by Don Richardson
There are two opposite kinds of errors in cross-cultural communication. One is that a missionary seeking to communicate the gospel cross-culturally may underestimate the problem.
There are two opposite kinds of errors in cross-cultural communication. One is that a missionary seeking to communicate the gospel cross-culturally may underestimate the problem.
For example, the editor of a well-known Christian magazine visited Irian Jaya back in the early days when it was still called Netherland New Guinea. He arrived at a station called Mulia, and there were several thousand Dani who had just made their initial profession of Christianity. They were curious about this outsider from America, so they arranged a speaking engagement where Dave Scoville of the Unevangelized Fields Mission would be the interpreter. Dave said to the editor before he began his address, "Please try to keep the subject matter very simple. Remember, these stone-age people are not familiar with many of the concepts of the Western world. Also, please try to keep your vocabulary simple, because I’m still rather green in the Dani language."
"Oh, I’ll remember to speak on a simple level," promised the editor. When he started his first sentence, it went something like this, "Three weeks ago I finally got my visa from the Russian Consulate in New York City and was able to fly across to Europe; then I took a train across the Iron Curtain." About that time he heard Dave Scoville heave a massive groan behind him.
The opposite error is the danger of overestimating the difficulty and insulting the intelligence of those with whom we’re trying to communicate. There’s the story of a church that had a banquet to open a mission conference. A deacon found himself sitting next to an African brother who had just arrived in the States. Someone whispered in the deacon’s ear, "This fellow on the other side of you there, he’s just arrived from Africa and he probably doesn’t know English, and he probably feels very bewildered being over here in the United States. Keep that in mind if you enter into any conversation with him." So the deacon waited until the African had his chicken on his plate, and then the deacon leaned over and said, "Munch, munch, munch. Good, eh?" The African turned and looked at him and said, "Mmm, good." Later the coffee was served and the African was downing cup after cup, so the deacon thought he’d try again. He said, "Glug, glug, glug. Good, eh?" And the African replied, "Mmm, good."
By a change of plans that the deacon hadn’t heard of, the African turned out to be the main speaker at the banquet. He stood behind the pulpit and delivered a speech in flawless English with an Oxford accent as crisp as lettuce freshly plucked from the garden. By this time the poor deacon was coming apart at the seams and wishing he could slide down under the chairs or through a crack in the floor. After the African finished his address, he walked down from the pulpit, passed the chair where the deacon was sitting, and said, "Blah, blah, blah. Good, eh?"
How can we avoid these two opposite errors? As I’ve traveled from Christian colleges to seminaries for our mission, I’ve received the impression from many students that they are overwhelmed. I know of one professor who gave lectures in a certain group of seminars arranged by a friend of mine who is truly a great missionary statesman. After the professor left, my friend said, "Our students were dismayed. It took me ten or 12 days to overcome the negative feeling that they had. He emphasized so strongly the multitude of mistakes that you can make that they were discouraged about the possibilities of future missionary work."
As I look at the problem of cross-cultural communication and as I think back on my own experience and the experiences of many people, it hasn’t been all that grim. A lot of us have done the right thing, at least part of the time. Some people must have done something right or 13 % of the population of Korea wouldn’t be Christian today. Nor would there be 100 thousand baptized believers among the Karen tribe of Burma or some 900 to 1,000 churches that have come into being in the last 2 5 years in the interior of Irian Jaya. There has been fantastic growth of the work of the gospel in so many lands, and all of this couldn’t have happened if the people concerned had been overwhelmed too greatly by the problems of cross-cultural communication.
One of the encouraging things I find in the Scriptures is the evidence that God cares about the problems of cross-cultural communications. He has foreseen them and taken certain measures to make it easier for missionaries to communicate the gospel cross-culturally. Acts 14:16, 17 says, "In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways ; yet he did not leave himself without witness." And the apostle goes on in the context to show that the beauty and the bounty of creation are at least part of that testimony to all men.
A little further on in the book of Acts is another example of God’s work in preserving himself a testimony in that Altar to the Unknown God in Athens. There is some historical background behind that altar. There was a plague in the city in 300 B.C. and the people offered sacrifices to their thousands of gods. (Someone told me they had 30,000 gods in those days.) But it didn’t help. So they had a council meeting and someone came up with the idea that there must be an unknown god who was good enough and great enough to help them. Although they didn’t know his name, they’d build an altar and inscribe upon the side of it "To the Unknown God" and offer sacrifices to him and see what happened. Well, they did, and the plague was lifted.
The people quickly turned to the worship of the 30,000 gods who hadn’t helped them, but they left the altar on the street corner, and it was still there three centuries later when the apostle arrived. As he moved about the city and saw it given over to idolatry-and I can imagine with inflation that it was 40,000 gods by that time-he was groping for some conversation opener to make the relevance of the gospel clear to the people of that city. Notice that I said "make the relevance of the gospel clear." I didn’t say "make the gospel relevant." Why not? What’s the difference? If God hasn’t already made the gospel relevant, we can’t make it any more relevant.
The gospel has a God-given relevance. It’s relevant to every man and woman-even those who reject it, those who despise it, those who don’t know about it. We can’t make it any more relevant than God has already made it, but we can make its relevance clear. And Paul found in that altar in Athens an ally- a fifth column agent planted there well in advance of his coming, and he used it. And you know what the result was.
But were the people of Athens the only ones on earth who conceived of a possible existence of an unknown god? I understand that when missionaries of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, my colleagues, arrived in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, shortly after the Nepalese government gave permission for the first missionaries to enter that land, they went on tour of a gigantic Hindu temple filled with hundreds of idols which from our viewpoint are grotesque. In one part of the temple they found an altar with no idol upon it and an inscription in Nepalese "To the Unknown God. "
Sam Moffett, a key missionary from Korea, said they had them in Korea, too. I also understand that priests of the sun in Ecuador used to go up to the temple at a certain time of the year to go through ceremonies related to the worship of the sun, but part of the incantation was this, "We worship you, 0 Sun, but if you are not God but only a created thing, then we worship the one who made you. " Even there, there was a witness at least to the existence of a god, even though his name was not known. These are what I call God’s keys to man’s cultures-things that the Spirit of God has woven into the warp and woof of the cultures of man which can enable a missionary to find some shared ground that he may use to turn their eyes upon Jesus Christ, who is the fulfiller of every genuine human ideal.
When George Bordman, Adoniram Judson’s colleague, arrived among the Karen people out in Burma during the previous century, he probably expected that it would take many years of tilling and sowing and watering of the seed of the Word of God to get the church started there. Instead, he found that the people began responding with an immediacy almost unprecedented in the 2,000-year ministry of Christian missions. Why? Because Karen people believed that their forefathers knew God but had lost the knowledge of him, but one day a teacher of truth would appear. A summer worker who just returned from working among the Karens told me they believed that the man who was to come to bring back the truth of God would carry a black book tucked under his arm.
Now that’s not mentioned in the church history books-the specific detail of the color of the book and where it was to be carried-but when Bordman went among the Karens, he carried a black leather-covered Bible tucked under his arm, having not the slightest inkling that he was fulfilling to the dot of an i the ancient expectation of those people. He died only six years after he went to Burma, but even then 57 Karens were ready to be baptized. His successor counted 7,000 baptized believers, and a few decades later the number had grown to 100,000. The work still continues to this day. God had allowed the Karen people to go their own way, but he saw to it that they took with them something that referred back to him.
Then there is Bruce Olson’s book, For This Cross I’ll Kill You. Olson, after many trials and terrors, hard knocks and errors, found himself among the Motilone people in Venezuela and Colombia. He received an arrow wound in his thigh, recovered from that, got hepatitis, and nearly died. Then he nearly died from boredom because Motilone society and their language didn’t stimulate him intellectually. But he found ways to overcome the boredom problem, and he was crying out to God for some way to make the relevance of the gospel clear to the people. He was there as a fisher of men, but how do you bait the hook for a Motilone?
Then one day as he was walking along a trail he heard someone wailing off in the distance. He left the trail, plowed through the undergrowth, broke through into a clearing and saw a Motilone man down on his hands and knees crying into a hole that he’d just dug in the ground. "God, come out of the ground, " wept the man. " God, come out of the ground. God I come out of the ground. " Olson began making inquiry and found that the Motilones had a name for God. They believed that they had once known him, but they had followed a false prophet away from God. All of their troubles and all of their sorrows were due to the fact that they had deserted the true God and followed the teaching and leading of that false prophet. But they believed that one day God would come out of the ground, and when he did, man could know him again. It seems they were digging those holes in the ground to make it easier for him to come out. What an opportunity for Bruce Olson to proclaim Jesus Christ as the God who came out of the ground in resurrection so that man might know his Father again and experience resurrection life as a bonus.
So Olson began penetrating the culture. One day a Motilone man interrupted him and turned on him to say, "You say you’re bringing God’s truth to us. Our forefathers told us that God’s truth will come to us out of the banana stalk, " That really stumped him for awhile. How could God’s truth come out of the banana stalk? You know, whenever you say something like that, you are standing on a very critical threshold, for there’s a struggle within you between your prejudice and your curiosity. If your prejudice wins out, you dismiss the thing as something juvenile, nonsensical, ridiculous, and you don’t make any further inquiry. But if your curiosity wins out, you probe further, and then you may find something that you’re glad you didn’t miss.
Bruce said to him, "What do you mean? How can God’s truth come out of the banana stalk?" The Motilone picked up a machete, walked over to a banana stalk that someone had felled and cut a chunk out of it, slit it open, and held it up before Bruce. He repeated, "God’s truth will come to us out of these layers, these fibers in the banana stalk." As Bruce looked at it, he suddenly saw that those layers of fibers resembled the interior of a book where the pages are spread apart. He got his Bible out of his pack, spread the pages, and held it beside the split banana stalk. "My dear friend," he said, "could it be that this is the banana stalk out of which God’s truth will come to you. God has caused me to bring this portion of his banana stalk to you, and I know how to read what it says. I know how to let the words out from between the fibers." He had found a freeway right into the heart of the culture, and the gospel moved in. Olson’s book goes on to tell of the remarkable transformation followed up by the reinforcement of that entire society so that it may withstand the encroachment of the exploitive world.
Some may say, "Is missionary work really that easy? You just make sure you walk in with the right color of Bible tucked under your arm and zap, you’ve got whole populations eating out of your hand." Well, it isn’t always that easy, and it wasn’t easy for Bruce Olson. But sometimes it is amazingly easy as God guides his servants to exactly the crucial thing.
Albert Brandt, under the Sudan Interior Mission, went into the Walamo area in southern Ethiopia back in the 1940s, and he didn’t know that the people in that area had a name for God. They called him Mugano, the creator God, and they really believed that Mugano was up there in spite of the fact that evil spirits held sway down on earth where man lived. There was the potential that Mugano would reveal himself, and a man named Warasa was given a vision in which he saw light-skinned strangers coming and camping under a certain sycamore tree. He was told that when these strangers came, his people should prepare their hearts to receive the word of God. So Albert Brandt and his retinue came into the valley. It was a hot day, and off in the distance they saw a sycamore. They headed for it, and when they’d pitched their tents, Warasa came around and saw these lightskinned people there under the tree. Brandt had an interpreter who could speak the local dialect, so Brandt began preaching to the people who gathered around. That interpreter, once again by the provision of God, used the name Mugano every time Albert Brandt said God.
I interviewed Howard Brandt, Albert’s son, when we were together at a mission conference. "Is this amazing story really true?" I asked. He said that it is and he had heard it many times from his father. He knows some of the people involved, "and, " he said, "as a result of the work that was generated during those days, there are now about 500 churches in the Walamo area of southern Ethiopia."
Defeat of the Bird God by Peter Wagner, written in consultation with Bill Pencille, tells how the Iori people believed in a god named Dupadu. They often prayed to him when they were short of food and asked him to show them where there was food. Once a group of Iori Indians came back from the jungle with a cache of honey in their hands and Bill said, I I How did you find that honey?" They said, "We asked Dupadu, and he showed us where it was." The Iori Indians were now worshiping a bird god who had supplanted Dupadu; yet they still knew about Dupadu and resorted to him for help whenever the bird god failed them. So Bill aligned himself with Dupadu against the bird god; hence the title, Defeat of the Bird God.
As I’ve traveled about, I’ve encountered missionaries from Japan who have come to me with pleading looks in their eyes saying, "Please, can you help us? What about the Japanese culture?" Well, Dr. Warren Webster, who is the executive secretary of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, recently told me that Conservative Baptist missionaries have made an exciting discovery.
The breakthrough began when they made a survey of the Japanese Baptist pastors and learned that from one-quarter to onethird of the pastors were former engineers. Also, many missionaries working among middle-class people in Japan noticed that of every class of people in that nation, engineers are the most responsive. They began asking why, and by consulting with the Japanese and asking questions of Japanese Christians, an answer gradually began to take shape. Apparently Buddhism is a religion in which cause and effect are virtually non-existent. Dr. Webster said that Buddhism is basically an atheistic system. There is no personal god. The end goal of everything is a sort of nothingness. And Buddhism has not taught the Japanese to regard a logical cause and effect system as integral to religious belief.
As one Japanese student, who is now a Christian and a student at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, said to Dr. Webster, "To the Japanese, religion doesn’t have to make sense. This cause and effect system doesn’t appeal to them. At least they don’t see it as necessary to religious belief. But as thousands of Japanese have begun working in laboratories and manufacturing plants and factories putting intricate machines together, studying the intricacies of electricity, the thing that stands out to them is the fact that cause and effect is absolutely important. Everywhere you scratch the surface, you find systems of cause and effect at work. The thing that caused me to become a Christian is that I came to the U.S. and I studied engineering, and I fell in love with the beauty of this cause and effect system. I extrapolated from that and reasoned that there must be a great cause to the universe, so I began reading books on Christianity to see if it had anything to say about the cause and effect relationship between God and the universe. I found that it did. Genesis 1 was the thing that stood out to me and the thing that drew me away from the Buddhist position to the Christian position."
Now Conservative Baptists are researching books written by scientists who have gone into some of the evidences for creation, and they’re trying to get these books translated into the Japanese language. More and more in their teaching they’re emphasizing creation-starting right at Genesis-to build from ground zero the importance and the supremacy of this cause and effect relationship that is taught in the first chapters of Genesis.
A missionary who doesn’t expect to find a key would probably never notice one right before him. He might be working on the language or doing something else instead of probing, sticking his nose in, keeping his ear to the ground. But if someone expects that God has probably prepared the way before him, he just has to find out what the particular preparation is that the Spirit of God has undertaken. And so you dig and you search. But if no one has ever forewarned you-hey, watch out, there may be something therethen you won’t be encouraged to take the time and the effort to look.
Reprinted by permission from Spectrum, Fall, 1978, publication of Wheaton College Graduate School of Communications.
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