“Differing worldviews compete within me!”
I was struck by this realization as I ministered to a small group of new Christians and seekers in Kenya during a time of famine. Crops were dying in the fields. Women were walking miles to carry water on their backs to their homes. Everyone realized that if rain did not come soon, current crops would wilt in the fields. We decided to conclude our time of fellowship, teaching, and discussion by beseeching God for rain. Had we not been discussing that Creator God was the sovereign Lord of his world? Before we finished our time of prayer, clouds gathered and rain began to pour from the sky. In response, we gave God glory, honor, and praise. What a time of fellowship—and seeing God work—in a new church!
On the way home, as my short wheel-base Toyota Land Cruiser (the old type) slipped down the muddy road and twice slide into a ditch, I was surprised that it had rained only in the general vicinity of our meeting. My mind began to discern the reasons: Rain tends to come from the West, follow a certain ridge of hills, and then drop into this valley.
My thoughts then returned to our powerful time of prayer and our belief that sovereign God is the ultimate giver of rain. I realized that within me are competing worldviews. I am a secularist! I believe the world is organized around “laws of nature” which determine when and where it will rain. I am a theist! I believe that God is sovereign over the world he created. Within my mind I seek to merge these worldviews believing that God created the world to work with certain cycles or rhythms, but our loving, ever-present Creator willingly changes these rhythms he has created. Nonetheless, these two worldviews compete within me for allegiance—sometimes leading me to be more of a secularist than a theist. “Oh, God, help me trust your presence, think your thoughts, and walk in your paths so that I pray to you with expectancy!”
This Missiological Reflection provides a framework for cultural understanding by describing four types of worldviews and continues our discussion about “Cultural Analysis” within the Missional Helix. As you read this typology, ask yourself the question, “Which worldviews compete for my heart’s allegiance and for the hearts of the people among whom I serve? How must I live to make God my sovereign Lord?
The purpose of this Missiological Reflection is to provide categories for interpreting yourself and the culture in which you minister.
A secular worldview divides the world into natural and supernatural realms but focuses almost exclusively on the natural. God is considered either nonexistent or irrelevant to human affairs. Humans intuit that they have the ability to understand and shape their own reality. Secularism, which is rooted in Greek and Roman beliefs, became a philosophy of life in Western Europe during the “Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” from the 1620’s to the 1780’s. It then spread to the rest of the world through colonialism, Western education, and media. Secularists tend to be resistant to the gospel until they realize, usually during times of trauma, that humans are unable to “direct their [own] steps” (Jer. 10:23), that the divine and the human are interrelated.
In the story about God giving rain I revert to the secular part of my heart and heritage. Euro-American Christianity struggles to be thoroughly Christian because facets of life have become secularized.
An animistic worldview presupposes that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, animists use divination to discover which beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or to employ their power. Animism has deep roots in much of Africa and in other “tribal cultures” who organize themselves around family, lineage, and clan and who believe that the spirits of the dead (and other spiritual beings and forces) have power over and influence the living. Animism easily intertwines itself with other worldviews and religions, as illustrated by terms like “Christo-Pagan,” especially infiltrating certain forms of Pentecostalism, and “Folk Islam.” Veneration of the dead, very prevalent in traditional Shintoism in Japan and Confucianism in China, is animistic. Animism is also present in Euro-American cultures, where bookstores sell thousands of books about divination, witchcraft, and veneration of ancestors, spirits, and gods and in organized cults like Wicca. Animism often integrates itself into the fabric of more organized forms of religion.
The Bible graphically portrays God’s people struggling with animistic powers. The Old Testament shows how the Israelites were continually forced to choose between the God of Israel and the gods of the nations. Thus Moses contrasts Yahweh to the gods of Egypt by saying, “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Ex. 15:11), and Elijah on God’s behalf challenges the fertility cult of Baal (1 Kings 18). The Gospels describe a struggle between Jesus and the demonic world. Mark summarized Christ’s ministry with the statement: “And He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39; see also Matt. 4:23-24; Acts 10:38). In the Pauline Epistles the Christian’s battle is against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12) and the elementary principles of the world (Col. 2:8, 20). Although the terms change, there seems to be a consistent battle with spiritual forces throughout scripture. Animists interpret these references to spiritual powers literally; those of a secular heritage tend to overlook or deconstruct them (Note Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, pp. 95-126).
For animists to become God-followers, they must recognize that Creator God is approachable and concerned about human life, and unlike the gods, is “majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders,” the God of deliverance (Ex. 15:11). Through the death and resurrection of his Son, God has “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15).
In ministering among animistic people, I am continually amazed how simple prayer by ordinary Christians for God’s healing, His indwelling, His deliverance delivers those under Satan’s bondage. By contrast, many Christians in the West have forgotten the power of God to answer simple prayers by everyday Christians.
A pantheistic worldview perceives that an impersonal, all-pervading essence, sometimes defined as “god,” fills the universe. As droplets of water merge to become a stream, then a river, and finally an ocean, so individuals become one with the essence of the universe through meditation and achieve a change of consciousness called “enlightenment.” Thus “god” is defined not as a personal being but the energy that fills the earth. Pantheism, taken from the Greek πᾶν pan (meaning "all") and θεός theos (meaning "God"), assumes that God is the totality of existence. By meditation one merges with the oneness of the world. The end result is peace, tranquility, Nirvana—connection with the oneness of the world.
Pantheism has deep roots within classical Hinduism and Buddhism in India and Nepal and Taoism in China. The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza popularized this worldview in the West by challenging Descartes dualistic theology that separated body and soul. He rather maintained the “monist” perspective that body and spirit are one.
Westerners find pantheism enticing as they search for inward peace in a hectic world where Christianity is nominalized and personal holiness is minimized. Neglecting the spiritual disciplines of walking in relationship with God by his Spirit has opened the door to new forms of spiritual mysticism. This syncretism begins by doing rites (meditation) to calm self—to come into unity with self—rather passionate prayer to our loving and faithful Creator God (like that of David in Psalm 51). Eastern meditation seeks unity with the oneness that is within everything (which ultimately is nothing, only ourselves); Christian prayer in meditation, on the other hand, is personal communication in the Spirit with God.
As pantheists encounter living illustrations of Christian meditation, they begin to experience God as living and personal, full of compassion and distinctively holy.
A theistic worldview presupposes that God created the heavens and the earth and continues to care for that universe. A theistic worldview is as distinctive as the holy and loving God who created us, as Jesus who came to earth to show us how to live and to die for our sins, and as the Holy Spirit that indwells us and leads forward in God’s mission.
At its core theism assumes that this world is intensely personal. God, who is loving and holy, created the world with the expectation that we would walk faithfully with him. But the world is broken, fallen, infiltrated by Satan, and we struggle to find our identity under His sovereignty. Our hope, however, is not in the world as it is today but in the new heavens and the new earth that our Father will usher in with the second coming of Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The presence of Creator God walking with us and forming us as expressed in this song of worship, is central to a theistic worldview: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:31)
We believe that there are some aberration to this worldview—the reinterpretation of Jesus as a prophet and the negation of the Holy Spirit, for example, in Islam. Thus some theists follow God’s distinctive way of salvation through Jesus Christ, while others focus on submitting to and honoring Allah.
Missionaries and ministers can use this typology of worldviews to discern the intertwining influences of secularism, animism, pantheism, and theism within their host culture. While most cultures emphasize one or two of these types, influences from all four may be syncretized in various configurations. Understanding the different influences in the culture enables missionaries and ministers to encode the gospel in theological metaphors appropriate to the context.
As you read this Missiological Reflection, please share your reflections with us:
- Which worldviews compete for allegiance within my heart?
- How have I learned to express the distinctiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ within my cultural context?
You can read a full development of the Missional Helix in Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Zondervan/Harper Collins).