"For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed." -Romans 10:11
As missionaries, one of the first things that we had to do upon our arrival in Indonesia was learn the rules of our host society.
As part of our language instruction, we were required to go out each day and practice what we had learned in class by speaking to people that we met on the street in our neighborhood. In so doing, not only did we learn the language, but we also learned the rules of social interaction. These rules included how to greet people; how to talk to people; how to excuse oneself while passing a person on the sidewalk; how to ask appropriate (and avoid inappropriate) questions in conversation; how to end a conversation in a polite manner; and so forth. We quickly learned that there were many rules in Indonesia that needed to be followed so that we would not be considered rude. If we did not follow these social rules, we would be perceived as proud and arrogant (as most Westerners are already thought to be), a shameful thing in Indonesian society. Thus, in viewing the confident and often assertive behavior of most Westerners, Indonesians think, “Shame on you!”
While going through this social learning process, one of the hardest things for me to understand was how a people that could be so polite in a personal, one-on-one neighborhood setting could be so rude in the public venues of society, such as city streets, highways, and public buildings. For instance, it was common for people to cut in line (if a line existed at all), push and shove to get on and off of public transportation, and cut a person off on the road or sidewalk without giving it a second thought. It especially frustrated me to see the established laws of the land brazenly violated. People would intentionally drive the opposite direction on one-way streets, ignore stop signs, run stop lights, park on sidewalks, and more. How could a people that so keenly felt the need to observe so many unwritten social rules be so willing and ready to ignore written and established legal rules? As I viewed the rude and callous behavior of Indonesians in the public arena, I thought, “Shame on you!”
How could I, in my host country, be treated so politely and honorably in personal settings, yet be treated so rudely and callously in public settings? The answer to this question is one of the most important things that we teach at Biblical School of World Evangelism. The answer is found in one word: culture. We define culture as “a unique, total way of life for a specific group of people.” Culture impacts every aspect of missions. For the sake of classroom study, missions students at BSWE learn that culture can be divided into levels. The first, most visible level is the behavior level in which one meets the rules of society. Digging deeper into a culture, one then reaches the institution level. This level includes concepts such as family and religion. Further down is the values level. Values are beliefs that give meaning and worth to life. Finally, we come to the level that is the deepest and the most difficult to understand. This is the worldview level.
Missiologist Paul Hiebert defines worldview as “the basic assumptions about reality which lie behind the beliefs and behavior of a culture.”1 Worldview is simply one’s view of reality. Every culture and every person has one! Western world cultures view reality through a guilt vs. innocence, right vs. wrong lens. We call this perspective a guilt-based worldview. Asian cultures, on the other hand, view reality through a shame vs. honor lens. That is, the pursuit of honor and avoidance of shame is more important than the “rightness” or “wrongness” of one’s actions. We call this perspective a shame-based worldview. (There is also a fear-based worldview, but that is outside the scope of this article.)
In Indonesia, a shame-based society, established laws can be broken and individuals can be treated callously in the impersonal, public arena because there is no personal shame attached to that kind of behavior. A stranger treated rudely in a public street, building, or byway is likely never to be seen again—at least not in a personal setting. Consequently, there is no personal shame to be felt if one should not be considerate of that individual. However, to the Western mind holding a guilt-based worldview, this rude behavior is wrong and intolerable. The Asian mind holding a shame-based worldview may recognize this behavior as wrong in an abstract sense, but it is deemed acceptable because there is no personal shame involved to either party.
While conflicting worldviews can be difficult for the missionary, it is exciting to know that they present no difficulty to the Word of God. God’s Word engages every culture at its most fundamental level—its worldview. Scripture proclaims the message of man’s sin, his ruin, God’s love, and the crucified and risen Savior to every person in every culture. But here’s the amazing thing: it does so in such a way that it is meaningful within that culture’s worldview!
For example, the Western mind sees man’s fall through a guilt-based worldview. Man’s partaking of the forbidden fruit broke God’s law and made man guilty. The perceived reward of being like God was no excuse for the action. Thus, man’s sin brought guilt, death, and separation from God. The Asian mind, on the other hand, sees man’s fall through a shame-based worldview. The Asian mind can easily understand how Eve would be enticed to disobey God’s law if the reward were to be such an honorable position of being like God. Partaking of the forbidden fruit did not bring honor, however. Instead, it brought man great shame, causing him to hide from God. Thus, man’s sin brought shame, loss of his honored state in the garden, and separation from God.
As a cross-cultural ambassador for Christ, the foreign missionary does not need to contextualize the Word of God—God has already done that! The challenge for the cross-cultural missionary is to contextualize himself!
Consider also the example of the cross. The Western mind sees the cross in a judicial sense. It was there that Christ paid for man’s guilt, thereby reconciling the sinner to God on legal grounds (justification). The Asian mind sees the cross in a positional sense. It was there that Christ bore man’s shame, thereby removing man’s shame and restoring his lost honor as he is brought into the very family of God.
Of course, both ways of viewing man’s fall and Christ’s work on the cross are equally Biblical and equally valid. We also recognize that the truths of guilt and shame equally apply to all lost persons regardless of their worldview. However, by knowing a person’s worldview, we can determine the most effective way to engage that person with the Gospel.
Isn’t it wonderful to know that God authored His Word in a way that speaks to people of every worldview! As a cross-cultural ambassador for Christ, the foreign missionary does not need to contextualize the Word of God—God has already done that! The challenge for the cross-cultural missionary is to contextualize himself! He must endeavor to understand the worldview of his host people group. He must also strive to understand how the Word of God engages them through their worldview. He needs to train himself to study the Word of God through the lens of his host culture’s worldview. Most importantly, he needs to boldly proclaim the Word of God in a manner that is meaningful within their worldview and do so without changing or compromising its message. While these endeavors may seem impossible, by the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the commitment of the missionary, they can be accomplished. Our purpose at Biblical School of World Evangelism is to train missionaries to do these very things. If we should fail in this effort, shame on us!
1 Hiebert, Paul. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985.