Cultural Paradigms in Evangelism

Cultural Paradigms in Evangelism

There is beauty in diversity and the gospel is relevant across all cultures. Yet we must be careful to understand where someone is coming from when engaging in cross-cultural evangelism.

Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.

This is part 20 in the series.

Context is everything. We find that when looking at the Bible and we find that when talking to others.

Where are they ‘coming from’? What life experiences have shaped them? What influences have governed their thinking?

In my previous article, we recognised that the use of wise questions is an essential diagnostic tool if we are to respond in gracious and appropriate ways.

But what if my friend works on a different ‘operating system’? What if their default way of seeing the world is ‘Apple’ when mine is ‘Windows’? Can I assume that what comes out of my mouth is processed accurately and can be ‘run’ in their thinking?

Different operating systems

I’d always thought that clear communication was all that was needed in articulating gospel truths. I’d assumed that the categories of thought I employed were the same for everyone. It wasn’t until trying to share the gospel with our lovely Muslim neighbours that I realised our words were missing each other.

I would use an expression such as ‘sin’ and discovered that it didn’t connect at all with them. They would interpret my words in ways that I didn’t intend. It was as if there were these two different operating systems that couldn’t process the data from the other.

Well, I came to understand that these operating systems were actually ‘cultural paradigms’ – ways of thinking, living, responding, and acting – that have been hard-wired into us from our upbringing. And horror of horrors, I discovered that my cultural paradigm was not shared by the majority of the globe’s inhabitants, nor was it the controlling paradigm for the vast majority of Bible writers.

It was a humbling moment to be reminded (again) that I was not at the central resting point of the pendulum’s arc. I was an outsider who needed to re-evaluate how I processed and passed on information and experience.

"It wasn’t until trying to share the gospel with our lovely Muslim neighbours that I realised our words were missing each other."

I understood this better when I reflected on my reactions to the music being played in a small church in northern Pakistan. To my ear it sounded unnatural and strange; I didn’t appreciate the rhythms and musical progression; it didn’t have harmonies my ears rejoiced in.

Why? Because I’d grown up listening to music based upon the diatonic scale, where the progression is based upon using a chain of six perfect fifths, making up twelve notes per octave. And I’d appreciate the genius of a Mozart or a Springsteen based on that inherited, inbuilt sense.

But not everyone hears it that way, others have been brought up differently. Classical Asian music is largely based upon a pentatonic scale which is made up of 5 notes, not 12. So, what those in the West instinctively appreciate as being great music doesn’t instinctively connect with those who inherited and were brought up with a classical Asian music tradition.

So, we both struggle to communicate with each other about music because we come from such different backgrounds. One genre of music isn’t better than the other, it’s just different. Even as my ‘me-centrism’ assumes that what I hear and appreciate is what everyone will hear and appreciate.

Cultural paradigms

That’s how it is with the gospel as we seek to communicate with those who come from a different cultural paradigm. We assume that they ‘get’ the points we are trying to make, when actually what they’re hearing is quite different to the point we’re making.

That’s why there’s been a recent spurt of missional activity in trying to understand and engage with these different cultural paradigms. And this will increase over the next decade as this insight gains ground.

If we want to be ready to speak of Jesus in our increasingly cross-cultural communities, we cannot afford to go on ignoring the dynamics that are in play today. We need to understand each one of the people we speak with and check to see if we are speaking the same ‘language’. Sadly, some evangelism I’ve witnessed seems to be the equivalent of shouting at speakers of other 'languages' believing that the louder the noise, the more likely it is they’ll understand.

"It was a humbling moment to be reminded (again) that I was not at the central resting point of the pendulum’s arc."

This is not the place to give a thorough explanation of the paradigms we need to be aware of. The literature is growing and the excellent Honour Shame website provides a wealth of resources. But allow me to make some very general observations on the three major cultural paradigms:

  • The ‘Guilt/Innocence’ culture is mainly represented within North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • The ‘Honour/Shame’ culture is mainly represented within the Majority World
  • The ‘Power/Fear’ culture can still be seen in parts of Africa.

We need to remember, however, that these do not contain easily identifiable boundaries. It would be unusual to find one person who represented the ‘pure’ nature of one exclusive group. Each of these cultural paradigms bleeds into one another and, to varying degrees, are found present in most of us.

So it’s not so much this...

...as this...

Each one reading this article will be somewhere on this diagram. There is no neutral place. There is nowhere for one to adopt a position of pure objectivity.

So, the task now for us is to try and understand in the broadest terms, how these different paradigms operate and regard each other.

In my next article, we’ll focus on the two dominating paradigms: the Innocence/Guilt paradigm and the Honour/Shame paradigm. And it’s my prayer that the Lord will give us hearts humble enough to recognise our limitations and passionate enough to work out how we can best share the good news about Jesus.

Next time: When paradigms collide.

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