Worldview and Evangelism
The cultural context of the Western world is changing. For centuries most people in the United States and throughout the West shared core worldview assumptions shaped by a common Christian heritage and the “modern” thinking of the Enlightenment. But most of the West is rapidly transitioning to a postmodern, post-Christian era. Postmodernism—the most radically different worldview since the time of the Reformation—is increasingly the assumed worldview of anyone under 40. Christian assumptions are now the exception rather than the rule in most of society. In addition to this essential change, the increase in cross-cultural interaction has brought people with fundamentally different presumptions and worldviews to the doorsteps of many in the West.
The average Christian in the West now lives in a world increasingly like the one to which missionaries have gone for hundreds of years, shaped by worldviews without biblical or Western presuppositions. Western believers can profit from some of the same training on worldview that missionaries to the non-Western world have long received. These principles are effective in sharing Christ in an increasingly diverse world.
What is a Worldview
What is a worldview? A worldview is a people’s fundamental assumptions about how the world is put together and their role in it. Worldview affects ideas, feelings and values. It includes:
- how they view themselves (e.g. Am I significant individually or because of my family?)
- how they view other people (e.g. When I meet a person of a certain ethnic group am I immediately suspicious of them or happy to meet them?)
- the natural and supernatural world (e.g. Are diseases caused by germs or demons?)
- what they view as right (e.g. How many personal photocopies can you make at work before you’re stealing?”)
- What they view as beautiful or aesthetically pleasing (e.g. do you prefer guitars or organs in church?)
- How they classify reality and organize their world (e.g. Is a chimpanzee more like a person or more like an insect?)
- Their view of cause and effect (e.g. Are car accidents inevitable because God willed them, or could they have been prevented?)
- space (e.g How close do you stand to a person you’re talking with at a party?)
- and time (e.g. How late is “late” to any particular function? five minutes? fifteen? an hour?)
Worldviews are like water to a fish: they’re a vital part of who we are, but take them for granted; we’re unaware they are even there. We never think about our worldview, but it forms a framework that organizes our world, guides our behavior, and provides emotional security. Our worldview leads us to assume that “things are like that because that’s just the way the world is!” “People believe that the world really is the way they see it. Rarely are they aware of the fact that the way they see it is molded by their world view.”1
Worldviews: Models of and for Life
One of the most significant insights into worldview for effective evangelism is that worldviews are models of life and forlife; in other words, they both describe the way things are and prescribe how a person should think, feel, and act in life.
Because worldviews are models of life and for life:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses proudly point to their spiritual discipline and the “logic” of Witness theology. These both form the pattern for their lifestyle and beliefs and also confirm to them that they are the true people of God.
- Mormons practice what they perceive to be the strongest family structure in the land and hold to a theology that gives them the possibility of becoming divine. This both convinces them of the validity of their position and provides them a model for living.
- Muslims see what they perceive to be the universal unity of faith in the ummah (community of Muslims) and straightforward clarity of monadic monotheism. What appears to be the clear-cut realities “prove” the truthfulness of Islam and point the way to how they are to live and what they are to believe.
Worldviews: Tightly Integrated
A second insight into worldviews that contributes to effective evangelism is that they include more than cognitive understanding. People do not hold to their worldview for purely rational reasons. Commitment to a worldview is tightly connected to a person’s self-identity, values, purpose, place in the world, and emotional security.
Because worldviews are tightly integrated and go beyond cognitive belief, it is possible to “prove” that someone’s non-Christian faith is inadequate without affecting his or her ultimate commitment. Rarely will a person change an entire belief system or even an individual belief based on logical argument, because a person’s worldview goes far deeper than the cognitive structures of the world.
Several years ago I met a friend whom I had not seen since we were in high school. Five minutes into our conversation he told me that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness, abandoning the evangelical faith of his childhood. I began sharing with him some of the serious problems in Watchtower theology and practice, but my friend was unmoved. He explained that, during his late teen years, he had slipped into the drug culture. It was only when he met some Jehovah’s Witnesses who cared for him and helped him establish patterns of discipline that he was able to break free and live a “clean” life. Nothing I could say about the inconsistencies and problems in Witness theology and practice could dent his new worldview commitments that had been forged in personal life crisis. He now had a huge degree of personal security tied up in the Jehovah’s Witness worldview, and discussion of the Greek text of John 1:1 or the real meaning of “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 left him unmoved.
Worldview and Evangelism
How should these insights into worldview impact the way we do evangelism? First, they remind us of the importance of listening to and learning from people in order to present Christ in the most meaningful way. To understand people with a different worldview we must take the time to be with them at the most meaningful and important events of their lives. We must listen to them talk about life as they understand it. We must ask deep and genuine questions about things that matter most to them. We must become true learners, not to argue against individual points, but to grasp the entire worldview in order to relate to them as whole people. Only by knowing their whole worldview will be able to establish a credible alternative worldview, and not just offer a few new beliefs.
I was a missionary in Ethiopia for nineteen years and often shared my faith with members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). Prayer to the saints and angels is a central part of the spiritual life for most members of the EOC, but seldom would my quoting 1 Timothy 2:52 make much of an impact on them. It was only after studying the EOC’s unique view of the deity and humanity of Christ—one of the significant sacred symbols of the church—that I began to understand the role of saints and angels. Only after spending hours listening to and learning from Ethiopian Orthodox priests and lay-people was I able to show them with empathy and effectiveness that Jesus is the only way to God.
A second way these insights into worldview impact the way we do evangelism is by reminding us of the importance of engaging hearts as well as heads. Worldviews are tightly integrated, more-than-cognitive models of life and for life so, for most worldviews (including the postmodern worldview in the West), relational proof is more valuable than logical proof. We may “prove” something through logic but find that the person we are sharing with is unimpressed. In order impact their lives, we also have to prove the truthfulness and validity of Christ with our lives. Because worldviews are a deep combination of cognitive belief, emotional commitment, and a sense of what is “right,” it is not enough to share our knowledge with people. We must share ourselves. We impact a person’s worldview as much by the personal concern we demonstrate as by cognitively “disproving” the validity of their faith.
A couple of years ago I was talking with a Jewish evangelist—a man in his sixties—who is himself a Messianic Jew. He lamented that he didn’t know how to witness to Jews of the next generation. “All my evangelism has been built around proving that Jesus is the Messiah. But I share my apologetic proofs with young Jews and they say, ‘That’s nice for you. But it’s not for me.’ They are far more concerned with relationships than any of the proofs I can offer them.” Like these young Jews, many postmoderns long for the validation of truth with life, because their worldview teaches them that truth is known experientially, not just cognitively.
Worldview awareness reminds us that time with people will open their hearts. Relationships of trust bring understanding of worldview commitments. The more different a person is, the more sharing your faith demands that you cultivate a relationship so that you can understand and effectively impact their worldview.
1Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 45.
2 “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (NIV).