Re-presenting the gospel

Mark Gillespie

You may have a very clear understanding of the Christian gospel. But how is the same gospel message received by people whose cultural experience is different to yours?

It is thought that there are three major cultural groups of the world: guilt-innocence, shame-honour and fear-power. Jayson Georges describes these in more depth in his book ‘The 3D Gospel’*.  The culture you were born into affects the way in which you understand God’s gift of salvation. So the way we explain the gospel from our own background may not be as clear to someone who has been shaped by another. 
 
In broad terms, the guilt-innocence culture can be classed as largely Western, the shame-honour culture largely Eastern, and the fear-power culture as having animistic roots and often tribal.

  • Western Christianity reflects a guilt-innocence response because the culture is based on strong concepts of legal justice and personal accountability. Thus the idea that Jesus died to make atonement for our sins – to take the punishment we deserved – is easy to grasp.
  • A shame-honour culture will put much greater emphasis on family and community. Wrongdoing will result in collective shame and being put out of fellowship; individual sin brings dishonour for everyone. It’s no wonder that the promise to make Abraham a father of nations and God’s special relationship with Israel is welcomed in this culture. Becoming an heir in God’s kingdom restores lost honour: to be a Christian is to become part of the best community of all.
  • In fear-power cultures spiritual realities take precedence. They can relate easily to the words of Ephesians 6:12 that ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against rulers… against the cosmic powers over this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil’. In this culture the power of Satan is a daily reality; wrongdoing can be atoned for and bad luck avoided if you appease the right spirit with a ritual or tribute. But during his earthly ministry Jesus demonstrated his holy authority over these evil spirits and then God demonstrated his ultimate sovereignty over Satan with his work at the cross. The Christian need no longer fear the powers of darkness.

There is no right or wrong way here; it’s easy to see how different cultures will emphasise different parts of the gospel story. 

Paul knew this when he wrote, ‘to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God [power], that they may receive forgiveness of sins [innocence] and a place among those who are sanctified by faith [honour] in me (Jesus)’ (Acts 26:18). These three strands never work in isolation but are given greater prominence in one culture or another. Which is what makes the Bible such a remarkable book and why it is so important to base our mission on the whole of Scripture, not our own cultural response to it. 

It also shows us how careful we need to be when taking the gospel into a culture other than our own. It’s always the same gospel but how it meets the deepest longings in other people’s lives will always be different. In this age of global travel and multi-cultural communities this is going to become more of a challenge – and an opportunity.

Questions to consider:

  • How do you see these three cultural identities at work in your community?
  • Does any part of how you understand the gospel lack the perspective of other cultures?
  • Your other-faith neighbours have been living in your community since childhood. How do you begin to share the gospel with them?

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*The 3D Gospel by Jayson Georges published by Timē Press 2017