W. Jay Moon and W. Bud Simon: Effective Intercultural Evangelism

North America, long a missionary-sending country, is now a mission field. With the number of self-described Christians declining, the religiously unaffiliated increasing and immigrants making up a larger share of the overall population each year, people in our own communities are just waiting to hear the gospel. Except, say W. Jay Moon and W. Bud Simon, the old ways of doing evangelism aren’t resonating with people anymore. We need to take a fresh look at how we approach evangelism and how we understand the people we’re trying to reach.

Moon is professor of church planting and evangelism and the director of the Office of Faith, Work and Economics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Simon is a mission consultant having served as a church-planting missionary in Brazil for 20 years. The two evangelism experts have teamed up to explore solutions to this need in Effective Intercultural Evangelism: Good News in a Diverse World (IVP). 

We spoke with Moon and Simon about their personal experiences explaining the gospel with people who didn’t connect with traditional evangelism practices, and how sharing Christ through the listeners’ worldview can make the difference between their acceptance or rejection of him.

Share a little about your background when it comes to intercultural evangelism.

Jay Moon: We lived in Ghana, West Africa, with a least-reached people group whose language wasn’t written down at the time. Once I learned the language, I was able to communicate the gospel. I presented it the way I learned in the U.S., basically from this justice/guilt kind of orientation. And the people responded, Well, that is interesting, kind of, but not very much.

We can be giving answers, but people are not asking those questions.”

That’s not the response I was hoping for, so I started to listen a bit more to the culture and hear the conversations, and when I presented the gospel in a fear/power type of understanding, they all responded like, Yes, we want to hear more. This is the one God has sent to break the curse of witchcraft and juju and the evil eye. 

I realized Christ answers different questions in different cultures. At times, we can be giving answers, but the people are not asking those kinds of questions. We need to listen to their questions in order to provide the answers Christ has for them.

Bud Simon: I have a very similar story. We got to Brazil in ’95 and were sharing the gospel, the classic Four Spiritual Laws, that type of thing. I preached these nice three-point sermons, and everyone was very polite and congenial. I had no understanding of what worldviews were at the time. 

One day, I went to a shop downtown. They had promised a certain service by a certain day, but they didn’t have it. I responded very indignantly—the classic ugly American thing. When I got home, the Lord convicted me that I needed to go back and apologize to that guy in front of his workers and whoever else was in the shop at that time. I had embarrassed him in front of his people, and now I was saying, Hey, I was wrong, kind of just lifting him up. 

When I preached the next Sunday, I shared that story in church, and everyone stood up and clapped. It went right to the heart of the gospel for them. They saw the gospel in action in an honor/shame culture. When that happened, I was like, Oh, I really need to pay attention. Something is really going on here. 

It all comes down to being able to identify and understand someone’s worldview, right? The four you’re talking about are guilt/justice, shame/honor, fear/power and indifference/belonging. 

Moon: We often liken these worldviews to a pair of sunglasses—everything we see is tinted by those sunglasses. So it’s not just these cognitive things that are happening inside, but it’s also our emotions and what we value. James K.A. Smith says we become what we love, not just what we think. So the worldview includes people’s aspirations. What do we love, what are we hoping for? And that ties into what Christ can offer us.

Simon: People are complex. When we take time to look at the gospel, we see it’s presented in different ways. Jesus talks about the gospel in different ways to different audiences, and never talks about it the same way twice. 

We have to understand the nuances of these worldviews, and be able to identify them in the people we engage with, even if that means I’m just talking to my neighbor who is from India.

Moon: We want to help people, whenever they interact with another culture, to catch up on the conversation God has already started. So while this is useful for missionaries who go to different cultures, increasingly this is the case in North America, where you’re going to encounter someone who has a totally different religious background. You can’t just rely on programmatic formulas to present the gospel. You need to listen well and be able to adjust based on the worldview they’re living in.

Simon: A generation or two ago, the idea was, How can we share the gospel in the most formulaic way possible with the most people possible in the shortest time possible? How can we streamline this and get as many people into the kingdom as fast as possible? But even back in the 1990s, Cru was saying, Hey, this isn’t working like it did. The gospel has been pushed to the margins of society.

“Perhaps the best way to help people feel the love of God is helping them feel heard and understood.” 

And the other thing, too, is immigration. Immigration has become so prolific here in the States. About 45 million first-generation immigrants are here, which works out to about 1 out of every 8 people. It’s a lot. And 1 out of 3 households has a first-generation immigrant. That means people are being directly influenced by [different worldviews] in their household. Knowing how to talk about the gospel and present that in ways that make sense is so important. I think immigration is an overlooked opportunity by the church today. It’s this huge population, and the thought needs to be, How can we reach these people for Christ?

We use those same intercultural evangelism principles, but we apply them to secular Nones. Can you talk about that demographic and how we fit Christ and the gospel into their worldview?

Moon: We did a six-year research project with more than 500 people, and when we first started, we didn’t have the worldview of indifference in there, until after about two to three years. We kept coming across people saying, Well, the friends we talk to, like Gen Z or millennials, don’t feel guilty for their sin, or even shame or fear. It was something else. 

The more we started to research it, the more we found out they’re indifferent, which is a very different response from the other classic three worldviews. We found that they seem to be most attracted to Christ when it’s presented in a way where he provides belonging with purpose. That seems to be most attractive and understandable to Gen Z and millennials, and we suggest that’s a better starting point than guilt, fear or shame.

“When people receive mass information through digital means, they start to exhibit the characteristics of oral learners.”

Simon: People don’t resonate with sharing the gospel, and people don’t care. It doesn’t make sense to them. Michael Green, a British theologian and writer, says when we make the evangelistic message appropriate for the church, we miss the people we’re trying to reach. So we really have to think, How can we be striking at the life issues people perceive? This is what needs to be addressed, instead of trying to bring them around to our point of view.

I love how you talk about the importance of empathy in the book. We build so much relational equity when we can sincerely listen to and appreciate someone’s story. That makes them so much more receptive to a conversation about Jesus.

Moon: God is having a conversation that he started with everybody, even those who don’t admit it. Even those who may be atheist or agnostic or indifferent or into Wicca, whatever. To catch up on that conversation, you need to develop enough social capital that you’re listening well, that they feel heard and understood, because when somebody feels heard and understood, they also feel loved. So perhaps the best way we help people feel the love of God is, first of all, helping them feel heard and understood prior to us giving any answers. Once we hear them well, we express love through that, and then we can provide what Christ is offering to them in line with the conversation God is already having with them. We’re filling in the blanks and leading them toward Christ. 

Simon: We often think of evangelism as, Have I delivered a certain message? I think we need to turn that model on its head and ask, Do I listen well? That’s what evangelism really is. Because how can you respond if you haven’t really heard people? 

How does this approach to evangelism lead to deeper and more robust discipleship?

Moon: We agree with Billy Abraham, who said that evangelism is the process to initiate people into discipleship. So instead of those being two different processes, it’s all one long journey. By looking at evangelism this way, you’re identifying the very issues that need to be addressed to keep someone moving to Christ, and once they do, the journey isn’t over. It’s really continuing that journey until they go into glory, right?

“Immigration is an overlooked opportunity by the church today.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people look at evangelism as a one-time event, or discipleship as a program you graduate from. This is a lifelong journey, and these are two pieces connected to each other by identifying the unique aspects of each person in order to keep that person moving toward Christ. 

Any parting thoughts?

Simon: One of the things our book talks about is about bringing Christ to the center of your worldview, and not necessarily about having a Christian worldview. Too often, a “Christian worldview” means “You look at things the way I do.” It’s really kind of embracing the diversity in the church and realizing people may have different expressions of their faith. People may have different views or understandings of passages. We see a lot of this especially overseas, but it’s just becoming more common everywhere.

Moon: The International Orality Network estimates about 80% of the world are oral learners, but most of our training comes in print form. It seems like a disconnect, right? Particularly in the Western world, where people are becoming digit-oral learners. What that means is that when people receive mass information through digital means, they start to exhibit the characteristics of oral learners as opposed to print learners. We’re encouraging people to consider practices in evangelism that draw upon the oral learning characteristics and not simply print methods such as tracts and programmatic formulas. 

Once you enter that world, you realize there are lots of opportunities for using digit-oral methods that have really been overlooked in the past. We’ve talked to Cru several times, and they’re working on phone apps and different digital tools, and we think that’s very much in line with the direction that millennials and Gen Z are moving. We’re going to have to understand how digit-oral learners receive, process, remember and pass on information. That’s very different from the process for print learners, and if we catch up on that, then we can be much more effective at helping them share their faith.

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