Cross-cultural Evangelism & Short-term Missions: How Do We Do It Well?

by Phil Thornton

There are key questions which must be asked when considering cross-cultural evangelism.

Let me begin by assuring the reader that I believe in evangelism. In fact, it is my strong belief that evangelism lies at the heart of all missionary activity that causes me to be so concerned that we “do evangelism right.”

So I pose the question: Can those who go on a short-term mission trip really do evangelism right? Yes and no, depending upon how one defines evangelism and how well prepared the short-termer is before he or she goes. The first rule of medicine is “Do no harm.” I believe we must apply the same rule to doing evangelism. Evangelism done wrongly—by the wrong people in the wrong way at the wrong time—can be detrimental, no matter how well intentioned.

Six Key Questions
There are key questions which must be asked when considering cross-cultural evangelism:

1. Can we do evangelism without knowing the language?
2. Can we do evangelism without understanding the culture?
3. Can we do evangelism without relationship?
4. Can we do evangelism from a position of power?
5. Can we do evangelism for the wrong reasons?
6. Can we do evangelism without words?

I would argue that the answer to the first five questions is a qualified “no” and the answer to the last is a qualified “yes.”

Can we do evangelism without knowing the language? Words are symbols. Symbols have meanings. Meaning is assigned to symbols by the culture in which one lives. Therefore, real communication takes place only as the two trying to communicate assign the same meaning to the symbol being used.

This presents a real problem to the one trying to communicate through an interpreter or with a limited ability in a particular language. In his chapter, “When Yes Means No and No Means Yes,” David Livermore observes that “language is more than just learning words. It includes learning general strategies for how to communicate in ways that are respectful or get information” (Livermore 2009, 115). He goes on to emphasize that language is central to effective cross-cultural communication.

Can we do evangelism without understanding the culture? The question on culture presents a similar problem. For example, the logical presentation of the gospel presented in the “Four Spiritual Laws” may work well for conceptual, linear thinkers in the West, but may not work with intuitional thinkers in the East (nothing worth proving can be proved), or concrete relational thinkers in Latin America (communicating through stories, objects, and events, rather than propositions) (Hesselgrave 1991, 199-228). Effective evangelism is contextual evangelism. While the message does not change (Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord), the methodology of doing evangelism must change from culture to culture.

Can we do evangelism without relationship? Marvin Mayers talks about the “prior question of trust,” arguing that trust is a precursor to relationship and relationship opens channels of communication (Mayers 1987, 35-40). Without relationship (i.e., trust), it is difficult to do effective evangelism.

While the message does not change (Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord), the methodology of doing evangelism must change from culture to culture.

Building cross-cultural relationships take time. This is one of the reasons I am leery of short-termers “doing evangelism.” Duane Elmer (2006) says it this way: “You can’t build trust with another person until they feel like they have been accepted by you—until they feel you value them as human beings. After trust is established, there is a greater likelihood that people will share important information” (2006, 151). Communication is made up of two things: information and relationship (Watzlawick 1967). The relationship between the persons defines communication and is, therefore, the most important part of the process.

Can we do evangelism from a position of power? Perhaps the factor that causes me the greatest pause is this one. What gives the short-termer from the West any position of power? Four answers come to mind: (1) our education, (2) our wealth, (3) our position in the world as a nation, and (4) our ability to pick up and go home at any moment.

Education has the power to eradicate ignorance and poverty and make individuals become independent by giving them choices. In the U.S., everyone has the opportunity to receive an education. Samantha Gregory explains that while the North American may not always get a degree for his or her labor, he or she does get something far more valuable: hope (Gregory n.d.). This lies beyond the reach of most people in developing nations.

Wealth is an even more potent factor. Jonathan Bonk notes that for most North Americans, “possession of wealth makes Western missionary insulation not only possible, but highly probable” (Bonk 1989, 174-180). He continues, “The independence, segregation, and isolation which come with wealth translate into an unbridgeable social gulf between the rich and the poor.”

While I would not go so far as to proclaim the gap “unbridgeable,” I would agree it is very difficult. Money is power. It takes money to buy things—even good things like land, church buildings, medicines, and Bibles. How does one who is poor answer the question, “Would you like to accept Jesus?” when the person posing the question is perceived to have the power to supply what the person in poverty needs? For those of us who work cross-culturally, access to money is both our greatest asset and greatest liability.

Unfortunately, our position of power as a nation has frequently contributed to cultural arrogance. At times, this attitude is subtle; at other times, it is blatant. But it is always present. We constantly battle the mentality that “West is best.” While all people have pride in their culture, many in the West have been indoctrinated that our way of doing things is best. We have trouble seeing the value of any method not driven by efficiency or any strategy that is not results-oriented. This type of cultural pride can spill over into how we do evangelism. If we believe that our methods are the best ways of “doing evangelism” cross-culturally, then we are expressing a cultural arrogance which can be detrimental to effective witness. All methodology is contextual, including methods of evangelism.

The short-termer always has a “back door” readily available and can always go home. He or she knows that at the end of the two weeks, one year, or four years, he or she is going home. The nationals with whom we work are also aware of this reality.

Can we do evangelism for the wrong reasons? Yes, when it is done for the purpose of self-validation. This is the idea that “I need to win another to Christ” to validate my commitment to Christ or salve my conscience with regard to the Great Commission command. For many North Americans, self-worth is based on reaching expected results (i.e., setting and reaching goals).

However, we need to remember that in our Christian witness, including short-term missions, God calls us to faithful service, not necessarily success as the culture defines it. This does not invalidate the use of numbers as a measurement of doing good work. Scripture is concerned about numbers. The Book of Acts is careful to report on the increase in the kingdom as a result of the witness of the early Church.

At the same time, we dare not let self-worth be a driving force for doing cross-cultural evangelism, not even at the subconscious level. Such an attitude or approach will be sensed by those with whom we work. Most short-termers are quite genuine in their intentions; however, even good intentions can be misinterpreted.

While leading a person to Christ may make us feel good, evangelism done right is ultimately not about our feelings or self-fulfillment. If we are not careful to continually check our motives, we can fool ourselves. We can be engaged in all kinds of activity while actually serving our own needs.

For agencies that send short-termers, the issue is more complicated. There is a shared illusion which is motivated by fear. For example, most agencies have a financial incentive to keep doing what they are doing and believing that what they are doing is good. Why? Simply because they make their living from short-term teams.

Another fear is bruising the Western ego. In other words, it makes us feel good when we “help the less fortunate.” But is it possible that such feelings simply feed our egos? If we address this attitude in those who go, will they simply seek out other organizations? Is the cost of good cross-cultural preparation perceived to be too expensive? No doubt, cross-cultural training prior to going would entail some added expense both in terms of dollars and time. Does this fear keep sending agencies from imposing such training on its team members?

So I come to the last question: Can we do evangelism without words? Is it simply impossible for short-termers to “do evangelism?” Not if we qualify what we mean by evangelism and what methods are appropriate to use in cross-cultural situations.

While short-termer’s good deeds done in love may not lead a person to an immediate decision for Christ, they will most certainly move that individual toward that decision point.

We are all familiar with the three methods of evangelism: proclamation, presence, and persuasion. I do not deny the need for proclamation/persuasion with words in evangelism. Ultimately, the essence of the gospel message will need to be explained. However, I do believe that this is often best done by national workers, or at the very least, those who have a good understanding of the culture and language (i.e., seasoned missionaries). This does not, however, diminish the impact short-termers can have.

Their presence, when carried out in a spirit of servanthood, can be a genuine means of persuasion through deeds, good works, and a sincere expression of Christian love—servant evangelism. Jesus modeled it for his disciples (John 13:13-15), then he said to them, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.”

Preaching the gospel with words can be confrontational. Sometimes, confrontation is necessary, but that is seldom the case with short-termers. Servanthood is intentionally evangelistic while not being coercive. When we serve others with no expectation of anything in return, we say to them, “I am doing this to show the love of Jesus.” Then, the Holy Spirit opens the door (usually through the person asking, “Why are you doing this?”; 1 Pet. 3:15-16) and we can respond as Peter encourages: “… if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way” (1 Pet. 3:15).

The saying is true that people are not likely to care how much you know until they know how much you care. While short-termers’ good deeds done in love may not lead a person to an immediate decision for Christ, they will most certainly move that individual toward that decision point.

Am I overlooking the work of the Holy Spirit in the evangelism process? Not at all. He empowers the messenger (Acts 1:8) and confirms the message (Mark 16:20). He works in us and through us to convict of sin (John 16:8) and transform the sinner (John 3:5-8; Tit. 3:5). But this does not give those who go on short-term missions, nor those of us who send them, the right to presume that the Holy Spirit will make up for a lack of preparation.

Over the past few decades, the discipline of missiology has developed a vast amount of knowledge about how to do cross-cultural ministry correctly. The sub-discipline of short-term missions alone has a wealth of information which has been made available to the church. Yet all too often the tendency is to ignore that information and “spiritualize” the task by saying that the Holy Spirit will guide. Granting the absolute necessity of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, we are wrong to presume that he will make up for our lack of preparation. Being prepared can be costly in terms of time and resources. But doing evangelism right demands the effort.

Do I believe in evangelism through short-term mission teams? Absolutely…when properly understood and done well. For the short-term missionary and the agencies which send them, this will take careful thought, cultural sensitivity, and a considerable amount of cross-cultural preparation. To do less is to do harm.

Bonk, Jonathan. 1989. “Missions and Mammon: Six Theses.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 13(4): 174-180.

Elmer, Duane. 2006. Cross-cultural Servanthood. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Gregory, Samantha. n.d. “The Power of Education.” Accessed February 22, 2012 from

Hesselgrave, David. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-culturally. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Livermore, David. 2009. Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Mayers, Marvin. 1987. Christianity Confronts Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Watzlawick, Paul. 1967. Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.


Phil Thornton works with Global Impact Missions, an organization which focuses on leadership training for oral learners. He is a graduate of Asbury University, Asbury Theological Seminary, and Southern Methodist University and holds a PhD in cultural anthropology.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 302-307. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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