My dad has an uncanny ability to offend people from different cultural backgrounds. This isn’t intentional, it just, kind of, happens. My wife is English, so when my parents came over to England for the wedding, I was introducing them to some of the volunteers at the camp we worked at and where we were going to have the reception. When I introduced dad to a German girl, he said, “You know, whenever I think of Germans, I think of Nazis.”
The girls eyes turned into saucers and started to tear up. I wanted to crawl under a nearby table and disavow any relationship to this man. Then I guess realizing this wasn’t the best way to start things off, he added, half smiling, “You make the best bad guys in movies.”
I know he honestly wasn’t trying to be rude, but I still can’t figure out what was going through his head to make him say that. I quickly ushered my parents out and then later returned to apologize to the young lady, who had ran back to her room crying. Thankfully everything turned out alright when the girl met my brother the next day and took a fancy to him.
Getting into the battle
Despite my dad’s lack of cultural sensitivity, he hasn’t let this stop him from cross cultural evangelism. After my older brother married a Honduran, my dad decided to learn Spanish, and even joined a Spanish speaking assembly. I can only imagine some of the comic scenarios which went on with those interactions.
There was the time he put some extremely hot peppers on his grand daughter’s food at a potluck, but the Spanish speaking folks really appreciated my dad and he was able to get involved in the kids ministry. Today his Spanish skills have helped in reaching out to kids who come to kids club from Spanish speaking backgrounds whose parents don’t speak English.
As one missionary in an Arabic country put it, “there is no ‘cross-cultural key.’ In our evangelism, we don’t do anything differently here than we would anywhere else. Our evangelistic methods are singularly non-creative. To suggest that some people are easier to convert than others is foreign to the Scriptures. All of us, by nature, are ‘far off.’”
He goes on to note that even though everyone needs the same message, there are cultural considerations when sharing the gospel with people from different backgrounds. This missionary added that the most important thing to remember is that we need to be clear when explaining the gospel. Often the biggest barrier to sharing the gospel are the misconceptions others have about Christianity, and their own worldview that is antithetical to the gospel.
Most of the time being culturally sensitive when sharing the gospel is just being friendly. We often allow the cultural differences we have with others to scare us off, but a lot of people from different cultures and backgrounds are more open to talk about spiritual things than we might think.
When we come across people from diverse backgrounds, even if we initially make some cultural faux pas, if we extend our friendship and interest to those we are witnessing to, they will often be welcoming. Asking questions and learning about someone’s culture can open the doors of communication with people from different backgrounds. Often immigrants are homesick and are eager to talk about their home countries and way of life.
All things to all people
Paul’s well known injunction to be “all things to all people” bears repeating.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having 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. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
After traveling around the Roman empire, Paul was aware that different people needed a different approach. In order to witness to Jews he went to the synagogues and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). Later in the same chapter we see Paul reasoning in the marketplace, and then on Mars Hill.
With the pagan gentiles, Paul didn’t start off reasoning from the Scriptures, instead he began where the people were at, using some of their own basic ideas about spirituality to show them that there is one true God and that Jesus Christ is the only way to have peace with him.
Hudson Taylor’s cultural immersion comes to mind. In the mid 1800’s, he founded the China Inland Mission, and had his missionaries wear the same types of clothes, eat the same kinds food, stay in the same style of houses as the locals. This was a revolutionary approach, but all he was doing was returning to the New Testament pattern for cross cultural missions.
We can follow the same two step approach. First be aware of who we are talking to, find out what they believe and what they know about Christianity. Then start sharing the good news, addressing their misconceptions and explaining what they need to know from creation to Christ.