I get this question a lot, so I thought it fitting to address it in a post.
With the remarkable diversity we find around ourselves today, we can no longer assume we understand someone’s religious background. This is obvious when we talk about discovering and engaging unreached people groups around us. Discovery is more than finding out where people live around us, it is finding out about who lives around us. Part of discovery is cultural acquisition, or learning someone’s culture. That is not as hard as it sounds, and there are five simple categories you can consider to learn someone’s culture. Faith is one of them.
But this issue is wider than working with internationals. I have a hunch that the average American Christian (faithful, church-attending believer) does not know as much about the average American’s religion as they think they do. We have grown up hearing people say they are Christians and we take it at face value. Or, people claim to be “non-religious” or “nones” on the census survey. However, I am convinced that these terms do little to actually tell us what someone believes. In fact, neither do the terms Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Atheist.
Nevertheless, when I tell people that part of discovery is learning someone’s religion, they most frequently treat it like a check box. They will ask, “What religion are you?” Their new friend responds with, “Muslim.” Then it is done. There is no follow up on what this actually means to that person. Instead, a bucket load of assumptions are dumped on to that person about what they believe. However, two different people who say they are Muslim will mean very different things by that term. Just like two different people who merely say they are Christian may have totally different belief systems.
We must dig deeper.
When proclaiming the gospel, we need more than the religious label someone applies to herself. We need to know what they believe.
Questions are powerful.
The gospel is a message to share, but that also means it must be understood. I’m as guilty as the next person. When I want to share some news, I am often more concerned about saying what I want to say than hearing what others have to say. But, if we are to present the message of the gospel with clarity and understanding, then we need to understand the audience. The best way to do so is by asking the right questions.
I encourage you to take a look at the gospels and see how often Jesus asks questions when he’s teaching, preaching, or in dialogue with others. Jesus knew and practiced the art of asking the right questions. In his book, Questioning Evangelism, Randy Newman points to the power of questions to truly understand others and share the gospel with understanding.
Everyone has a religion.
Even people who say they are not religious, or classify themselves as “nones,” or claim Atheism have a set of beliefs. People seem to miss this fact. Every single person lives their life operating out of a belief system. Some believe there is a God who upholds the universe. Others believe there is an invisible fact of nature called Science that causes everything to be the way that it is. Now, my point here is not to debate the relationship between faith and science. Suffice it to say they have one, and Christians shouldn’t be scared of science. My point though is deeper. Everyone believes in something. Everyone has a big story in their head that they think explains everything. The gospel operates this way as well, except the gospel is the one true story of the whole world. It can be shared in many ways, but an easy one to remember breaks it into four separate acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
If you want to share the gospel with people in a way that makes sense to them, you do well to find out what captivates their beliefs. The following simple questions allow you to move past that religious label and find out what people actually believe. Knowing the answers to these questions reveals more than which religious box they would check on a survey, it shows you their worldview. In addition, they each analog with one of the major acts in the gospel story mentioned above.
Where did it all come from?
This first question frames a person’s worldview. Everyone has an answer, and people answers will be very different. For some, a personal force (a god of some form) made the universe. For others, it was a collection of impersonal forces (think Science) that caused existence. For others even, there is no beginning. They have a circular worldview and there is no beginning and no end, just cycles of life.
Knowing the answer to this question is important, as the gospel speaks differently to each of these worldviews. Of course, the gospel story starts with God’s good creation that met its climax in man (actually God didn’t say “very good” until he created woman!).
Where did it all go wrong?
Most reasonable people will admit that the world has problems. However, few have thought through why. If they have, then their answers are all over the map. Some blame politics, others blame religion. Some will say that no one is perfect. Others will admit that people are evil. Regardless, this is an important question to understand anyone’s belief system.
The gospel story speaks to this question with humanity’s fall. When the fall happened God’s good creation, while still essentially good, was radically directed toward evil. Humanity’s sin affected all of creation and society. Wars, famines, natural disasters, poverty, and eventually death are the results of sin.
What, if anything, can fix it?
In my experience, most non-Christians find this question hard to answer. Many worldviews have little to offer in terms of a solution. Many think there is no solution. Others think it comes through better government, or better economy, or more learning, but these are the same things they listed as the problem above! On a personal level, people all have a functional savior that answers this question in their own life. It may be a better job and finances, or it may the search for happiness, or it may be legalistically following the rules of a holy book (be that the Bible or the Qu’ran).
The gospel story tells us there is only one thing that can remove the stain of sin, and that one thing is ultimately nothing that we can do. Humanity’s problem is bigger than any manmade solution. It took God himself stepping into his creation in order to redeem it. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ ultimately crushes evil. It fixes the brokenness, both in society and in our own hearts.
What will happen when this is all over?
Finally, a full understanding of someone’s beliefs is not complete without knowing their understanding of eternity. They may not believe in eternity. They may think life is over when they shut their eyes for the last time, or they may believe in reincarnation. However, everyone has to come to grips with both their individual destiny and the destiny of all of the universe. Those are big questions, and they will usually get someone thinking.
Certainly, the gospel story has much to say concerning the end of all things. While many worldviews have a grim finish line, the Christian story is one that ends in great victory. The ultimate restoration of all things under the total lordship of Christ himself is the glorious promise of the gospel. The Christian has unwavering hope, because we know that the current sin-sickness is not the end of the story. We await a king and a glorious kingdom that will have no end.