June 20, 2024

In communicating the gospel message, whether through Bible stories or Discovery Bible Studies, we need to be aware that our hearers will interpret what they hear through their worldviews. In a 1993 issue of the MARC Newsletter, Bryant Myers wrote about what happened after showing the Jesus Film in a Fulani village in Africa:

The white missionary walked back to the village with the women, listening to their animated conversation. Something didn’t make sense. “What was it that so captivated your attention?” He asked.

“The Christian man from the coast who made the magic!” they exclaimed. Confused, he asked, “What magic?”

“We’ve never seen a shaman who had the power to make people get up and move about on a sheet and talk,” they explained.

What message had the village women heard? From the point of view of the missionaries showing the Jesus film, they had heard the good news about Jesus Christ, but most of the women talked about magic and power. The message that they took away was that the West African Christians from the city had a magic more powerful than any they had ever seen.

Bryant Myers, “What Message did they receive?” MARC Newsletter, December 1993, 3.

In this situation, the novelty of the media was interpreted in the light of their worldview. Yet it illustrates that recipients of communication will decode a message to fit their own worldview, not the worldview of the speaker. It is naïve to think that the message of the gospel will be understood through isolated stories. The gospel stories will be interpreted to conform to the worldview metanarrative of the listeners. A worldview sets the parameters of what is real or possible. It provides the interpretive framework for new information and experience. Robert Strauss writes,

If all the hearer hears is narrative bits, the hearer will not interpret narrative bits through the comprehensive whole of the Bible, but through the existing metanarrative in which he already sees himself. He already is “in a story,” whether Mahayana Buddhism, Folk Islam, or secular materialism.

Strauss, Introducing Story-Strategic Methods, 68

A sender encodes the message of the story through a cultural worldview grid. But the receiver from a different local context decodes the message through a different cultural worldview grid. Just because a message is delivered in the medium of oral or written story does not resolve the basic issue in communication of encoding and decoding.

Strauss, 76.

It is the responsibility of the cross-cultural communicator to study and understand the worldview of their focus audience. Cultural stories provide a window into the worldview of a people group. We need to study and understand the worldview of our own culture as well. Through this process, in the words of Paul Hiebert:

In a sense, missionaries experience a double conversion – we learn to see the world through the eyes of others, and we learn to see the way in which we have learned to see reality. Both worldviews are brought under the scrutiny of the gospel, and both must be transformed by it. Seeing the world through two sets of eyes relativizes both and makes it easier for us to see the deep changes that are needed in our own worldview as well as in those of the people we serve.

 Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 321.

Awareness of worldview influence in both the encoding (on our part) and the decoding (on our hearers’ part) will go a long way in minimizing misunderstanding. The gospel is only coherent when interpreted within the worldview metanarrative of the whole Bible. This requires that we situate the passage or story within the Bible’s story-line (see my blog post on this topic).

It is important that we don’t give the impression that it is only the host culture’s worldview that must be transformed by Scripture. We must model transformation of our own culture’s worldview. We are fellow travelers in this process of “leading every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5b).”

Recommended Reading:

Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change.

Michael Matthews, A Novel Approach: The Significance of Story in Interpreting and Communicating Reality.   See my book review.

Robert Strauss, Introducing Story-Strategic Methods: Twelve Steps toward Effective Engagement.

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