What skills do we think we need to acquire in order to communicate the Gospel overseas? The first thing most people would think of is language, but is this the only thing we have to learn?
Definitely not! We also need to study the culture of the people. If you can speak the language clearly but don’t understand the culture, misunderstandings will creep in quickly and taint their understanding of the Word of God.
There are many reasons to learn culture, but lessons from veteran church planters among the “P” people of South America will illustrate seven of them…
1. To Find Spiritual Vocabulary
An early decision facing any cross-cultural church planter is what name to use to refer to God. Our language doesn’t use the Hebrew or Greek names for God that are originally found in Scripture, but rather a generic English title for deity. We need to be able to look at different options and consider what baggage each potential name carries in the culture – and teach to address that baggage; otherwise, the people could end up assuming something about God that is entirely different than what the teacher intended to communicate.
It’s important to know their culture when talking about any spiritual concept. The “P” people had no word to represent mercy, but the missionaries learned the culture well enough to select a phrase that was clear to the people and fit the biblical concept of mercy beautifully.
2. To Find Parallels
Each culture has built-in gems that fit the biblical narrative and can help bring understanding. If they have a concept in their culture that could help bring clarity, we should use it wisely and expand their knowledge on it. For instance, the “P” people already knew that adultery, killing, lying and stealing were wrong. This common ground paved the way for communicating the concept of sinning against God (and not just against other people).
3. To Make Useful Analogies
Jesus used analogies that made sense to the society of first century Israel. The crowds would have been very familiar with an illustration such as…
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep.”
-NASB, John 10:1-2
Likewise, we can use cultural analogies to help people understand biblical concepts more easily. Among the “P” people, when someone wronged another, they demanded payment to cover the offense – such as hammocks or food. When that payment was brought, the person wronged would say, “That is enough” – and the matter would be settled for good. This custom was a beautiful illustration for the “P” people of Christ’s payment for us and how it was sufficient for the holy Father who had been wronged.
4. To Understand Their Interpretations
Different cultures see the world through totally different lenses, and we can easily misinterpret something important if we fail to look through their lens. Because the “P” people always buried all of their bodily fluids, the missionary could easily assume that they are very conscious of hygiene.
In fact, hygiene wasn’t the issue at all! Instead, the “P” people believed that if they didn’t bury fluids, the evil spirits could obtain the fluids and perform black magic on their owner. To interpret their behavior as “hygiene” would be to miss a key aspect of their belief system!
To be continued…