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EveryInternational provides FREE video training to help you befriend and share your faith with international students and immigrants.

Many of us spend hours every day working on a desktop or laptop computer. Our computers might look similar and have the same basic components. So what makes them different? Each has a different operating system: it could be Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, Google’s Android OS, or Linux Operating System. How a user interacts with these machines depends on the OPERATING SYSTEM.

Human beings are far more wonderful and complex than computers. After all, we are all created in God’s image. This wonderful, profound theological truth means that each person has intrinsic value. But how we live, how we think, how we behave, and how we view the world varies greatly. And what makes these differences? We each have different backgrounds and life-stories BUT how we view the world is tied to differing worldviews, or cultural operating systems. Each cultural operating system has its own logic and presuppositions that lead to both benefits and downsides. Each cultural operating system feels different from the others. So different, in fact, that another worldview may feel wrong to us. But none is right or wrong in and of themselves; they are simply different ways that different cultures interact with the world. What are these different cultural operating systems?

In this lesson we want to focus on the three PRIMARY cultural operating systems: honor/shame, guilt/innocence, and fear/power. How could we summarize each worldview?

Shame-Honor cultures: These collectivistic cultures are common in East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. People feel shame when they fail to live up to the expectations of their family or community. Honor is the greatest social commodity.

Guilt-innocence cultures: These societies a re individualistic and tend to be in North America and Western Europe. When people break laws, they feel guilt and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify their wrong-doing.
Fear-Power cultures: These animistic cultures tend to be in sub-Saharan Africa and South America. People live in fear of evil so they pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals and alignment with powerful people.

There are a few important caveats:
No culture is only one cultural operating system (cOS),
No person is only one cOS,
There are more than three, it depends on the sociologist or anthropologist you ask, but
There are three PRIMARY cOS.

We don’t want to over-simplify something as complex as culture; however, this basic framework helps us in engaging with friends from different parts of the world.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in Genesis 3, sin entered the world. Our original parents were guilty of disobedience, felt shame, and were afraid. While different parts of the world tend to emphasize one of these realities over others, sin means that all people experience them to some degree. But we have Good News, don’t we? God sent Jesus, His only begotten Son, to address our guilt, shame, and fear through His life, death, and resurrection. He solved the problem of GUILT by living a sinless life and taking away our sins. He solved the problem of SHAME by living a perfectly honorable life while taking the world’s shame upon Himself. Our shame is replaced with the honor of becoming children of God. Jesus solved the problem of FEAR by overcoming death on the Cross. He then sent us the Holy Spirit who gives us power to be like Christ. Merely having our sins forgiven without allowing Christ to conquer our shame and fear is only a partial fix to our spiritual problems.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus showed that He was culturally attuned to whoever he spoke with–be it a Roman centurion, a Samaritan woman, a Jewish religious leader, or a child. Like his Savior, the apostle Paul also adjusted his method to the audience he was speaking to. In Paul 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 he explains:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law, so as to win those under the law . . . .To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

We have designed this resource, EveryInternational, to equip you to be more attuned and effective when you enter into your friend’s cultural operating system. I want to share a few stories to elaborate on the cultural differences between these various worldviews.

In April 2015, US President Barack Obama met with students in a 6th grade class in Washington, D.C. to promote the importance of education. While answering a student’s question, the 12-year-old moderator cut him off by saying, “I think you’ve sort of covered everything about that question.” How was this young boy perceived in the U.S.? In America, President Obama was amused by this confident 6th grader and said so. The story became big news for a day and the child moderator was celebrated in the news. The 12-year-old was viewed favorably because he represented the Western ideals of individualism, direct speech, and equality of all people, regardless of position. But how might he have been perceived in China? If a 6th grader spoke to the leader of China this way, he would have been thought of as insolent, disrespectful, and a source of dishonor in the nation. His parents and extended family would have felt shame and been publicly denounced for not raising him properly.

A U.S. retirement & investment company wanted to expand into Latin America. They asked a cultural expert about the quality of their website and printed materials which showed an older couple smiling and holding hands on a beach. This promotional material worked well in the United States since Americans are so individualistic. The cultural expert, though, emphasized the role of family and community in Latin America. The expert suggested that the company use photos of the couple’s adult children & grandchildren.

A Japanese woman with liver cancer went to visit her sisters, who knew she was dying. They had not seen her for decades since they lived overseas. The sick woman greeted her sisters with no major emotions. They went sight-seeing and acted as if nothing was wrong. When they parted, they gave reserved farewells, even though they would never see each other again. Not speaking about the cancer was a way to preserve honor and maintain harmony. While Americans tend to be very open about sharing health problems with family members and even friends, it is not so in Japan.

An anthropologist went to Africa for research. He asked a group of kids to race to a tree. Whoever got there first would receive a basket of fruit. When the scientist said “Go, the children all joined hands and raced to the tree together. Then, they shared the fruit. When asked why they had done that, the children yelled, “Ubuntu! Ubuntu!” which means “I am, because we are.” Some parts of the world emphasize competition from an early age. Most American, Canadian or British children would run hard to be the first to the tree. In collectivistic cultures, though, a person is only a person because of his relationship with others. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Africans have a thing called ubuntu. We believe that a person is a person through other persons. That my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.”

These stories aim to illustrate some differences between honor/shame and guilt/innocence cultures. But what about fear/power as a cultural operating system? In 1982 the missiologist Paul Hiebert wrote an article entitled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” He argued that the Western worldview has been so impacted by scientific rationalism that we exclude the “middle” dimension of spiritual forces in our world. We ignore the real presence of spiritual beings in our world or we dismiss them as “unscientific superstition”. In The 3D Gospel Jayson Georges explains some common practices in fear/power cultures:

To protect a vulnerable newborn baby from harm, parents paint an image on her forehead to ward off evil spirits.
To inflict revenge, an offended person may burn a picture of an enemy.
To promote fertility, a couple may visit a holy mountain to pray.
To contain a contagious disease, the village elders may sacrifice a bull to appease the spirits.

Seeing these vivid cultural differences suggests humility when we meet others from different nations. Asking questions, rather than making assumptions is a good approach. Their culture has a beauty that may help us to become better, well-rounded people ourselves.

EveryInternational is so committed to helping you to enter into new cultures effectively that we have included content on these cultural operating systems in two other lessons. One is by my friend Denis and is called “Entering Multiple Cultures” and the other, which I present, is titled “Explaining the Gospel to Honor-Shame Cultures.” If you are interested in learning more, please check those out!


Cultural Operating Systems


How we view the world is tied to differing worldviews, or cultural operating systems. Honor-Shame, Guilt-Innocence, and Fear-Power are the three primary worldviews. In this lesson Chris explains each, shares some stories, and gives examples that illustrate what they look like in our friend’s lives.

How we view the world is tied to differing worldviews, or cultural operating systems. Honor-Shame, Guilt-Innocence, and Fear-Power are the three primary worldviews. In this lesson Chris explains each, shares some stories, and gives examples that illustrate what they look like in our friend’s lives.