Home » You Can’t Reach Nonbelievers with ‘Passive Congeniality’

You Can’t Reach Nonbelievers with ‘Passive Congeniality’

Christian evangelism entails a conversation with people of different beliefs. But those conversations are also often between people of different cultures. That’s where Effective Intercultural Evangelism, a new book from missiologists W. Jay Moon and W. Bud Simon, steps into the discussion. They want to help Christians share the good news of Jesus in a world of diverse cultural perspectives.

Readers might assume such a resource would be aimed at those in cross-cultural missionary contexts. But the authors want us to realize that when we talk with the average non-Christian in our communities, they don’t just believe differently than we do. They often think, process, feel, appreciate, and evaluate differently than we do. They come to the conversation with different worldviews.

Consider, for example, the category of human desires. The authors encourage believers to ask their friends, “If you could receive any one of the following four things, which would it be? Deliverance, restoration, forgiveness, or belonging?” It’s a helpful question. Is deliverance more appealing to you? What about restoration? Do you ultimately seek forgiveness and cleansing? Or does discovering a sense of belonging and a longing for home more accurately describe your desires?

Moon and Simon believe that a person’s greatest desire is shaped by their worldview. The aim of their book is to help readers “discern various worldviews and how to continue God conversations that are relevant to each of these worldviews.” In other words, they want to equip evangelists to tap into the needs, desires, values, and assumptions of those around them. As Christians better understand the perspectives of their conversation partners, they’re more confident and competent to help them take the next step toward following Jesus.

Fluid worldviews

Here’s how Moon and Simon define intercultural evangelism: as “the process of putting Christ at the center of someone’s worldview in order to initiate them into Christian discipleship through culturally relevant starting points.” The authors group these cultural starting points into worldview categories that form the structure of much of the book. Borrowing from the work of the pioneering Bible translator Eugene Nida and others, they address the dominant worldview frameworks of guilt/justice, shame/honor, and fear/power, along with an emerging category they identify as “indifference/belonging with purpose.”

At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that the borders between these categories are porous. Each perspective can be present to one degree or another in any given person, group, or larger culture. Worldview studies popular among evangelicals a generation ago may have erred at this point by assigning people fixed labels and lumping them into rigid categories. But one strength of Moon and Simon’s work is how it recognizes that worldviews can change and develop over time and within people.

For example, the category of “indifference/belonging with purpose” represents just such a situation, as the authors connect it to the climate of the modern West, where a secularist mindset increasingly prevails over a more traditional guilt/innocence framework. They also cite research that shows millennials in the US increasingly demonstrating characteristics of shame/honor culture. This seems to be a byproduct of globalization and multiculturalism, but also the rise of social media and a collectivist mentality toward shame and fame.

Commenting on this development among younger generations, the authors quote Andrews University religion professor Glenn Russell: These days, writes Russell in a 2016 youth ministry conference address, you “know if you are good or bad almost immediately as the online responses reveal whether you are honored (famed) or excluded (shamed).” Russell continues, “Morality is less about right and wrong and more about inclusion and exclusion.” This phenomenon demonstrates an overlap of cultures. It also signals the significant turbulence in our day over morality and priorities.

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While Moon and Simon recognize and empathize with non-Christians’ desires, such as avoiding exclusion or shame, they don’t isolate or absolutize those desires. Instead, they talk about the fundamental problem of the human condition as sin and how that sin leads to other felt problems. Whereas non-Christian worldviews tend to make fear or shame primary, the Bible depicts such problems as secondary and derivative. The solution to those problems, then, must include repentance, the critical step of turning away from sin to follow Christ.

What’s a little less clear is how the framework of “indifference/belonging with purpose” fits into Moon and Simon’s discussion of worldview. For example, it’s easy to find biblical stories of people who respond to God and their human condition in guilt, shame, or fear. Indifference isn’t as simple to spot, and the authors’ attempts at Scriptural examples—such as Zacchaeus finding belonging and purpose with Jesus—fall flat at times because of it. A culture of religious apathy appears to be a later historical development almost foreign to the biblical world.

Nevertheless, I found the authors’ observations of growing indifference in Western society resulting from secularism and pluralism to be some of the most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the book. Thankfully, other writers (like Alan Noble and Kyle Beshears) are also helping the church think evangelistically through these developments. One has to wonder, though, if such apathy is an anomaly that will ultimately succumb to more traditional, dominant worldviews. Furthermore, Western indifference toward Christianity could quickly give way to intolerance within our lifetimes.

A posture of preparedness

Perhaps the greatest strength of Effective Intercultural Evangelismis the cross-cultural experience of the authors. Throughout the book, they share stories of initiating evangelistic conversations with those who inhabit different worldviews. When those around them interpret life’s events through a certain cultural lens, the authors immediately identify an opening for the gospel.

For example, if someone attributes cancer or a devastating drought to evil spirits, the authors take that as an open door to talk about God’s authority and compassion. Rather than trying to dismantle someone’s worldview, they point to where God fits within it. Presumably, the same approach could be taken with those who ascribe hurricanes or forest fires to purely naturalistic or manmade causes, such as climate change or public policy. The point isn’t to argue; it’s to direct others to a powerful God who cares.

But this requires a posture of preparedness for evangelism, a willingness to listen as a people-oriented learner, to be empathetic, and to meet people where they are. Christians must also be ready to respond and believe God can and will speak in that moment. As the authors demonstrate, what won’t work is the typical “passive congeniality” approach that’s well-intentioned but rarely demonstrates a willingness to speak of Christ in everyday conversation.

On further reflection, the cultural indifference that Moon and Simon diagnose isn’t only a characteristic of non-Christians. It’s also pervasive in the Western church. This suggests, then, that the greatest hindrance to evangelism isn’t necessarily the dispassionate starting point of nonbelievers but rather that of believers. It’s our unconcerned apathy and passivity toward those who need to hear the gospel.

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Of course, that gospel should connect with people where they are. The good news of Jesus has something to offer every culture and every person. To the guilty offender it extends forgiveness and justification. To the shamed and excluded it offers the hope of glory. To the fearful and weak it promises deliverance and power. Even the indifferent and listless it welcomes with belonging and purpose, a future and a home.

But this is where I would add to Moon and Simon’s thesis about the positive way Christ speaks into diverse worldviews. The gospel doesn’t merely connect with personal desires and cultural values; it critiques them. To those who aspire to honor and glory, the Cross speaks shame. To those who desire power and privilege, the Cross speaks weakness. To those who want to be in the right, the crucified Jesus holds out his arms as a condemned criminal. The gospel is culturally relevant and radically counter-cultural.

Such also is the paradoxical nature of those who follow Jesus. The shocking reality of the kingdom is that women and men across the world are following Christ even when it results in shame, suffering, exclusion, and oppression. By the power of Jesus’ resurrection life, Christians are those who willingly and gladly take on that which their culture is conditioned to despise and reject. Not only that, but they do so with joy inexpressible.

Perhaps when we live out these counterintuitive values of the kingdom—and when we open our mouths with the joy of knowing Christ—his gospel will awaken the desires of every culture, even the otherwise indifferent.

Elliot Clark works with Training Leaders International. He is the author of Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land as well as a forthcoming book, Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul (Crossway, January 2022).

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