Conversations with Culture (with Tom O’Toole)

Tom O'Toole is part of the team that leads Christ Church Manchester, a multi-site church that is part of the Catalyst Network in Newfrontiers. He also manages the Broadcast Network. In this hangout, Tom explores worldviews, values and secret theists as he talks about the ways Christians can engage in conversation with the culture around us.


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Christians in the World

  • In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable of a man who sowed seed, but in the night an enemy sowed weeds amongst the good seed.
  • The good seed and the weeds grew together and were not separated out until the harvest.
  • Christians and non-Christians are both growing together in the world, and will not be separated out until the end of the age.
  • Christians should not try to separate ourselves out from the world (see John 17:15).
  • There are three ways that Christians should engage with the world:
  • Exiles - This world is not our true home (see Philippians 3:20). Just like how Daniel and his colleagues were exiles in Babylon. They fully engaged in Babylonian culture, but there were areas that they wouldn't compromise. Even then, they were polite and winsome in the way they handled the situation.
  • Participants - In Jeremiah 29:4-7 the exiles in Babylon were instructed to fully participate in the life of Babylon. They were to build houses and plant gardens, get married and seek the welfare of Babylon. We should participate fully in our culture - not just retreat into a church ghetto.
  • Missionaries - Jesus has sent us out into the world as his witnesses. We're in it to win it.

Joining the Conversation

  • Most of us have conversations with friends and we would like to be helpful leading those friends to Jesus. But we don't want to shoehorn Jesus into those conversations in artificial ways. 
  • When Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), he joined in the conversation that was already going on in that culture. 
  • There are lots of conversations already going on in our culture that we want to draw into.
  • Conversations happen on three levels - small talk, values and worldview. 
  • Tom O'Toole used to think that small talk was pointless. Now he thinks it is important. It is hard to get to the other types of conversation without it. 

Worldview

  • Worldview is your way of seeing the world. 
  • Everybody has a worldview. It is the basic story through which you interpret everything else in life. 
  • A possible worldview would be that we are all plugged into 'The Matrix'. If this was your worldview, then you could explain the events of your life in such a way that reinforced it. 
  • As Christians, our worldview is centred on God and is the gospel story.
  • Depending on your worldview, you give very different answers to questions like 'what is love?' and 'why do people suffer?'
  • Some people have the worldview that we are here through entirely natural processes, having evolved through a succession of random mutations and adaptations that made is increasingly fit our environment.
  • This worldview leads to very different answers to some of the basic questions of life. 
  • We shouldn't assume that we know somebody's worldview because they tell us they are 'atheist' or 'Muslim'. We need to take the time to get to know someone to find it out. 
  • In many 'apologetics' conversations, two people are making statements that make sense based on their own worldview but not that of the person they are talking to. It is like they are talking past each other. 

Values

  • Values are the things that a person believes are important in life. 
  • Examples include family, being a moral person, art and beauty, purpose, reason, order, love, science, justice and community.
  • The same value may be held by people of different worldviews. For example, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and atheists may all think that family is important. 
  • Whilst people don't often refer to their values explicitly, they shine through in most of the things that they say.

Worldviews and Values

  • In evangelism, we tend to shoot straight for the worldview.
  • This makes sense because we are looking for the way the person sees the world to change from a worldview without God to a worldview with Jesus at the centre.
  • The difficulty in going straight for the worldview is that we don't have a starting point. We are basing our questions or statements on our own worldview, so they often don't register with the person that we are talking to.
  • You need to find a starting point within the person themselves. 
  • One way of doing this is to challenge the internal consistency of the worldview itself, but this can often lead to confrontational conversations and cliched philosophical arguments that don't achieve much.
  • Another way is to start with the values. Where you find values that you share with the person, you will find that you end up on the same side of the conversation rather than as adversaries. You will also reinforce those values in the person.
  • Worldview and values are connected. 
  • In theory, values flow from worldview - and most people believe that they are very consistent in this, regardless of whether they have ever explicitly thought it through.
  • But most people are actually much less consistent than they would like to think.
  • As you talk about values with someone, every now and then throw in the 'why' question (and if it fits the conversation, the second and even third 'why'). Try to get to the reason that person holds that value.
  • The idea is to help people to see an inconsistency between the values that they hold and their worldview.
  • Now you have a starting point - you are not asking questions from your own worldview, but rather basing them on the values that the person themselves holds. 
  • When a person sees an inconsistency between their worldview and their values, there are three possible things that can happen:
  • They change nothing and live with the inconsistency - This is quite rare. A lot of people are happy to live with inconsistency that they are unaware of, but few people are happy to consciously accept inconsistency.
  • They change their values to match their worldview - We would often call this 'radicalisation' (particularly is the person has an extreme or destructive worldview).
  • They can change their worldview to match their values - When somebody holds their values deeply, they may look for a new worldview that fits them better.

What Fits?

  • Though people of different worldviews can hold the same values, certain worldviews fit those values better than other ones.
  • Every single one of the values listed above fits more naturally  into a Christian worldview than a worldview without God.
  • For example, love. In a Christian worldview, the very nature of God is the loving relationships within the Trinity and this overflows in creation. 
  • Love as a value flows much more naturally from this than from a view of the world that is about out-surviving your competitors in order to pass on your genetic matieral.
  • There is a link that can be made from a naturalistic worldview to get you to love - but it is much more tenuous than the Christian worldview.
  • Don't just look at whether a worldview can make the link. Ask which worldview makes the link the strongest. 
  • Every single value listed above has a much stronger link to a Christian worldview. 
  • The naturalist thinker John Gray said something similar:
“Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers.” (John Gray)
  • In his book Straw Dogs, Gray chastises fellow atheists for still holding onto the values that flow from a theistic worldview and challenges them to abandon those values and be more consistent in their atheism.
  • Those who claim an atheistic worldview but try to hold on to the values that belong to theism have been described as 'secret theists'.
  • Truly consistent atheism is a bleak worldview, and very few people want to adopt the values that most naturally flow from it.
  • As we affirm true values with people and tug at the 'why' behind them, perhaps they will see that those values are true but they need a better story that can explain them.
  • That story is the gospel.

Q&A

1. How have you observed alternative worldviews infiltrate the church in competition with the Biblical worldview?
  • We want people with all sorts of worldviews to come into our church meetings.
  • We all have the tendency to have other worldviews infiltrate us - none of us are perfectly consistent. 
  • We need to ground our teaching in God's big story to reinforce a truly Biblical worldview.
2. Some people see good values as intrinsic to human nature. How do we move this focus to God?
  • It's not wrong to see good values as intrinsic to humanity. There has been good in us longer than sin (there needs to be conversation about original goodness alongside the conversation about original sin).
  • All goodness comes from God.
  • We were created to be good.
  • Jesus was perfectly good. Show people him and they will see the disparity between themselves and him and hopefully see their need for a saviour.
3. Can you give any more examples of using values to challenge or question a worldview?
  • When Tom O'Toole was a youth worker, he was working with a boy whose values were passion and music.
  • He was passionate about girls and comedy TV shows, but he saw in Tom a much deeper value of passion that came from Jesus and that drew him in.
  • Another person had reason as a value. This let him see that a worldview that held up the value of 'reason' (from Dawkins et al) wasn't actually very reasonable at all.
4. How do you help someone whose worldview has changed to come back to a Christian worldview?
  • It's the same as with someone who had never held a Christian worldview.
  • Explore values with them.
  • Also pray for them, hang out with them, share life with them, bring them into community, etc.
5. How do you help someone whose worldview and values are totally different to yours?
  • Usually, you will share some values with a person.
  • Take time to get to know them and build a relationship.
  • If you don't see common worldviews or values, then this is where small talk comes in.
6. What is the next step for a Christian who realises that their values don't match a Christian worldview?
  • It's an important step that you have seen it.
  • This is what discipleship is.
  • Speak to Christian leaders about it, pray about it, work it through with friends, read the word, accountability.
  • This will be a challenge we will all have to continually face.

Recommended Resources

In this book, Tom mentions the following books:

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