Change the Worldview…Change the World

by Robert Strauss and Tom Steffen

Worldview change does not come through learning new ideas; it comes through relationships that challenge us to rethink life.

AAkif said that by age seven he could clean, load, and fire a Russian Kalashnikov AK-47. From birth, he was surrounded by bitter antipathy toward Jews and their major benefactor, the United States of America—the “Little” and “Great Satans,” respectively. His devout Muslim family lived in a Shia neighborhood in Pakistan. Looking through a definable worldview grid, Akif interpreted and interacted with all aspects of life. Even as a young boy, this grid shaped his identity and deeply impacted his emotions and relationships. Akif lived for one purpose—the total annihilation of the infidels.

In Muslim families, children are taught that their actions can please Allah. Everything should be done fi sabillah, that is, “for the sake of Allah.” Amir Taheri (2006), a European-based columnist who at one time served as executive editor-in-chief for Kayhan, Iran’s largest daily newspaper, writes, “From childhood, Shia boys are told to cultivate two qualities. The first is entezar, the capacity to patiently wait for the Imam to return. The second is taajil, the actions needed to hasten the return. For the Imam’s return will coincide with an apocalyptic battle between the forces of evil and righteousness, with evil ultimately routed.” These beliefs formed and drove Akif’s radical behavior.

Today, a Christ Follower
Today, Akif is a Christ follower who lives in the United States and routinely interacts with a community of Christ followers. What changed? To answer this question, it is essential that one reply more extensively than simply stating, “He changed.” What specifically brought about this cataclysmic change within Akif? Who was instrumental in bringing about this change? What was the change? After a debilitating automobile accident in Pakistan, a medical doctor attended to Akif, ultimately introducing him to another way of life. For the first time Akif saw and experienced the love and life of the Lord Jesus Christ through this doctor and his family. After being discharged from the hospital, the doctor invited Akif to live in his own home to be cared for by his family. Daily they ministered to him during his convalescence. He was overwhelmed with their kindness.

The demonstration and explanation from these “infidels” at first confused him, but ultimately led to his conversion. Consider 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.

A Rival Story
The outward behavior of this family of Christ followers was a living demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit to Akif. Their kindness belied his former assumptions…that the infidels were bad. They did not behave in a manner consistent with his old worldview. What he predicted they would be, they were not! These infidels, “ones without faith in Allah,” lived out a story of faith, but one in allegiance to Jesus Christ. They first demonstrated and then communicated the love and life of the Lord Jesus. He expected them to be antagonistic, but they were open and accommodating. He assumed they would be apprehensive, but they were the opposite, trusting him with their home and lives. Akif testifies today of the painful agony within him as he wrestled with these rival stories—the old message of antipathy and the new message of Jesus’ love. The battle within him was a systemic one that challenged his very identity and ripped his emotions to shreds.

Note how God used a tenet of Islam to prepare his mind and heart. The soundness of the transmitter, isnad, is valued more than the soundness of the content of tradition, matn. Phil Henderson, a cross-cultural church planter in Mozambique and a student of Islam, explains, “Every Hadith (100,000 +/-) has two parts: matn (content) and isnad (chain of transmission). Over time, isnad eventually took precedence over matn. If the chain of transmitters is reliable, then the content does not matter so much. Reliable people do not relay unreliable content.”

Akif’s heart was first won by a powerful force, not the orthodoxy of doctrine or its persuasive argumentation, but by the reality of the love and life of Jesus Christ, demonstrated by the medical doctor and his family. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain by befriending a young Shia man. However, by giving everything, in return they gained two things of inestimable importance in cross-cultural ministry: genuine friendship and the right to communicate. Over time, they did communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This message is rarely deliverable in the 30-second elevator speech. Two key ingredients would be missing. The first is reflected in the story above, that being the context of a genuine friendship developed over time. The second is the privilege and imperative to share the gospel story in the framework of the whole of Scripture (Steffen and Terry 2007). It is a simple story, but a story with deep roots in history. The message of the gospel is the storyline in the sacred storybook that is God’s metanarrative. Effective storytelling tells the whole story rather than starting in the middle. Consider the comments of Frances Popovich:

I believe that the translation of the New Testament has not been adequate to reveal the whole counsel of God….Old Testament teachings are needed to show how God wants to be worshipped and invoked. They demonstrate graphically that God is vitally concerned with the mundane affairs of human beings. Much of what we find syncretistic in Maxakali practice we can attribute to an inadequate theology of God, one that the stories of Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, Elisha, and Daniel would do much to remedy. (1990, 30-35)

In other words, the Old Testament narrative frames God as relevant to all the affairs of life. He is not only the High God, but the Low God as well. The point is not to tell the top ten stories from the Bible, but to impart the metanarrative of God. What gained an entrance into the heart of Akif was the kindness of Christ. The protagonist of the sacred storybook (Jesus) won Akif’s heart and mind. What transformed Akif from the inside out was the sacred storybook. In it, a whole worldview system from the biblical narrative challenged Akif’s old worldview. According to James Slack and James O. Terry, “Stories are the last frontier in a fight between worldviews” (1999, 34).

A New Worldview
Now as a Christ follower, Akif interprets and interacts with all aspects of life through a different grid. This new worldview system shapes his identity and deeply impacts his emotions and thinking. Akif again lives for one purpose, but a much different one—that the God of Abraham and his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, would be magnified in the hearts and minds of his people. Like Akif, each of us from infancy acquires a worldview or grid-work shaped by symbols, rituals, and narrative, usually formed in the midst of endearing relationships. My (Robert) grandfather was a farmer in the south. As a boy, I hunted on his land, drank fresh water from a hand-drawn well, and listened to his stories about tobacco subsidies. Almost forty years later I still have vivid memories of my grandfather and our relationship. I can still see the farmhouse and the wooden swing. I can still smell the crops in the field and the coal in the storage bin. I can feel the warm summer breeze.

Unlike Akif, I did not march through city streets in commando parades as a boy. Yet I clearly understand how such rituals reinforced the grid-work through which Akif and his family viewed the world. These kinds of rituals are the means by which a represented theology and ideology are cemented into place. Like cement, the worldview grid-work hardens over time, making it difficult to break apart (compare 2 Cor. 10:3-5). At times, God may have to use debilitating crises. His work is not malicious. Through loving kindness he is drawing people to himself.

What Is a Worldview?
Paul Hiebert says, “Worldviews are the most fundamental and encompassing views of reality shared by a people in a culture” (2008, 84). A worldview is a grid through which one interprets and interacts with all aspects of life. Everyone has a worldview, although generally it is outside of one’s awareness (Hall 1959, 73). Worldview grids are emotionally held; they shape personal and collective identities. As a whole system a worldview gives meaning to every aspect of life. They are usually formed in affectionate relationships and reinforced through ritual. Of course, Akif would embrace what his father and grandfather told him about the world! Story and symbol typically serve as the means by which worldviews are formed (Hesselgrave 1994, 50; Steffen 1998).

At the foundation of a worldview system are core assumptions with closely associated values. Out from this core, societal structure and processes emerge in the form of laws, codes of behavior, community ethics, and institutions, such as the family, government, religion, economic exchange, and education. A process of reciprocation back and forth between core assumptions with their latent meaning and outward behavior is endemic to all societies. As we age, most of us become increasingly aware of these layers of culture, both in plurality and complexity (Hofstede 2004). There is much more to life than meets the eye. Underneath every exterior there is something deeper, just as in an iceberg. Hiebert says, “Behavior and beliefs are what we see above the surface of the ocean. The worldview is the large hidden mass beneath the surface that holds the whole iceberg” (2008, 84).

Worldview Analysis
Hiebert suggests that there are three sets of core assumptions that make up a worldview. These categories are the “givens” of how people see and interpret the nature of reality. Existential assumptions provide a culture with fundamental cognitive structures like the role of the spirit world in daily life or the nature of time (cyclical versus linear). Affective assumptions underlie notions of beauty, style, music, art, and architecture. Evaluative assumptions provide standards of right and wrong. Furthermore, David Hesselgrave (1991) adapts an idea from G. Linwood Barney to present layers of culture. The figure presents worldview or cosmology as the core of culture, with other dimensions of culture making up the outer concentric circles. From core worldview assumptions values emerge about what is and what ought to be. These form a foundation for how individuals and communities think about themselves.

Social norms are organized by society into categories and institutions. For example, behavior is regulated by law enacted by the state for the common good. There are expected roles and functions in the family, church, and community. Media play a powerful part by informing and reinforcing cultural expectations. Life is lived out in relationship with others and manifested through observable phenomena.

Analyzing further, neither Hiebert nor Hesselgrave capture the critical role of relationships in worldview formation and function. The essence of both life and story is seen in the concept of relationship. Reality itself is not comprehendible outside of human, organic relationships. In close relationships worldviews are formed, and then reinforced through experience. It will also be in close relationships and by experiences that worldviews will be transformed. Shortcuts that only address superficial behavior will do more damage than good in the long run. Shortcuts are the recipe for syncretism. Parachuting in, outside of authentic friendships and without knowing a society’s worldview, is not effective.

A Worldview Approach to Ministry

If Christian ministry results only in the modification of the exterior behavior, true transformation has not taken place. The ministry of Christ on earth confirms that the starting point for change is internal rather than external (Matt. 23:24-27; Luke 11:38-42). Steven Covey cogently states, “In all of my experience, I have never seen lasting solutions to problems, lasting happiness and success, that came from the outside in” (1990, 43). Related to management, Peter Block writes, “If there is no transformation inside each of us, all the structural change in the world will have no impact on our institutions” (1993, 77).

A worldview approach to ministry means that one understands the inextricable interplay between core assumptions and values on the inside of a person, and the social institutions and observable behavior on the outside. It is dolefully insufficient, and fundamentally disrespectful of people, to do ministry with a focus only upon observable phenomena. Confronting social institutions may be appropriate in the case of interdiction ministries when, for example, young girls are rescued from prostitution. However, confronting institutions does not reflect a total strategy of transformation. While starting points may differ, true and lasting change is possible only if we go deeper and further, addressing core worldview assumptions and values. According to Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Christian conversion without worldview change in reality is syncretism” (1991, 89). Ultimately, it is a system that must be transformed (Tennent 2007, 25-51).

In Summary
In summary, a worldview is a grid through which one interprets and interacts with all aspects of life. But, how are worldviews formed? In what ways do symbols and rituals compel the heart and evoke action (Bosch 1991, 353)? How does narrative construct one’s identity (Ricoeur 1990, 246-248))? We need to reflect further and deeper about these important questions as we minister cross-culturally in the global context. Our prayer is that God may grant us the wisdom to understand what is required for cross-cultural ministry at a worldview level and the resources (finances, personnel, and time) to invest whatever is necessary to minister at that level. Akif was won to Christ through the love of Christ followers. But his worldview was transformed over time through the metanarrative of the sacred storybook.

Block, Peter. 1993. Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Covey, Stephen R. 1990. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside.

Hall, Edward T. 1959. The Silent Language. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

_______. 1994. Scripture and Strategy. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Hofstede, Geert. 2004. Cultures and Organizations. Hightstown, N.J.: McGraw-Hill.

Popovich, Frances. 1990. “The OT and a Theology of God.” Notes on Scripture in Use and Language Programs 20:30-35.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1990. Time and Narrative, Vol. 3. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Slack, James and James O. Terry, Jr. 1999. Chronological Bible Storying: A Methodology for Presenting the Gospel to Oral Communication. Richmond, Va.: International Mission Board.

Steffen, Tom. 1998. “Foundational Roles of Symbol and Narrative in the (Re)construction of  Reality and Relationships.” Missiology: An International Review 26(4): 477-494.

Steffen, Tom and James O. Terry, Jr. 2007. “The Sweeping Story of Scripture Taught Through Time.” Missiology: An International Review 35(3): 315-335.

Taheri, Amir. 2006. “The Frightening Truth of Why Iran Wants a Bomb.” Sunday Telegraph. April 16.

Tennent, Timothy. 2007. Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Zondervan.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena, Calif.:  William Carey Library.


Robert Strauss is president and CEO of Worldview Resource Group. With a doctorate of missiology from Biola University’s School of Intercultural Studies, he is also an affiliate faculty at Regis University. Tom Steffen is professor of intercultural studies and church planting at Biola University’s School of Intercultural Studies. He directs the Doctorate of Missiology Program at Biola. He is the author of seven missiological books and many journal articles, some of which have been translated into Spanish.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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