and successfully deal with their environment. The goal of the cross-cultural minister is not to convince people to change their worldview in conformity to a “Christian worldview,” but to bring the gospel into their reality in relevant and impacting ways so that Christ can be embraced as Savior and Lord. The question to ask is not “How can I convince them to accept the Christian worldview?” but “What would this worldview look like if Christ was Lord?”
The theological basis for this approach is found in God’s interaction with human beings and particularly in the incarnation.
Islamic vs Christian Theology
In Islamic theology there is no compromise of the character of God with a concept of God becoming human. God is “wholly other” and transcendent. In Christian theology, the amazing message is not just that he “knows what we are made of; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:14 TEV), but that he has joined us in our weakness through the incarnation. That is, in order to transform us he first become like us.
The Bible can be translated. The Koran cannot. The latter is immovable and demands that human beings conform to its absolute state. The Koran must be read and recited in Arabic. On the other hand, the incarnation demonstrates the willingness of God to meet us within our setting, within our worldview. God spoke to the prophets using their language and the concepts of their worldview; he described the world according to their perceptions. Jesus lived the perfect human life within a particular cultural, historical and religious setting. It is within that context that spiritual transformation occurred and the NT gives us a detailed look at how the gospel transformed people’s lives within that particular setting and worldview. It is this willingness to conform to “those symbols which most profoundly inform our lives” 1, that defines God’s interaction with humanity and Bible translation is founded upon the belief that God speaks to people within their own context.
In a similar way, the goal of missions is not to convince people to leave their worldview and embrace a universal “Christian worldview.” The approach that will build lasting transformation is one that presents Christ as Lord within worldviews. Gospel transformation of the culture will then occur from the inside out.
Working within the Worldview
A common mistake of the novice cross-cultural minister is to confront people with a particular sin, such as polygamy or bribery or lying or wife beating, which is not viewed as sin by that culture. Rather than making a transforming impact, the missionary is dismissed as being out of touch with reality. Instead, by working within the worldview and addressing those issues that people acknowledge as sin, Jesus’ relevance to their lives can be demonstrated. It is the Holy Spirit that convicts of sin (Jn 16:8).
Hiebert recounts Walter Trobisch’s conversation with a polygamous man who was denied communion in a local church, while his wives were allowed to belong because they only had one spouse:
“Wouldn’t you like to become a church member?”
“Pastor, don’t lead me into temptation! How can I become a church member, if it means to disobey Christ? Christ forbade divorce, but not polygamy. The church forbids polygamy but demands divorce. How can I become a church member, if I want to be a Christian? For me there is only one way, to be a Christian without the church.”
“Have you ever talked to your pastor about that?”
“He does not dare to talk to me, because he knows as well as I do that some of his elders have a second wife secretly. The only difference between them and me is that I am honest and they are hypocrites.”2
The imported teaching of the sin of polygamy, using the structure of the church to enforce conformity, only served to promote hypocrisy. The worldview of those people accepted polygamy as a part of life and this perspective was not changed through the demands of the church. It would be far better to allow the people to define those sins as the Spirit speaks to them and address those sins with the gospel of Christ, than to insist that people conform outwardly to a particular Christian standard.
Changing our thinking
In the book Ministering Cross Culturally, Lingenfelter recounts his attempts to organize and categorize creation myths of the Yapese culture. He found that the different clans had differing accounts and stories and he could not reconcile them with each other. The Yapese could not understand his attempt to categorize the stories and said, “Why do you insist on putting these things together? They are completely different!” Lingenfelter goes on to explain his motivation:
My problem in interviewing the Yapese was that my nature and my training encouraged me to line everything up in rows. I want to have everything sorted, systematically organized, and fitting into its proper place. I like to divide everything into constituent parts and then resort them into a clear pattern. American culture generally rewards this type of thinking.3
Lingenfelter realized that he was evaluating the Yapese culture according to an external standard and submitting their beliefs and values to a foreign perspective. However the goal of the cross-cultural minister is not to evaluate another worldview according to a universal “Christian Worldview” or external standard, but to enter into that worldview and understand how their beliefs and values serve that community in its relationship with its context. Only then can the gospel be presented in a manner that resonates with those concepts and assumptions that are accepted representations of the world. Even as Jesus became like us in order to transform us, so we must work according to the constraints of the other worldview’s perception of reality and present Christ as the one who brings healing and salvation from sin within their worldview.
- (1) Wink, W. 1973. The Bible in Human Transformation, Philadelphia: Fortress press. p. 64.
- (2) quoted in Hiebert, P. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker. p. 179.
- (3) Lingenfelter, S.G. and Mayers, M.K. 2003. Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker