I’ve enjoyed several careers, one of my favorites being a jail counselor when I lived in western Pennsylvania in the heart of a strong Guilt-Innocence culture. And as with other jobs, some things took a few months to figure out when I was just getting started.
I noticed that inmates continually recited a speech to me that went something like this: “You know, I’m really a good person. Everybody knows what a good person I am. All my life I’ve been helping people. I would give anybody the shirt off my back if they needed it.” After three years of this, it’s a wonder I hadn’t left the workplace with a crate full of shirts that I had ripped from their backs.
One day, the meaning of the bogus monologues finally dawned on me. The inmates were being tried by our justice system, and they felt the weight of their guilt upon them profoundly as they festered in their jail cells. They had made themselves believe that their criminal activities didn’t represent the “real” person that existed deep down inside.
So they had learned to rationalize every bar fight and every drug deal that they had gotten into as somehow “helping” somebody. They apparently regarded their humble counselor as a representative of a moral order, and for them it was important to be vindicated in somebody’s eyes.
“There are three prominent lenses through which most people interpret events in their lives. These are Guilt-Innocence, Honor-Shame, and Power-Fear.”
Our Interpretive Lenses
Today we live in highly pluralistic societies. Anthropologists have indicated there are three prominent lenses through which most people interpret events in their lives. These are the lenses of Guilt-Innocence, of Honor-Shame, or of Power-Fear. If we’re going to reach people today, I would like to suggest that we should learn to incorporate elements of these thinking patterns into our gospel presentations.
These are not necessarily simple ideas, but please stick with me as I believe they are crucial to our ability to rightly proclaim and apply the gospel to the lives of others to whom we are called.
Guilt and Innocence
A Guilt-Innocence worldview prevails in the West. We’re accustomed to feeling guilty when we violate our consciences. We’re usually impressed if somebody offers restitution for bad behavior. Even when we make jokes about crooked lawyers, we express general confidence in our legal systems, and we believe they serve us well.
The dominant gospel image that communicates most powerfully to western audiences is a legal one. Because a perfect sacrifice has been offered for sin, a debt has been paid, and those who co-opt this payment for sin are judicially set free. Therefore, western theologians have gravitated towards this “penal substitution” model of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, believing this to be the heart and soul of the gospel.
We’re particularly impressed with the writings of the apostle Paul, and we especially revere the book of Romans. While we acknowledge the reality that Paul was simply illuminating Jesus, we may fail to recognize what an elaborate job he has done preparing his letter for a Roman audience.
In fact, when presenting the principles of salvation, modern North Americans have referenced Paul’s writings more than the words of Jesus himself. Evangelicals in the twentieth century were taught that the best way to evangelize is to present the “Romans Road” to unbelievers. This may be a good approach for people who are confident in legal networks, but it’s merely one of many biblical approaches.
Honor and Shame
Honor-Shame societies are collectivist cultures primarily in the East where every person has an assigned role that is understood by the community. The community functions as a kind of a personal credit service, silently assigning ratings. A person’s status is based upon who he or she is, not upon what he or she does. Maintaining honor is the highest value to which they ascribe. Severe consequences exist for citizens violating the norms of the society.
The concept of “face” is a universal phenomenon that differs between cultures. Your “face” exists in the public domain; it expresses your status or worth. “Saving face” preserves affiliations in groups and maintains harmonious relationships. If a person loses face, the entire community will be affected negatively.
Honor-Shame citizens are not likely to process sin the same way Westerners do. Both the strengths and offenses of a society are interpreted more as collective actions. Thus, a horrific activity such as the “honor killing” may be tolerable if it satisfies communally accrued shame, restoring honor to the community for a perceived infraction. Similarly, terroristic activities and suicide rituals might not be considered sins but rather corrective communal measures.
There are more than 190 references to honor in Scripture. Shame is mentioned over one hundred times in Scripture, with various passages designated to the principle even if the term is not used. Honor-substitution is an essential facet of the atonement. Christ’s death was not considered to be a bribe, but restitution. If Jesus hadn’t died, God would have been dishonored. The atonement, therefore, was a God-centered activity in which Yahweh’s face was salvaged. If he lost face, he would be unable to redeem.
Power and Fear
Another large bloc of the world’s peoples dwell in societies where supernatural interference from the spirit world is a common occurrence, experienced and accepted by the entire community. These Power-Fear cultures are predominant in some parts of Africa, Latin America, Oceania, parts of Asia, and even in parts of North America. In these settings people live on the earth in a type of middle zone between an upper- and a lower-world.
People in Power-Fear societies are often seeking answers to practical problems such as, How did I get sick? Why is there a drought? How can I get him to love me? It’s important to recognize that these folks don’t view interactions with occult powers entirely in negative terms.
While first-century Palestine doesn’t precisely mirror their realities, a surface reading of the New Testament makes it clear that the spirit world was a present reality there as well. Jesus and his disciples travelled their region healing the sick and casting out demons. When Peter declared, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!” the beggar actually walked. That’s the kind of God these people are interested in serving. When ministering to them, it’s important to emphasize the supernatural aspects of Scripture.
When Jesus came to earth as a man, this was the ultimate demonstration of his ongoing dominion over all creation. But Satan harassed Jesus during his career on earth and at the crucifixion he initially seemed to have prevailed—at least in his own mind. The resurrection was proof to the contrary. Not only did Jesus ascend to the throne in heaven, he also extended his power to mankind for their benefit. Consequently, people needn’t be dominated by evil forces today, and they need no longer fear death or the ultimate triumph of Satan if they embrace the life and resurrected power of Jesus.
Understanding Our Audience in Evangelism
Today’s evangelizers are encouraged to find the proper biblical story communicating the needs of people within their cultural contexts. For many decades Westerners overemphasized one model (penal substitution) and one metaphor (being judicially set free) to explain the gospel to nearly every audience. In doing so we made exaggerated or inaccurate claims (“Jesus is all you need”; “Jesus will resolve all your worries and give you perfect peace”). We should discover which metaphors and biblical narratives are likely to make sense to our audiences and incorporate those truths into our gospel presentations.
“We should discover which metaphors and biblical narratives are likely to make sense to our audiences and incorporate those truths into our gospel presentations.”
Many of us are accustomed to ministering in Guilt-Innocence cultures, and we’ve done this well, but today our effectiveness is waning. Experiences are important to millennials, so conveying the true story of how Jesus transformed your life is one of the most powerful tools you possess. Also, no substitute exists for cultivating authentic friendships.
However, loss of honor and status still brings shame to those raised in Honor-Shame cultures. Therefore, it’s critical to honor people as image bearers of God and not to unintentionally cause a loss of face. We can help these individuals see from Scripture that God has restored honor to the earth and that he desires to do this in their communities. The Prodigal Son story might be a good entry point for this conversation.
Adherents of Power-Fear worldviews feel extremely connected to nature and are awestruck by it. A reverent and enthusiastic posture towards the Almighty will likely resonate with them. Additionally, reflecting God’s matchless power tempered with sincere worship will impress them. The metaphor of a triumphant Christ who defeats the principalities and powers will be appreciated.
When initiating conversations with new friends, some qualifying questions may be helpful for discerning their worldviews. This should not be done to make snap judgments, since most people reflect two or three of these mega-traits to varying degrees. Rather, try to find their essential worldview, enabling you to communicate the gospel more meaningfully to them.
Rev. Timothy P. Robbins is a PhD candidate in evangelism studies at Asbury Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies. He has served as a Christian educator (history and Bible), pastored in four congregations, and worked as a mental health therapist specializing in the incarcerated population. He is ordained with Churches of God, General Conference. Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (Time Press, 2014), by Jayson Georges.
Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door (Xlibris, 2001), by Robert Muller.
Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (Baker Book House, 1991), by Gailyn Van Rheenen.
Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (William Carey International University Press, 2012), by Jackson Wu.