Communicating across cultures is hard, but it is not impossible.
If you have ever preached on a short-term mission trip, then you know the feeling.
You are up front, a bunch of unfamiliar faces staring back at you. Next to you stands your interpreter, awaiting your words so he or she can translate them into the proper language. It is awkward, saying a sentence, waiting for it to be translated, and saying another sentence, having to pause every time. With every phrase you wonder if the interpreter is communicating your thoughts correctly. You try to gauge the expressions on the faces of the people, but you are still not sure if any of it is making sense.
What is more interesting is being on the other side of that issue. After living in a foreign context and doing the hard work of language and culture acquisition, it is something else to hear a pastor or volunteer from the States attempt to preach through an interpreter. Knowing both languages, you know that the preacher’s message is getting lost in the mix. You watch the translator struggle with Western idioms and anecdotes, and you see the congregation try politely to act engaged, or at minimum, not confused.
Cross-cultural teaching is hard.
But it is not impossible. What is more, you do not have to be an expert to figure it out. There will be many hurdles along the way, but the goal is well worth the journey. In today’s world, local churches right here in America have the responsibility of learning basic skills for communicating across cultures. The world is literally on our doorstep, and God has brought unreached peoples into a neighborhood near you. With this new reality comes a great responsibility, and we must consider what it takes to share the gospel with people who do not think like us, or speak like us, or believe like us. Here are two big ideas to keep in mind when trying to communicate across cultures.
The goal is to be faithful and understandable.
As Sidney Greidanus notes, “Without genuine relevance there is no sermon.” Teaching is a moot point if the listeners cannot understand the message. With the amount of cultural and linguistic barriers, and with the sheer amount of diversity in context and worldview, it causes one to ask if it is even possible to communicate effectively across the barriers.
Nevertheless, it is a high view of Scripture that says it is possible and must be accomplished regardless of the effort. In fact, the Scriptures themselves reveal that they are cross-culturally relevant, otherwise Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations would be an impossible task. It is the unwavering belief that this text is relevant to all cultures and times that makes cross-cultural communication of its truths a worthy pursuit. It is ultimately the text that makes the sermon, lesson, or study relevant. We can inculturate it for understanding, but we do not make it relevant. The gospel is already relevant. As Greidanus says, we don’t make it relevant we show its relevance.
So the task of the cross-cultural communicator is to demonstrate the inherent relevance of the text in a way that is faithful to its meaning and understandable to its context.
There are three cultures not two.
It is common to speak in biblical interpretation about the gap between the ancient text and the contemporary context. This gap is often referred to as the space between two horizons. A horizon is simply the point of view from which the text is seen and understood. The ancient text was written in a particular culture and worldview, and it comes to us in that culture and worldview. In many ways, it is very different from the contemporary horizon, which is our culture and worldview. It is the task of the interpreter or expositor to bridge the gap.
This is true in cross-cultural teaching and evangelism as well. However, the task is complicated by the addition of yet another context. The cross-cultural teacher has to worry himself with three horizons instead of two. In a cross-cultural setting, there is space between the culture of the text and the culture of the teacher, and there is another space between the culture of the teacher and that of the student.
In some instances the divide is not so broad. In others settings, the divide appears to be a chasm. The ultimate goal is not for the teacher to bridge the gap to his own setting but bridge this gap to the setting of another. This process must consider all three cultures.
In order to do this well, local churches need to equip their members in how to read and understand the Bible well and how to learn about the cultures around them. It may sound like an overwhelming task, but neither are as hard as you might think. In essence, local church members need to know how to ask the right questions. Coming to the text in a way that is faithful to the author’s intent, or his purpose for writing it, allows us to be faithful to its intended message. In addition, if we ever want to communicate that message to someone of another culture, we need to ask the right questions of that culture. Teaching our congregations to ask the right questions goes a long way toward cross-cultural communication of the gospel that is both faithful to the text and understandable for our listeners.