I have a friend who was once a committed Buddhist. Wonderfully, he has come to know the Lord Jesus as his saviour. But he had a lot of questions. 

The trouble was that his Christian friends kept answering questions he wasn’t asking. One of his big questions was, “How can you say God suffers?” He was given lots of great answers explaining why people suffer – but he wasn’t confused about that. He knows people suffer. My friend couldn’t get his head around the idea that God might suffer on the cross. The reason this was such a big issue for him was because of his worldview. 

Imagine a Christian doing street evangelism in Paris. They ask a group of uni students: “If you died tonight and God said, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what would you say?” Every single student looks confused and replies: “That wouldn’t happen because God doesn’t exist”. The evangelism approach isn’t working because of worldview.

Imagine a gospel worker in a strongly Islamic country, chatting with a Muslim woman and telling her Bible stories. The woman seems very interested in the gospel. The worker says, “You can choose to follow Jesus”. The woman replies, “No, I am not free to make choices like that”. The conversation ends as it does because of worldview. 

So, what is a worldview? It is a metaphorical pair of spectacles. My spectacles enable me to focus on what I’m looking at so I can see clearly. A worldview is the set of cultural values and assumptions that enable people to see and focus clearly on the world they live in. 

We all have a worldview. And because none of us (apart from the Lord Jesus) have reached a state of sinless perfection, we are shaped by the cultures we live in – in helpful and unhelpful ways. 

We are shaped by the cultures we live in – in helpful and unhelpful ways. 

It is easy for me to focus through my worldview – to look at you and the world around me through a set of cultural values and assumptions. But it is much harder for me to focus on my worldview because, unlike a pair of spectacles, I can’t easily take off my worldview and examine it. 

Worldview as a map

When we try to get somewhere new without a map, we quickly get lost. And, as mission historian Andrew F. Walls so helpfully observes in his book Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity, our worldview is a lot like a cultural map. 

If I am in a conversation with someone who doesn’t make eye contact, my default worldview informs me they are being evasive or deceitful, or perhaps are desperately shy. In another culture, the default worldview would say the person is being respectful or polite, or perhaps is sensitive to gender differences. 

I was in my final year at high school when I became a Christian, so I already had a worldview map. I had a set of cultural values and assumptions that helped me navigate life in middle-class England pretty successfully. If you became a Christian any time after early childhood, your experience will be the same. Our worldview map isn’t wiped clean and instantaneously replaced with a brand new, completely different one because we come to faith. Rather, it is in an ongoing process of change. 

The wonderful and amazing news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that no matter who you are, where you live or what your worldview map looks like, you can repent and believe the gospel. You can have the worldview map of a Sri Lankan Buddhist, or a French atheist, or a secular Australian and come to know Jesus. 

The wonderful and amazing news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that no matter who you are, where you live or what your worldview map looks like, you can repent and believe the gospel.

All of us start following Jesus with faulty worldview maps that need to be transformed by the power of God’s Spirit by his word. This transformation is what discipleship is all about. 

So, before you repented and believed the gospel, what did your worldview map look like? Where was God on this map – and where were you? Before I became a Christian my worldview map had me right in the centre. Around me were my school friends. A bit further out was my family. Right on the edge of the map was my headmaster. He was a distant figure who would only feature prominently if I got into trouble! 

Where was God? The headmaster might have been a little dot, right on the edge of my Google map, but you’d need to zoom right out to find God... a far-off figure in a distant country. If I kept the rules, he’d stay far away and I wouldn’t have anything to do with him. 

When I repented and believed the gospel, my map wasn’t instantly transformed. Just after I put my trust in Jesus, God became much more important, but I can’t honestly say he moved immediately to the centre of my map. It has been a long process of Christian discipleship to move God towards the centre of my map and know him as a loving heavenly Father, not a forbidding headmaster.

If you are an Anglo Westerner, I’d be surprised if your pre-Christian worldview map didn’t have you at the centre with God out on the edge, or perhaps not on your map at all.

Analysing worldview 

While it is difficult for anyone to analyse their own worldview, it is especially difficult to analyse the worldview of Western countries and cultures right now. 

We live in a world that knows where it has come from but doesn’t know where it is going. The terms we use to describe Western culture are mostly “post” words: post-Christian, post-modern, post-colonial, post-truth. Our worldview is changing very quickly.

When it comes to analysing cultural worldview, the broadest categorisation used by missiologists and anthropologists divides cultures into three major groups: guilt-innocence, shame-honour and fear-power. 

Fear-power This map is filled with supernatural forces – spirits, witchdoctors, sorcerers. It tells you that your village is in a world controlled by the spirits, where you try to gain power in the face of fear. 

Honour-shame This map is dominated by your family and community. It is controlled by community expectation, where you try to bring honour to your people and avoid shame. 

Guilt-innocence The centre of this map is you. You live in a world controlled by individual conscience, where you try to maintain innocence and avoid guilt. 

We then make the following generalisations: that traditional cultures are controlled by fear and power; most Arab and Asian cultures are governed by shame and honour; and Western cultures such as Australia, England, the United States and Europe are guilt and innocence. 

Guilt and innocence cultures make decisions based on whether things are right or wrong, defined at one level by the rule of law and at another by social norms and expectations. 

Yet I don’t think that is the world we are living in now. Guilt-innocence is eroding as the worldview of Western culture, and one place where this is evident is in politics. In a guilt-innocence culture, it ought to matter a great deal when politicians tell blatant lies. Political parties used to lose elections because they had reneged on election promises. But nobody expected Donald Trump to speak the truth in the recent general election. We see post-truth, and post-truth politics, all around us. 

I think Western cultures are moving from a guilt-innocence culture to a pain-pleasure culture. We make fundamental decisions based on what will bring us pleasure and avoid pain. 

Pain, shame, guilt, fear

When we look at these four worldview emotions in more detail, they are all emotions of the fall. Genesis 3 is the story of things falling apart and, as that happens, these emotions appear. 

God creates a beautiful, flawless world in Genesis 1 and 2. He creates man and woman in his image and makes them stewards of the world. He gives them dominion over every living thing – it is his delegated authority to rule in love. 

But in chapter 3, things fall apart. Instead of exercising dominion over the serpent, Eve listens to its crafty manipulation: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Of course, God didn’t say that. God said they could eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”. To which the serpent replies, “You will not surely die”.

So, Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and gives some to Adam. And he eats, too. 

It is at this point that we see the emotions of pain, shame, guilt and fear emerge. As chapter 3 continues, God speaks words of judgement against the serpent, then against Eve, and finally against Adam. One outcome of God’s judgement is that they now live in a world of pain. 

While sin creates guilt, shame, fear and pain, the one gospel addresses all of them.

In Genesis 3, our rebellion has various consequences – broken relationships with God, with each other and with creation. Then there is the spectrum of emotional consequences – pain, shame, guilt and fear. None of these existed in Genesis 1 and 2 and none of them exist in Revelation 21 and 22. 

While these emotions inform different worldviews, they are not exclusive. If you live in an honour-shame culture, you will still experience guilt, pain and fear. If you live in a fear-power culture, you will still experience shame, guilt and pain. Every human being experiences all these emotions. And every human culture also experiences all these emotions. 

All societies understand guilt-innocence, shame-honour, fear-power and pain-pleasure. But different societies will balance these emotions in different ways. And they will often preference one or two of them over the others.

However, while sin creates guilt, shame, fear and pain, the one gospel addresses all of them. There is no such thing as an honour-shame gospel, different to a guilt-innocence gospel. 

The mission world has talked a lot about honour and shame over the past 15 years. We sometimes hear that people living in honour-shame contexts need a different gospel – an honour-shame gospel. But there is only one gospel. And the one gospel addresses shame, guilt, fear and pain. 

What people in honour-shame contexts need is to hear the one gospel explained in a way that preferences the honour-shame lens – the lens through which they see the world most clearly. 

Learning worldview maps

So, let’s bring all this back to the idea of worldview maps. Imagine you are talking to a friend who is not Christian. You want to share the good news of Jesus with them. An important part of your witness is to listen before you speak to understand their worldview map. 

Who sits at the centre of their worldview map? Is it themselves? A group of people – perhaps nuclear family? Or extended family or the wider community? 

What emotions motivate their movement around the map? Are they trying to do the right thing? The honourable thing? The pleasurable thing? The powerful thing?

Where God is on their map? Is he there at all? Are there other spiritual forces on their map?

Compare their worldview map with your own. Look out for differences and similarities. And, after lots of listening, think about how the gospel both relates to and challenges their worldview. We are not trying to change the gospel to fit their worldview. The good news of Jesus will challenge, shape and change their worldview – just as it has challenged, shaped and changed yours. 

Dr David Williams is director of development and training for CMS Australia at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne. This is an edited version of a talk given at CMS Summer School last month.