Several years ago, I was serving as an elder in an English-speaking international church in the Netherlands which was without a pastor at the time. After praying and looking through about 200 resumes, the search committee settled on inviting a mature, experienced American pastor to candidate for the position. He, of course, preached in our church service. After the service, I casually asked various members from our ethnic diversified church if they had any thoughts regarding the preaching of this man. In asking the opinion of several members I noticed that three of the people told me something like this: “The content of the message was good, but this man is not a serious preacher. He takes God’s Word too lightly.” I followed up with a question, “Why would you think this?” The answer was basically the same with all three. “He put his hands in his pocket at different times while preaching!” I realized that all three of the people who gave this reply were Dutch. I learned that day that good and serious preachers would never put their hands in their pockets during any type of preaching or teaching of God’s Word in Dutch culture. For these three Dutch people, he was not a preacher to be considered for the position. In their minds he had cut himself off from future ministry in our church.
That scenario serves as a good reminder that preaching and teaching in another culture is more than mere words. Having personally spent almost thirty-five years as a missionary in Western Europe (Belgium and the Netherlands), I have observed how many preachers and communicators of the gospel, especially those from the West, have seriously underestimated the cultural factors in communication. We have to remind ourselves that every person is looking at life and hearing the biblical message through their “cultural glasses.” A prime example comes from Paul’s experience on Malta. Having been shipwrecked and needing warmth, Paul gathered some sticks and put them on the fire, but a viper crawled out and bit Paul’s hand. Notice the people’s reaction. “When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer.’” But because he did not die, Scripture says of the people, “they changed their minds and said that he was a god” (Acts 28:1-6). Why this response? It is undoubtedly due to the worldview of these pagan people. They were seeing everything through their cultural grid. Thus, they were interpreting the event in light of their own culture. This is normal. Everyone does it.
Every minister in a cross-cultural setting must take seriously the culture where he is ministering. We should become students of the culture for at least two basic reasons.
Don’t Create Unnecessary Barriers to the Gospel
Every minister in a cross-cultural setting must take seriously the culture where he is ministering.
First, we must avoid creating unnecessary barriers to the gospel. The gospel, of course, is counter-cultural, but as missionaries we can unknowingly create additional barriers that hinder the gospel if we are not aware of the culture. In the early church “the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). One of the first problems that arose in the early church was cultural. A problem rose between people who spoke Greek and had absorbed Greek culture and those that were thoroughly Hebrew, speaking Hebrew or Aramaic and living fully in Jewish culture. In light of this passage, MacArthur says: “Some of the racial and cultural hostility carried over into the church.” (MacArthur, TMNTC, Acts 1-12, p. 178) This is indeed a cultural problem. Interestingly, the apostles solved the problem in a cultural way—all of those appointed (6:5) were Hellenists.
In preaching to people in another culture, we can never assume that words like salvation, sin, heaven, Jesus, and God are clearly understood because all our hearers will hear these words through their cultural lenses. All of these words will most likely convey different images and meaning in the minds of the hearers in a cross-cultural setting. A practical example from my missionary experience: At first sight a number of evangelicals in Belgium became exited when the Roman Catholic Church called for the “Evangelization of Belgium.” However, I learned quite quickly that the Roman Catholic idea of evangelism is much different than that of evangelicals. For the Roman Church, evangelism entailed merely inviting fallen Roman Catholics back to the Roman Church. That was it. No preaching of the gospel.
In preaching the gospel in another culture, we must not forget that every behavior of the preacher, his mannerism, his facial expression, his dress, and even the way he stands communicates something. All will be interpreted in light of the worldview of those who are listening to the message. Frankly, missionaries who are not concerned how they relate and communicate to people immersed in another culture are in danger of hindering the advance of the gospel. Missionaries who are culturally aware are more apt to get a hearing for the gospel. This was on the mind of Paul as he entered cultures. To the Jew he became a Jew, to those outside of the Law, that is, Gentiles, he “became as one outside of the law.” (1 Cor 9:21)
Culture is complex, especially in relation to the communication of the gospel.
Culture is complex, especially in relation to the communication of the gospel. Understanding of the culture is of great importance, if the missionary desires to communicate effectively the message of Jesus Christ.
Don’t Hinder Ministry Effectiveness
Second, we must not limit or hinder our ministry by failing to become students of the culture. In some cases, missionaries bring things to cultures that are not biblical, but are more driven by their own culture. I witnessed the unfortunate demise of a Korean missionary in Belgium. As his French language ability increased, he seemed to increasingly make attempts to alter church culture in Belgium by imposing Korean spiritual discipline practices on them. At one time, he severely condemned the spirituality of Belgian Christians, denigrating them for not gathering for early morning prayer meetings—a practice common in his native culture. He seriously criticized the spirituality of the Belgians based on his own cultural lens. As a result, he lost ministry opportunities among Belgians. They began to withdraw from him when it came to ministry. Although he desired to make a life of ministry in Belgium, his missionary career was cut short because he did not understand the Belgian church culture. Discouraged, he left the mission field. Every missionary must understand the culture they’re ministering in, lest they run the risk of a diminished or failed ministry.