By Scott McConnell
Missiologists often describe three worldviews different cultures exhibit: innocence-guilt, power-fear, and honor-shame.
The innocence-guilt worldview believes being and doing right is what matters most. Much of what is considered right in these cultures has been codified in law, so following the law is very important.
The power-fear worldview says overcoming fear by tapping into power matters most. Typically, that power is believed to be accessed from the spirit world.
The honor-shame worldview says the honor and wellbeing of your group, tribe, or extended family matters most.
While the innocence-guilt worldview is predominant in the United States and European nations, power-fear is common in many African and Caribbean countries, and honor-shame is frequently found in Asian countries.There are three types of worldviews within our culture — innocence-guilt, power-fear, and honor-shame — but most Americans only focus on the first type. Click To Tweet
It’s helpful to understand the innocence-guilt worldview as we consider ministry in the United States, but immigration and social media have led to the rise of other worldviews in the United States as well. As local churches reach their communities, it’s wise to seek to understand how people may perceive your messages in different ways.
Scripture directly addresses each of these worldviews in the description of the fall of man in Genesis 3. In verse 3, Adam and Eve were guilty of breaking the only command God had given them (innocence-guilt). In verse 7, they were immediately ashamed and sought to cover their nakedness (honor-shame). In verse 10, at the sound of God walking in the garden, Adam and Eve hid because they were afraid (power-fear).
While the innocence-guilt worldview is the often best descriptor for the American culture, we see the influence of other worldviews as well. Much like Adam and Eve in the garden, all three worldviews are at play in many situations.
A study from Lifeway Research found 41% of Americans say they most seek to avoid fear, while 24% say shame and 22% say guilt. While this doesn’t capture all the nuances of these worldview concepts, we see not all Americans are motivated in the same way. Guilt is not, or is no longer, the greatest negative motivator for individuals. Following the rules isn’t the whole story.Guilt is not, or is no longer, the greatest negative motivator for individuals, according to a Lifeway Research study, but our gospel presentations still almost exclusively focus on guilt. Click To Tweet
When asked which of three desires is strongest in their lives, 32% of Americans said the desire to overcome (influenced by the power-fear worldview). Another 24% said the desire for respect (influenced by the honor-shame worldview), and 36% selected the desire for personal freedom (influenced by the innocence-guilt worldview). While Americans are quick to protect personal freedoms with laws, more than half of Americans are motivated in other ways as they seek to overcome injustice or disrespect they feel.
Elements of the power-fear worldview are common in the United States. When asked which of three outcomes they value most, 45% of Americans said “obtaining security and safety,” while 25% said “reaching my potential” and 24% said “bringing honor to my family and friends.”
For Americans, their primary fear isn’t something in the spirit world. It’s fear for personal safety as they live in or travel through high-crime areas or as someone in their lives has been abusive or has harassed them. These are profound experiences that change how a person processes information, experiences, and the people around them.
The idea of “bringing honor to my family and friends” best captures the essence of the honor-shame worldview. This is the opposite of an individualistic outlook, focusing on the well-being of the group you are a part of instead of on yourself. Significantly, a quarter of Americans see their world from this perspective. For them, a win is only achieved if it helps the group.
The presence of the power-fear worldview is also evident as 60% of Americans said it angers them most when someone suffers unfairly. Meanwhile, 29% said it angers them most when someone breaks the law and 5% when someone embarrasses their community.
It’s worth noting the concept of shame, while present in America, has few synonyms in the English language. While embarrassment is a related word, it is trivial in comparison to shame—like spilling coffee on your shirt compared to committing adultery. The coffee stain brings some embarrassment to the individual, but adultery brings shame to the entire family.Twice as many Americans are angered more by someone suffering unfairly than someone breaking the law, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Twice as many Americans are angered more by someone suffering unfairly than someone breaking the law. In some cases, these are two descriptions of the same event. Other times these groups are gravitating toward different events. Concern for unfair treatment fits with the power-fear worldview but also informs how Americans define right and wrong.
The innocence-guilt worldview is a framework of right and wrong. If you listen to political candidates in the United States, you’ll hear a constant appeal to what is right and condemnation of what’s wrong. But the innocence-guilt worldview isn’t limited to legal right and wrong even though the name consists of legal terms. Responses to this question emphasize that there are standards of fairness, beyond the letter of the law, which strongly motivate people.
All three of these worldviews are present in some form in our communities. Yet the approaches American believers use to share the gospel are often limited to meeting needs of the innocence-guilt worldview. For example, we use the “Romans Road” to share the opportunity for salvation from the guilt of sin. Paul wrote these words to the church in Rome, one of the first societies with uniformly enforced laws. This was an innocence-guilt culture where the need to deal with guilt mattered greatly.
However, if you know you’re talking to a person who sees the world through a lens of power-fear, the salvation they’ll care about most is salvation from fear. In fact, when Peter was sharing with Cornelius, he shared the truth from this perspective. He emphasized the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36, CSB) not the good news of salvation from guilt. He went on to describe Jesus’s ministry as “doing good and healing all who were under the tyranny of the devil,” (Acts 10:38, CSB). Sin not only brings guilt, but it also enslaves. Peter appealed to the power-fear worldview by proclaiming the healing and shalom that Jesus offers.The beauty of the gospel is that it’s good news for salvation from guilt, fear, and shame. Jesus Christ satisfies these needs that everyone prioritizes a little differently. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
But Jesus also provides deliverance from shame. As sinful humans we will all let our families and groups down. Someone driven by the honor-shame worldview longs to hear there is deliverance from this shame. Paul describes this saying, “You received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs,” (Romans 8:15b-17a, CSB). The gospel offers the honor of being a child of the King of kings and a part of His family.
The beauty of the gospel is that it’s good news for salvation from guilt, fear, and shame. Jesus Christ satisfies these needs that everyone prioritizes a little differently. To share the gospel well in our communities, we must make our appeal to people holding each worldview.
Scott is the executive director of Lifeway Research.