‘Everybody needs some TLC. If you are a native English speaker, that usually means Tender Loving Care. But today I would like to help you think about Trust, Language and Culture. These are the areas we need to consider as we reach out to others with the message of the gospel.’
This is how I introduce a cross-cultural evangelism training session. It’s a course designed to equip church members to serve cross-culturally whether they serve food in an international café or run summer outreach teams in Belfast, Dublin or Cork.
I begin by greeting the group in turn. A handshake. Another handshake. I hug the third person. Then kisses on the cheek. By now people don’t know what to expect. Finally a Japanese bow from the waist.
‘So how did you feel?’ I ask.
‘I didn’t know what to do’.
Greetings set the tone for a relationship. Whilst some (kisses on the cheek) tend to communicate warmth and intimacy, the British handshake conveys equality instead. For most Asian cultures, greetings communicate respect and distance. When equipping teams to reach East Asians I go on to explain the primary need to establish trust, through genuine friendship, rather than going straight in with the gospel.
‘Break into pairs and explain to each other what an earthquake is.’
I listen in to comments about ‘tectonic plates’, ‘the earth shakes’, ‘ground rubbing up against…’ When everyone has found out how difficult it is to communicate ‘an earthquake’, I say:
‘I was under the table. I couldn’t even get to the TV to turn it on. How big was the quake and where? I was on the eighth floor of 14. The room was being pushed and pulled so violently I was sure now the whole building would soon collapse. I thought I was going to die. I was too scared even to try to get to the door and down the stairs.’ That is what an earthquake was like, for me in Tokyo in March 2011.
A careful use of language is crucial in communicating the gospel. Churches with little ethnic diversity find this section particularly useful. Some guidelines: once past general comments, don’t speak quickly, avoid long sentences, moderate your accent (I am a Yorkshire man living in Northern Ireland working in Dublin!). We also look at the trouble caused by words we seemingly share, and the gaps created by those we don’t.
If you say to me, ‘We had a storm last night’, I know what you mean. Probably. I live on a farm near Belfast. I know what a storm is like. But if you are from South Thailand and use the English word ‘storm’ you may want it to mean something quite different. Words we think we share, like spirit, Christian, or god, are understood differently and often cause confusion when presenting the gospel. One church group said to me, ‘We are currently doing bible studies where the main participants are Japanese girls who are not Christians, Ethiopian men who are Orthodox, and an Ecuadorian Catholic.’ In this context many important words the Bible study leader uses will be heard with a variety of meanings, possibly none of which is the one the leader intends.
When we talk about experiences we do not share at all, the communication gap widens alarmingly. Our experience of Jesus loving us, living within us by his Spirit, guiding us as we read his word and moving us as we pray, are difficult to communicate without resorting to the equivalent of ‘tectonic plate’ jargon. So in training sessions I split the group into pairs and ask them to describe a typical church service without using jargon. Try it yourself with a friend. Feel free to be mischievous, ‘I don’t know what you mean by…’
‘When we have a Bible study our Filipina members either come as a group of 20 or more, or don’t come at all. It’s really frustrating. Why can’t just some come?’ I was staying with a church elder before preaching at his church the following morning. So I explained why it was completely normal and culturally appropriate for them to come and go as a group, though it was confusing for the mostly Irish church members.
As friendships develop, trust is established, and we become more aware of language issues; we’ll need to learn to be culturally sensitive before we reach another’s heart with the gospel.
In one UK city, a group who come alongside Japanese and study the Bible with them, quizzed me ‘When I ask them a question, why don’t they answer? They nod, but they don’t understand. What’s going on?’
There are clear answers to questions like these. Call someone who knows the relevant culture to help you out. Or get in touch with OMF Diaspora Returnee Ministries. That’s why we are here. In the meantime, you may find my book Not So Secret (IVP) a helpful tool in learning to share the gospel across cultures.
Graham and his wife Alison spent many years working with OMF, pastoring a church in Tokyo. He is now part of the DRM team training churches and missionaries in the UK.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about their work and to book training sessions.
All three themes in this article, and much
more besides, are covered in Graham’s book
Not So Secret, available from 10ofthose:
go.omf.org/grahamorr or phone: 0330 2233423