57. Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

The Common hunger of Humanity
What we as human beings search for and value in life is the “meaningful” and the “good.”

With regard to the “meaningful,” we are always trying to make sense of our world. Hopelessness, which is what we seek to avoid, is the antithesis of the “meaningful” and happens when the world does not make sense. Children from dysfunctional families, for example, are more prone to be careless of themselves and others – smoking, dangerous activities, lack of respect for boundaries, etc. Their world is not making sense and much of what they do is a cry of despair of the senselessness of it all. They deliberately do what they have been warned against, partly in reaction to the pain that they experience from those aspects of society considered to be places of security and meaning. Ultimately, the lack of meaning leads to suicide, as in the case of the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system

Tied to this, and which is also a matter of universal human concern, is the search for and desire to experience and center our lives on “good.” We desire and search for that which is conducive to human flourishing. This corresponds with Jesus’ view of humanity. He had pity on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were in need of what is good and they were seeking for it, but they were looking in the wrong places.

what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern

In other words, what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern, the questions of human existence: What should I do? Why are we here? What may I hope?

Implications for our post-Christian Environment
Common approaches to evangelism assume that we as Christians have the answers to these questions and look for “delivery systems” whereby these answers can be provided. Church services, evangelistic meetings, tracts, etc., are all designed with the desire to deliver the Christian message. These approaches do work for some, but, if statistics Canada is correct, not for the majority of Canadians.

We live in a post-Christian environment. What this means is that the majority of people have heard the message. If you were to ask the average person on the street: “Do you know that Christians believe that Jesus died and rose again and that by trusting in him they can have their sins forgiven?” the answer would most likely be “yes.” Even if their understanding is only a parody of the true message, the average person hears these presentations through a pre-understanding and prejudice against the message. The result is the affirmation of the lack of relevance of the gospel to their lives. What this means is that the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system. Instead the need for our society are forums in which people are engaged in discussion about the questions of ultimate concern. It is within such forums that the relevance of the gospel of Jesus can be considered.

Grassroots Conversations: The SISI system
The SISI system is an attempt to provide support for those who wish to engage people in conversation on a significant level so that the various answers to these questions can be addressed. Rather than a “delivery system” whereby the gospel message can be communicated, the goal is to learn how to create opportunities to discuss the deeper meanings of life. In these settings of dialogue or conversation all parties are given room to express their values and beliefs concerning how life “works.” Within such an environment Christians have opportunity to act as “witness” to the experiences of their lives and express the “hope that is within them.”

The SISI system is a process of discovery and response, rather than the common evangelistic approach of message and response. The common evangelistic approach is to provide a version of the gospel message and then ask for a response. The response may be in the form of a choice to accept or reject (i.e., invitation at an evangelistic meeting or by a TV evangelist), or it may be in the form of comment or reaction (i.e., the approach of Alpha and Discovering Christianity). In common evangelistic approaches it is the Christian story that serves as the context for discussion. Such approaches are not only good, but necessary and many people have come to Christ through these efforts.

However, the SISI system works from the other direction. It does not begin with the Christian story, but with the story of the conversation partner. It is missional in its approach by beginning where others live and think. Missionaries spend much of their time getting to know the people they are living among so they can understand the world from their perspective. They then work from within that worldview to discuss how Jesus can speak to those people in relevant and transforming ways. While they must speak from the experience of Jesus in their own lives, the starting point of conversation is the concerns and perspectives of the insiders to that context. The missionary’s job is to do the work of explaining how life in Jesus is applicable within the new setting. The insiders then respond and the ensuing dialogue becomes a process of discovering the ways life can be meaningful and good – the ultimate concerns of humanity. If, as we believe, the gospel message is the means by which this can be obtained, then the conversation will take seriously the person of Jesus Christ – at least for some participants.

Moving Deeper in the Onion Model of Culture
If we consider the “onion model of culture,” (1) significant conversations are those that move beyond the material and behavior levels (first two rings) to consider values, beliefs and worldview. That is, the goal is to move beyond comments about our environment (e.g., weather, sports) and behavior (e.g., our preferences for schools, holidays, church) to consider values (e.g., appropriate behavior, sexual morality), beliefs (e.g., value of human life, purpose of sex) and worldview (e.g., overall structure or “story” that provides ultimate meaning to life, God, the cross of Christ).

Jesus Shines in “Round Table” Conversation
The SISI system is based on the same principles that guided the approach of E. Stanley Jones, a missionary in India during the time of Gandhi. He established “round table discussions” to which Muslim, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians were invited. They did not argue the logic of their particular religious system, rather they explained how the ultimate concerns of life were experienced through their personal faith experience. People were encouraged to explain how their faith made their lives meaningful and good. E. Stanley Jones used the “room” created by these discussions to speak of how Jesus gave meaning and goodness in his life.

His conclusion from these discussions was that we need to hear the struggles of others as they search for meaning and goodness in their lives. When such a conversation occurs about the significant issues in life – values, beliefs and worldview – then we have opportunity to speak of Jesus who is at the center of our search – and in any environment, Jesus shines.


  • (1) Adapted from SCA International MissionPrep training Manual (unpublished), 2007. p. 18.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development

4 thoughts on “57. Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture”

  1. I think it sounds pretty good, but forces Christians to get to know people rather than just meet them to share the gospel. Am currently reading “Pre-Discipleship: the forgotten element in discipleship” and think there are some similar concepts the (by Kai Mark).

  2. Thanks for your comments

    Yes, this approach is based on conversation rather than proclamation. This does not mean other methods are invalid, only that this approach is distinctive from many traditional models.

    Another book with similar concepts is Posterski, D 1989 Reinventing Evangelism: New Strategies for Presenting Christ in Today’s World. IVP

  3. Hi Mark:
    I’m very interested in this Sisi approach. How do I find out more about it? I went to a workshop at Ladies’ Retreat and the Sooke Ladies said that you do workshops. I understand the basic concept but still need more information. I struggle as a Christian with how to transition from surfacy conversation or talk about family to deeper issues.

  4. Hi Liz,

    I am glad that you were impacted by the Significant Conversations workshop with Christina. There are a number of practical things you can do to develop your ability to have significant conversations with family and friends that follow the SISI outline:

    (Support) Approach those women in your church that you recognize as prayer warriors. Ask them to be your prayer partners in your desire to have significant conversations with the people in your lives. Ask them specifically that God would give you invitations to speak into the lives of those you are concerned about.
    (Intentionality) Be intentional in looking for the opportunities God gives. He will give opportunities to which you can respond. Respond with questions and interest about the spiritual journey people are on or the faith perspective that they have.
    (Significant Conversations) Don’t have an agenda, just respond openly and transparently about your own spiritual journey as it relates to the topic that God has given you. Relate these conversations (as appropriate) with your prayer partners for their input and their encouragement.
    (Impact) Conversations can be ongoing as you can bring in further thoughts you have had after the previous conversation. As time goes on, notice the impact that is happening in their lives and ideas. Share these with your prayer partners as well. You may find that they will begin to ask you to pray for invitations for them in their relationships.

    If you have not seen the Significant conversations webpage, you can visit it at:

    If you belong to a Fellowship Baptist church, approach your pastor to see if there are others interested in learning how to converse comfortably and significantly with the people in their lives. If your church is interested, I would be willing to come in and help initiate the support process that will give people the encouragement and guidance they need for Significant Conversations.


    Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article or these remarks, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.

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