Below is a very basic contextualization approach that I believe will prove helpful for conducting a fresh inspection of the cultures that our home churches inhabit. Let me briefly explain the three steps before considering three overarching ways to prepare ourselves as individuals and as churches to do this work in our local settings.
Step 1: Observe and Inquire
Just like kids growing up in a familiar neighborhood, those who have spent their lives in the same context have likely adopted certain local norms in often unnoticed ways. These norms may be as simple as rooting for the same sports teams, or they may be as complex as adopting similar political opinions and social concerns. And sometimes fast and observable changes in society distract us from the slow and discrete worldview shifts that produced them.
For instance, before we left the United States, same-sex marriage was not legal in most states. By the time we returned to the United States in 2017, same-sex marriages were not only legal but had become so normalized that questioning this freedom was akin to hate speech. These were clear and broad-reaching societal changes that had quickly advanced across the American cultural landscape. In response, many Christians set to work defending biblical teaching on marriage, sex, and sexuality. Others found themselves asking, “How did we get here?”
There is a perennial necessity for helping Christians to understand and defend the biblical teaching on such issues as marriage, sex, and sexuality. However, a missionary will recognize there is more work to be done in helping Christians to engage with these ideas than merely equipping them with the ability to articulate biblical conclusions. That is because missionaries encountering new cultural phenomena are trained to push beyond the phenomena themselves and into a deeper assessment of the underlying worldview.
Such overt and observable cultural shifts are merely the outcomes of more foundational cultural changes at the level of worldview. Before people can understand biblical truth, a Christian communicator should be attuned to the underlying presuppositions that create barriers to understanding the gospel. While the biblical truths are timeless and applicable to everyone, not everyone is immediately attuned to their need for this message. In order to discover where a person might be open to the message of the gospel, Christians will benefit from learning about how this person sees the world. To do so, they must ask certain key questions.
Let me briefly list and explain the worldview questions I think are vital to observing and inquiring about how our friends view the world. I will primarily focus on the answers that might be given by secular materialists as this perspective is increasingly pervasive in the Western world. However, the questions are pertinent to exploring any number of theistic worldviews as well. We will then consider how these questions can provoke further reflection and even open up opportunity for inviting people to hear the biblical answers through the story Scripture tells.
Where Are We? (Where did everything come from? Why does something exist instead of nothing?) Everyone on earth today is living out of various implicit assumptions regarding the answers to the question, “What is this place?” But having to articulate those assumptions can tell us a lot about how a person views the world and their place in it. The story a person believes about the origins of the universe will dramatically shape the way they understand its purpose, trajectory, and value.
Who Are We? (What does it mean to be human? Why are people valuable?) The idea of human identity is another area that is universally important. Is there something that makes human beings distinct from animals and other living things? If so, what is the basis for this distinction? How do your neighbors understand and defend the claim that every person has inherent human dignity?
What Is Wrong? (Why is there suffering and pain in the world? Why is there evil?) Suffering is a pervasive reality in our world. No one can escape it. There are very few who would not immediately associate suffering and pain with evil and brokenness. But what causes such evil and pain? What is wrong with the world, and why do people hurt one another so often? And, for that matter, what makes bad things bad? How can this unfortunate situation be explained?
What Is the Solution? (Is there any hope of making it better? How do we fix what is broken?) Related to the previous question about what is wrong is the hope that whatever is wrong can be made right. Is the solution external to a person or internal? Do they believe themselves to be complicit in or victims of the world’s problems? Asking our neighbors what they think would provide relief from suffering or bring an end to evil can provide significant insight into their hopes, values, and desires.
Why Do We Exist? (What is the purpose or goal of life? How do we know if we are successful?) As one gets a glimpse of where their neighbor’s hopes for a solution lie, the answers to the question of purpose are not far behind. As people express their hopes for a solution to their experience of suffering, there is opportunity to imagine a world in which frustrations, evil, and suffering are no more. This leads naturally into the question of “What then? How would the relief of suffering allow you to achieve your goals and make your life count?”
Step 2: Expose and Provoke
Learning to ask these five questions can go a long way to engaging in meaningful observation and assessment of one’s surrounding culture. It allows for people to express in their own words the way they understand the world and their place in it. By listening well to their answers, we have the opportunity to hear how our neighbors use their language and what they mean by it. By listening, we will begin to recognize where the words and concepts that our friends use differently will need to be biblically redefined in order to ensure true gospel-communication.
At the same time, such questions can expose inconsistencies in how our neighbors view the world that have gone uninspected. Thus, these inquiries often provoke reflection on what alternatives might relieve such inconsistency. Consider the following brief examples of how those from various worldviews might articulate answers to these universal questions.
Atheists/Materialists: Where Are We?
The hard sciences have contributed to our understanding of how the regular features of our world work. For many of our neighbors, the confidence that scientific observation affords us regarding the regularity of these laws of physics has trickled over into metaphysical claims—that is, claims about the nature of existence, and what lies beneath reality. But science has made claims about metaphysics that it cannot substantiate. Though scientific observation of repeatable events in nature can predict how the world will act, it cannot offer insight into why the universe exists. Still, many whose confidence in science has led them to a materialist understanding of the world deny the universe has its source in any intelligent creator. Instead, they propose that today’s universe owes its origin to random and unguided development over an indeterminate amount of time. Where did the world come from? A materialist must appeal to an infinite regress of cause and effect in a universe composed of eternally existent mat- ter. In so doing, they undermine their ability to speak about the purpose of the universe.
Newbigin helpfully summarizes this as he writes, “Cause is something that can be discovered by observation and reason. Purpose is not available for inspection because, until the purpose has been realized, it is hidden in the mind of the one whose purpose it is.”
In addition to the unsatisfying nature of this proposal, if there is no designer, then there is no design. If there is no design, then there is no purpose. If there is no purpose, then there are no grounds for assessing actions as good or bad, right or wrong. If there are no grounds for assessing good, bad, right, and wrong, then it is impossible to determine whether or not one’s choices are meaningful, valuable, or fruitful apart from one’s own ungrounded estimation of their value. Without a purposeful creator, the universe can have no meaning.
Purposeless origins produce a meaningless present and a worthless future. All of a sudden, atheism/materialism is seen to lack the resources to helpfully answer any of our questions. Exposed to this reality, our friends and neighbors might be provoked to revisit their assumptions about what science can and cannot tell us about the world and our place in it.
Pluralists/Agnostics: Who Are We?
As a part of the material world, the question of human identity is naturally connected to the previous question. Yet when it is asked of our Western neighbors, most people will appeal not to human origins, but to individual experience and self-determined identity. Agnostics and pluralists may suggest humans could be the creation of a higher power, but in the end, most agnostics are prone to gather a collection of the circumstances of their birth, communally acquired affinities, and self-determined assertions as a way of identifying themselves.
For instance, someone might answer a question of identity with a series of descriptions, such as “I am a straight, white, married, Christian male who is an American, a professor, and a Chicago Bears fan.” All of those adjectives describe features of a person’s life, but they fall short of defining the humanity of the person. We know this implicitly because if any one of those adjectives were exchanged for a different descriptor, the human identity would remain.
But if our friends contend that humans have inherent dignity, then there must be a more substantive ground for identity than mere description and self-identification of individuals. Here, the biblical account of God’s special creation of image-bearing humans provides a foil against which to compare any alternative claims to why the claim of inherent human dignity might be sustained. The question of what makes a human important and valuable can thus expose a deep inconsistency in a pluralist’s worldview while also provoking a search for a firmer foundation to the idea of human dignity.
Jews/Muslims: What Is Wrong and What Is the Solution?
In addressing the source of human dignity, the Christian communicator has the chance to present human beings as creatures whose identity, allegiance, and duty are bound up in the purposes of the Creator whose image they bear. This has immediate implications. What is right and good emerges from the givenness of humanity’s divinely assigned purpose. In contrast, that which deviates from this purpose is to be identified as wrong.
In Judaism and Islam God contains no imperfections and is inherently good. But if God is perfect and righteous, and if he is also just and holy, then he cannot comingle with the unholy, impure, and guilty. And if this God has created in order to dwell with his image-bearing people—as the Bible repeatedly records—then his approach poses a grave danger to humans who are marred by their imperfections and rebellion.
If we admit that all humans are sinful and broken, then entering the presence of a holy and righteous God is a terrifying reality. The only way for us to dwell with this God, then, is for us to undergo a radical removal of our sin, guilt, impurity, and rebellion. Neither Judaism nor Islam provides such a solution. Even though both use the language of forgiveness, purification, and even atonement, neither faith includes a means for immediate and unmediated human interaction with God. Their proposed solutions to the sin problem produce a dissatisfying vision of hope for image-bearers designed for the presence of the God whose image they bear.
Individualists: Why Do We Exist?
As we surface the reality of human suffering and proposals for its alleviation, we naturally come to the question of ultimate purpose. If one could solve all the world’s problems, then what would come next? For many in the West who have been raised to think of people as fully autonomous individuals, the removal of suffering would result in allowing everyone to pursue whatever they determine to make them happy.
But reality and experience demonstrate that happiness is fickle and fleeting. What makes a person feel happy one day might not satisfy the next. Furthermore, as is often the case, one person’s happiness is the source of another’s misery. For example, when I got married to my wife, I experienced happiness, while her other suitors experienced disappointment! Can we really hang our hopes for a meaningful life on something so demonstrably unstable and inequitable as our pursuit of happiness?
Step 3: Invite and Apply
At this point in the conversation, having asked good questions and listened to the answers, we are better equipped to speak meaningfully due to having a more intimate knowledge of how our friends view the world. These questions may have opened up an opportunity to expose dissatisfaction or highlight inconsistencies for our neighbors and their worldview. Likewise, we may have heard our friends using words in ways that diverge from how they would be used in presenting a biblical worldview.
All of this helps to orient us to the immediate context in front of us: our neighbors and their understanding of the world. Likewise, rather than simply offering a tract with isolated Bible verses that may or may not touch on the concerns raised by our friends, this approach offers us the opportunity to invite someone to see what the Bible says in response to any given question. This does, however, require us to be intimately familiar with the whole story of Scripture, so we can jump in at any given point and demonstrate how these questions find their ultimate answers in the gospel.
Excerpted with permission from Hope for American Evangelicals by Matthew Bennett. Copyright 2023, B&H Publishing.