Naturally Encounter

Interwoven in the urban crowds are a kaleidoscope of people groups. They are diverse socio-culturally, economically, ethnically, and also linguistically, all seeing their environment through their particular worldview perspective and all with distinct values of their own. One no longer need travel outside the United States or Canada to encounter a diversity of worldviews. In fact, differing worldview perspectives are now in close proximity, as close as one's next door neighbor. The question then arises ...

What is worldview?

While visiting a small island between Okinawa, Japan and Taiwan named Irabu-jima, a researcher was asked an interesting question. A priest for one of the indigenous religions asked, “What island are you from?” As the conversation continued, it was discovered that the priest had never traveled to any other place except for the few small islands near his home island. Basically, he viewed the world as being made up of islands. As a result, from his worldview perspective, the question seemed natural. The priest's geo-political background influenced him to see the world from a specific perspective. He grew up on an island, had only traveled to a few other islands, and therefore, viewed the world from the perspective of being made up of islands.

The norms that shape how people see the world come from a variety of forms. Those norms include: (1) geo-political, (2) socio-cultural, (3) religious, (4) ethnicity, and (5) linguistic. The combination of these norms or influences shape how a person will see the world, or their worldview. The term worldview comes from the German translation of Weltanschauung. Weltanschauung is defined as “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). As A.F.C. Wallace (1970) states:

    [A worldview is] the very skeleton of concrete cognitive assumptions on which the flesh of customary behavior is hung.

Accordingly, he continues, the worldview of an individual “… may be expressed, more or less systematically, in cosmology, philosophy, ethics, religious ritual, scientific belief, and so on, but it is implicit in almost every act.” In short, worldview is a person’s overall perspective or lenses for understanding and interpreting life. It is a person’s basic assumptions of their world, providing a coherent mental and emotional map for making sense of one’s surrounding. It is expressed in the what one deems important in life (their value system) and seen through their how their behavior and ways of interacting with other people.

A person’s cultural background and upbringing shapes a person’s worldview. Exposure to different cultural practices or mores, or changes in geography or living circumstance, or significant tragedy or success — such experiences shape one’s way of thinking about life and meaning. In essence, such experiences determine one’s worldview.

A gap between worldview perspectives often exists in cross-cultural encounters, resulting in mis-communication or misunderstanding. The concept of worldview is foreign to many, if not all of us. Therefore, this article begins by illustrating where worldview comes.

Worldview Illustrated

People go through life using their worldview constructs absorbed from childhood. Throughout Asia Pacific, these constructs often come from religious rituals and rites, which all the while inform worldview. For instance, on Irabu-jima, the people’s worldview is shrouded with animism and shamanism. Accordingly, they see the world being inhabited by myriads of spirits. As such, for the people on Irabu-jima, these constructs give shape to how they relate to one another, outsiders, and the world in which they live. They, like clockwork, constantly ask the spirits for good favor. When they don't ask, they create disharmony, resulting in a poor harvest and economic success.

The people of Irabu-jima perform their religious rites and rituals asking the spirits for a good harvest. These rituals and rites not only thanked but also entreated the spirits for a good harvest. Having a long history, these rituals and rites are performed before and after a harvest. According to tradition, the spirits may be communicated with through the agency of the “yuta,” whose role is performed almost exclusively by women. The yuta is an intermediary between the spirit world and those of the village. The world that can't be seen is closely intertwined with the world of the living (Negishi, Mayumi 2000:PG). The yuta has supernatural power to see, hear and discern the cause of misfortune and advise action to be taken. These “yuta” women are consulted for ill health, dream analysis, suitability of marriage partner, matters related to the tomb, selection of a house site, economic hardships, and even politics. The yuta and her practices are deeply rooted in the social structure as one is able to see the role of women in having economic success.

Shamanism is popular and well-patronized in Irabu-jima while at the same the people reside in one of the world's most developed nations. Needless to say, the people of Irabu-jima, as is the case throughout the majority of Okinawan prefecture, move comfortably between modernism and shamanism for treatment and counsel (Allen 2002). When it comes to working among such a people, one should realize that religious rituals and rites inform how the people act and behave, how they make decisions, what they see as acceptable and unacceptable, and what they value and deem important. In other settings, other cultural phenomenon may inform worldview. Nevertheless, the values and assumptions people hold concerning the world often lead to fixed views of others, all which makes up their worldview.

Many of the people groups now residing in the United States and Canada are no different than those who reside on Irabu-jima. Many go to shamans for counsel. Many, though they go about living in modernism and even affluent homes, perform daily rituals and rites in order to maintain social harmony with the spirit and sacred world. Their worldview perspective forces them to adhere to specific assumptions and premises.

Worldview Universals

All people hold assumptions and premises concerning the world. As previously mentioned, these assumptions and values come from five different norms: (1) geo-political, (2) socio-cultural, (3) religious, (4) ethnicity, and (5) linguistic. People group formation occurs as some norms become more dominant than others in shaping one's worldview.

As an example, the western business worldview is driven by a rational economically free market society. Moreover, it is most often English language oriented. Such cultural dynamics drive the assumption that anyone can succeed economically in life if he or she only tries hard enough. Such influences give rise to valuing individualism, or the self and one's personal convictions being most valued. Therefore, the dominant norm that shapes worldview is socio-cultural.

On the other hand, many Asia people view economic success resting in the hands of the spirit world. They, in turn, delicately strive to maintain harmony with the spirit world, resulting in performing certain rites and rituals on a regular basis. Such influences give rise to valuing collectivism, or the group and loyalty being most valued. Hence, the dominant norm that shapes worldview is religious.

Often there are fine lines between the dominant norms that shape people group formation. Nevertheless, through naturally encountering people groups, one can discover the norms that are dominant in shaping a people's worldview. As a result, one will learn the basic assumptions and premises of the people group, helping to close the gap for good communication to take place as two different worldviews meet.

People also categorize cultural phenomenon. Most people recognize and categorize the family unit. However, how they group family is often different dependent upon the culture. Some people group family to include extended family groups or think in terms of clans, while others are more exclusive. Such categorization determines how people view self. For some people, self-identity rests in how others see them while in other settings it comes from how they see themselves. Moreover, for some people, self-identity rests in how they view themselves in relation to the group. In other words, they first ask, “What is good for the group?” Whereas, for others, especially those coming from an American culture, they first ask, “What is good for me?”

As another example, people categorize time, space, and cause and effect. Some people process time linearly while other people process time circularly. In terms of how people view space, when people come from different cultures that have different expressions of personal space, relationships between them can be uncomfortable. People also have different views on the cause and effect of events in their life or how to produce change. As is the case in Irabu-jima, the people view the cause of poor economic stemming from being out of harmony with the spirit world and not receiving good favors. Other people, though, might view the cause more naturally (e.g. dry weather, infertile soil, etc.).

Cross-Cultural Implications

A gap in worldview perspectives exists in cross-cultural encounters. To bridge this gap, it is needful to follow several guidelines as one naturally encounters people groups.

Be sensitive and vulnerable. Go as a learner. Being a learner begins with eating the same food that the other people eat or following protocols on entering, sustaining, and exiting conversations. Observing local customs can often stretch one beyond personal comfort zones. Nevertheless, such steps in sensitivity and vulnerability are needed if one expects to close the gap between worldview perspectives. When it comes to another people's local customs, we need to remind ourselves that our way is not always the best way it is just one way.

Learn about their context. Closing the gap also comes from studying the cross-cultural context, looking beneath the surface and asking specific questions concerning worldview. For instance, as Gesteland (2002) asks, are the people we are encountering more deal focused or relationship focused? Deal focused people, such as Americans, do not mess around in discussions. They immediately get to the point. On the other hand, relationship focused people, such as most Asians and South Americans, build and work through relationships. They, consequently, often follow certain cultural protocols before talking about certain things. A few other questions to ask would include:

  • How are group or individual decisions made?
  • Do the people come from a more informal or formal culture?
  • Do the people view time as rigid or fluid?
  • Are the people more expressive or reserved in their behavior?

Enlist cultural informants. Invite the people to tell you the "should" and "should nots" in their culture. Give these cultural informants permission to inform, correct, and modify how you speak and behave. In doing so, informants can provide valuable insider information on the deeper aspects of culture and help prevent you from breaking cultural protocols that harm relationships and widen the gap between worldviews. These cultural informants often become the lifeline of closing the gap.

Conform to their way of doing and saying things. Paying attention to one’s surrounding and the people in that surrounding is often a good way to learn how one should act, behave, and even what to say. Once observed, test the observation by mimicking such behavior and ways of speaking. By testing, you can begin to discover if what you are doing is appropriate. However, at this point, it is always appropriate to refer to your cultural informant.

What worldview perspective do the people groups near you have? Are you sensitive and vulnerable to their worldview? Have you taken time to learn their worldview and enlist cultural informants? Do you strive to conform to their way of doing things? Closing the gap between worldview perspectives helps one avoid misunderstanding and even more important mis-communication. The time and steps are a worthy investment.


    Allen, Matthew. (2002). “Therapies of Resistance? Yuta, Help-Seeking, and Identity in Okinawa.” Critical Asian Studies. 34/2 (June): 221-42.

    Gesteland, Richard R. (2002). Cross-Cultural Business Behavior. Copenhagen, Denmark: Copenhagen Business School Press.

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2007). “Worldview.”

    Negishi, Mayumi. (2000). “Animistic Rituals Run Deep in Okinawa.” The Japan Times Online. 17 July.

    Okinawa Prefecture Government. (2003). “Wonder Okinawa: Festivals and Rituals of Okinawa.” Http:// Okinawa Prefecture Government. 7 June 2007.

    Oshiro, Manabu. (2004). “Ceremonial Spaces and Traditional Performing Arts in Okinawa.” Http:// Japan Foundation Okinawa International Forum: Utaki in Okinawa and Sacred Spaces in Asia: Community Development and Cultural Heritage. 8 June 2007.

    Ryukyu Cultural Archives: Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education. (2007). “Folk Customs of the Ryukyus.” Http:// 7 June 2007.

    Wallace, A.F.C. (1970). Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.

There are no absolutes regarding naturally encountering people groups. Nevertheless, several general guidelines do exist.

Encounter people groups in natural everyday settings. Encounter should not be a sideline activity. Instead, it should be something that is part of everyday life. We meet people everyday, and every one of these encounters serves as a way for understanding a people. Hence, the Encounter process should be a part of everything we do.

A few ways to begin naturally encountering people groups include:

  • Visit Sacred, Religious Sites (e.g. Buddhist Temple, Islamic Mosque, etc.)
  • Eat at an Ethnic Restaurant (e.g. Malaysian Restaurant, Thai Restaurant, Vietnamese Restaurant, etc.)
  • Shop at an Ethnic Supermarket
  • Attend one of the Festivals
  • Go to Places that they Work

In short, the best way to begin conducting Encounter is best done by visiting the places that people groups in your locale reside, work, worship, and associate with one another. TAKE NOTE: Critical in the process of Encounter is making objective observations and asking cultural sensitive questions. Without both, one can easily draw conclusions that are not true concerning people and who they are in reality.

Be a regular. Frequent the same places where people groups gather. Attending once is not enough. Productive encounters take time which involves going back to the same places.

Watch people in context. By observing people in context, an incredibly rich understanding of what the people really need will surface.  Sometimes it is more important to take one's time and just watch what others do, how they do it, and only then ask them to explain what something means.

Ask culturally appropriate questions. Badly phrased questions produce misleading results.  Avoid closed-ended questions which encourage the answer “yes” or “no.”

Talk to the right people. Talking to people at a railway station, for example, will get answers from commuters; but if one wants information on people who stay at home with young children, then it is needful to talk to those people.  Moreover, opinion leaders often provide invaluable information but so do followers of opinion leaders, especially if they are spoken to in separate venues.

Talk to enough people. Talking to two people, for example, won't provide enough objective information. Each person talked to will give a different perspective, or piece of the puzzle, about their people group. It’s important to talk to a wide sampling of people (both men and women) from different socio-economic groups, age groups, occupations, etc. The more talked to the clearer the overall picture of your people group will be.

Keep each encounter impartial. It’s easy to encourage people to give the answer desired.  For example, by asking leading questions or smiling at the “right” answer one can induce answers that the people think you want to hear.

Interpret results with care. Draw the right conclusions from encounters is extremely important. Bear in mind that people encountered may distort answers based on what they think we want to hear.

Be realistic. It can be tempting to pick out that which confirms what we want to hear, and ignore the rest. By ignoring the rest, we can damage how we design our strategy. Be prepared, no matter how out of line with what you want to hear, to modify information and your plans based upon what the people are saying.

Focus upon the people and not the task. People are the task. Being relational and involved in the lives of the people unearths a reservoir of information of what is important to the people. Therefore, the focus of encountering is people.

Encounter validates or discredits the accuracy of information found in Examine. Not all of the information unearthed during the Process of Examine is accurate. In fact, one should scrutinize Examine information, using Encounter as a means to either validate, modify, or discredit such information.

Encounter ensures our strategies connect with who a people are. Many times, we miss key information needed to get into the minds of people groups. Without this information, the strategies we implement fall short of fitting the local context. As a result, the questions in life that the people are asking are never answered.

One only need look at the primary tool Jesus used in His teaching ministry, His parables, to understand this. Parables “connected” with the oral society in which He lived, so Jesus used them often. People understood the topics and contexts of His parables because they were part of their everyday life. Because of His understanding of the desires and needs of the people He ministered to, Jesus was able to use simple stories to connect with people and profoundly impact their lives.

When it comes to the numerous people groups now residing in the USA, do you really know what they want? Or, do you assume you know without ever digging deep enough to know whether the strategies fit the local context?

Too often we do not dig deeper into verifying the accuracy of information or into discovering new information which will provide a true understanding of people groups and impact decision making. The Encounter process can yield valuable results for improving such disconnects. In so doing, it avoids wasting time and resources. As a result, it provides a foundation to enable us to make decisions that are strategically informed as we Engage people groups.

Encounter allows us to approach people with an informed passion. Passion that is misinformed often results in misunderstanding. We have a passion to communicate a message. We should never let this passion depart. However, if the message is not communicated properly, it becomes misunderstood and even rejected for the wrong reasons. Conversely, when we take time to conduct the Encounter process, we can avoid such mis-communication traps. As Eugene Nida points out,

    Cultural anthropology only helps to guarantee that when the message is communicated, the people are more likely to understand. And it is this very fact of understanding in which may result in the people's rejecting it! But this is much better than to have them appear to accept it when they really do not understand its significance. Once, however, when a missionary has a thorough understanding of the cultural relevance of the symbols which he must employ in order to communicate, it is very much more likely that he can at least speak with meaning to the people; thus establishing the first, and indispensable level for any missionary undertaking. (1959, 114)

Passion to communicate the message of Jesus Christ is needed. Nevertheless, passion that is misinformed often results in a misunderstood message. If we do our work with informed passion, we can make a difference: a difference that sees transformation to the very core of worldview take place.

Related to this, Encounter helps us to grow in our love for our focus people groups and our desire to see God glorified among them. There really is no secret here. The more time we spend with people groups; the more we get to know and understand them; the more we know and understand them; the more we care about them; the more passionate we are that they understand who God really is. In addition, the passion we now have for them is no longer based on “head knowledge” but has become internalized as it has developed into “heart knowledge.”

Reference Cited

    Nida, Eugene A. (1959) “The Role of Cultural Anthropology in Christian Missions.” Practical Anthropology 6(03):110-116.