by Don Dent
One of the major roles of a cross-cultural evangelist is to experiment enough to find ways to make the gospel message stick to the hearts and minds of the audience.
In The Tipping Point (2002), Malcolm Gladwell explains that ideas, like viruses, can spread through a society very much like an epidemic. He identifies the kinds of personalities and principles that are key to such “idea epidemics.” In one of the most insightful sections, he discusses how to make ideas “sticky” by slight changes in the manner in which they are presented. Sometimes a small change in “stickiness” can make the idea a lot more attractive, memorable or credible to the audience. His overall thesis is that little differences can sometimes make a big difference. He further proposes that one key to starting an epidemic is to believe that you can.
These insights from a secular business perspective affirm what we have often seen around the world in communicating the gospel to those who have never heard. We are not trying to sell cheaply the eternal message or de-emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in convincing and convicting people’s hearts and enlightening their minds. As Paul noted, however, people have difficulty responding if the trumpet call is unclear. One of the major roles of a cross-cultural evangelist then, especially among an unreached people group, is to experiment enough to find ways to make the gospel message stick to the hearts and minds of the audience. Here are some ways that may inspire your own creativity in making it stick:
1. Narrative Rather Than Propositional Presentation. Stories are loved in all societies. However, our literate, Western, evangelical heritage has often summarized the message of salvation into short statements of propositional truth. Though true, they have little appeal to many of the world’s people. Even in the US many people are more open to and more deeply impacted by stories. This is even truer of oral learners and functionally illiterate people who make up a large percentage of the world’s population. Telling a series of Bible stories involves people over time and leads them step-by-step to the Savior, in contrast to a hit-and-run approach to witnessing.
2. Summarized Overview of the Bible Story. Recently one of our missionaries, who had been working among an unreached people group for many years without much response, presented the gospel to a large number of people at a Christmas celebration. He had worked on a summarized story that began with Creation and ended with the Second Coming. He does not usually ask for a public response in such situations, but in this case he did. Almost all of the one hundred or so non-Christians there expressed interest in becoming Christians. This approach has the advantage of presenting the whole story in one sitting. Thus, the audience has a chance to synthesize a new worldview, which is necessary for true conversion.
3. The Jesus Film Packaged with Other Films. The Jesus film is one of the best ways to make the story of Jesus sticky. I heard a man who was so impressed by the film say that he did not know there were films that were so old! Missionaries are finding that showing other films with the Jesus film greatly enhances its effectiveness. For instance, in Asia it has been packaged with a trailer that shows a local Christian living out his faith. There is now a Jesus film with a new introduction that is especially useful in Muslim contexts because it briefly describes Creation to the Coming of Jesus. In Muslim societies, there is a felt need to preface the Jesus film with films about the prophets. A need also exists for a film that shows the book of Acts or how believers live in community today. Packaging the film with others can make a big difference in causing a lasting impression among the people you seek to reach.
4. Contextual Language. A number of years ago I memorized an Evangelism Explosion-type presentation in the local language I was learning. However, when I went out to use it, I could rarely get beyond the first memorized statement without being asked to stop. I went to a local believer and asked him to help me adapt it so that people would actually listen. I found that I could present the whole message far more frequently if I adopted more of the local religious terminology, rather than the church language of their near-cultural Christian neighbors. The basic language was the same, but a few critical changes in terminology made a big difference. The same has been true in many locations when the gospel is presented in the people’s heart language rather than the trade language. Good context-ualization does not lead to syncretism, but rather helps the audience understand the real message of salvation, including the difficult and scandalous parts. In a survey of several places around the world where thousands of Muslims have recently come to Christ, the availability of a Bible that uses religious terminologies common to that context has been foundational to the response.
5. Help People Discover Truth. Some of the best communication takes place when we help people discover truths rather than spoon-feed them. It is important that we give them enough guidance to discover the truths, but let them make the final connections themselves. Truths that are discovered have more credibility and are more integral to our identity. In The Mind Changer (1976), Em Griffin presents research that shows that people are less likely to later change their minds if they discover the truth themselves. This insight is also significant for church planting movement methodology since inductive Bible study is one of the best ways to help disciples stand on their own quickly. The one thing that this approach does not do is stroke our ego because we may not come off as eloquent teachers.
6. Dynamic Groups/Group Dynamics. A basic difference between some traditional ministry forms and a church planting movement methodology is drawing lost people together and evangelizing them in small groups. When this happens you have the core of a new church, and leadership has usually developed. Whether this is a family or a group of friends, in many cultures it is helpful for a group to explore new ideas together and make a group decision. There are numerous examples of this dynamic in addition to straightforward evangelistic Bible study groups. Two of the most interesting ones are literacy groups in Cambodia and agricultural radio program listener groups in India, both resulting in a very high percentage of participants coming to Christ. Find a felt need that will pull people together in a small group, then speak to that need while sharing the gospel. A group decision can result in an “instant” church.
7. Music. This one is so obvious; I don’t know why we seem constantly to ignore it. Most of us have learned much of our theology from songs, and it is often songs that help us most in a crisis. Whether it is American contemporary for the younger generation or local folk music to reach a traditional cultural group, music can be the melody that opens hearts to the gospel’s words. Many major awakenings and people movements around the world have been characterized by dynamic music. Some years ago I saw a striking example of this principle in my own home. One day I decided to try to memorize some Scripture in the local tribal language by listening to a tape of the Gospel of John put to the folk music of our chosen people group— who were considered resistant to the gospel. Suddenly, our two helpers burst into my study very uncharacteristically. They were talking so excitedly, it took a moment for me to realize they were almost dancing to the gospel. At the end of the day, they thanked me for playing their music while they worked. Even the one who was a staunch religious leader in her community was not offended by listening to John’s Gospel all day long. Ethnomusicology can lead to key breakthroughs in evangelism, discipleship and congregating.
8. Illustrations. Books with pictures will keep many people’s attention a lot longer than plain text. Even though I knew that many Muslims are offended by illustrations with religious teaching, I accidently discovered that many of my people group were attracted to illustrated stories. One day a local partner and I were in a village meeting people and giving out tracts. We gave out about twenty and decided to return in a week or two to gauge the response. When we went back, no one could remember the nineteen tracts that were all text. It seems they had not even been read. However, the one tract with illustrations had been read by numerous families in the village and they could describe its message. Based on this information, we began to develop gospel tracts and booklets that only used text to describe the illustrations. The percentage of these that were actually read skyrocketed. One common pattern was that the school children read the tract to their parents and showed them the pictures. There was no question that the illustrations made the message far more sticky. I think we are rediscovering today that narrative is a key to communicating the gospel, but we are still missing the mark with many people who are also visual learners.
9. Alongside Rather Than Face-to-face. People are sometimes far more open to what you have to say if you are doing something together. Whether this is jogging with a lost friend or washing dishes side-by-side with a neighbor, some natural defenses come down when you are on the same side of a common task. This is likely why women can often be reached through cooking and sewing groups. We should experiment more with sharing the gospel with men while working on a project together. I recently heard an agriculturalist say that men were more open to the gospel while digging a field together than while sitting in a classroom. Many years ago I got to dialogue extensively about the gospel with five previously resistant co-workers while doing manual labor together. While we worked as a team and their minds were free, they seemed far more open to discussing the gospel’s implications.
10. Encouraging Eavesdropping. I read somewhere that people are also more open to information that they overhear. There are multiple examples of people in our region who came to Christ because they were in the back room and overheard someone witness to their family member or friend. Several of our people have used this insight to talk with a Christian friend about the gospel in the presence of someone they wanted to hear. This form of communication is less confrontational and very appropriate in Asia. Try doing this over dinner in a restaurant with a believer and see if other diners eavesdrop.
11. Role-playing. Though this requires some creativity, it is a proven fact that getting someone to play a role is one of the best ways to change their attitude about something. By having unbelievers act out a Bible story or pretend to face a problem from a Christian perspective, you encourage them to experience truth. This is also a very effective form of discipleship. We see this factor at work in numerous examples across Southeast Asia: non-believers coming to Christ after providing voice-overs for the Jesus film in Sumatra; playing a role in a Christian film in Singapore; and more recently playing Satan in a drama in Cambodia. We need to experiment with building an evangelistic methodology that includes acting out Bible stories.
12. A Cup of Water. I recently asked another mission leader if he was seeing a close correlation between human needs ministry and responsiveness to the gospel. He replied that he did where the human needs ministry was integrated into proclaiming the gospel, which I have also been noting in our part of the world. When we meet human needs while we proclaim Christ as Savior, it opens doors. Recently, a village seemed on the verge of killing a local Christian worker for his witness, but he began to tell the people how he wanted to help them in practical ways. Within a short time, they had invited him back to work with them and offered to listen to his message as well. Perhaps performing the gospel is as critical in some places as proclaiming the gospel.
13. Time and Place. Sometimes the easiest way to add stickiness is just to consider the right time and place to talk about the gospel. In a high-tech urban society this might mean making appointments well in advance. In developing countries, people are often ready for visits in the late afternoon or early evening when most Americans are thinking about family time. I remember going for an early morning bike ride before worship on Sunday morning. During a rest stop (it was uphill all the way back home), I found a man and his family who were very open to talking about Christ. I was surprised at their openness until I realized they were on a family outing just looking for something to do. We need to be open to finding people at the right time and place when they are simply in the mood to chat.
14. Local Witness. May God grant cross-cultural witnesses his power and grace to effectively share the news of salvation. However, we know that any major movement must be led by local witnesses. We need to train and encourage believers to spread the gospel among their people group. I remember an experience while doing evangelism training several years ago. One night one of my students was trying to share the gospel for the first time and butchered it to pieces. I was wondering if I should step in and try to make some sense of what had been said. At that point, the young lady who was listening asked my student if she was of the same people group. When she said “yes,” the young lady said, “Thank you for finally helping me understand what it means to become a Christian.” To my amazement, she then accepted Christ. It certainly wasn’t the beauty of the presentation, but the close identity with her own ethnic group that opened her heart.
15. Bilingual Materials. For local people who are studying English in addition to their mother tongue, reading or hearing the gospel in both languages can actually deepen their understanding of the message in addition to helping them learn a second language. Some of you who have studied another language have also experienced this. I still enjoy hearing a translated message when I know both languages. It gives me an opportunity to compare the ideas presented in two different ways. Bilingual materials are often rare in Southeast Asia, so they are highly valued. The millions who are learning English may read a bilingual gospel presentation just because it offers a unique learning opportunity. We can also provide bilingual materials for volunteers and new personnel so they can witness from the day they get off the plane.
16. Private Reflection. Though some people come to Christ in group settings, many need time to reflect privately on the gospel. This is especially true where there is acute social or political pressure against becoming a believer. The role of the witness in these situations may be to give an initial personal witness and then provide materials for further reflection. After an appropriate time lapse, ask them what they think of the material. In many cases, you want them to take in the message privately, but share with you what they are learning or how they are struggling.
17. Connect the Message with Group Identity. When the message of the gospel is identified with group identity or values, it holds great power to reach a whole people. I believe this can partly explain how Baptists, one of the smallest denominations in the US in 1776, became one of the largest within the next hundred years. Baptists became identified with democratic processes and individual initiative, two strong American cultural values. Similarly, where a local language is precious to a people group, but rarely used outside, using the Bible in that language to preserve it can help the people also identify with its message. I am aware of one place where a major people movement could take place if we could convince the people that God speaks their language. Their traditional faith says they have to learn two other languages before God can speak to them. One of the most effective appeals to group identity that I have seen was one group’s use of beautiful pictures of the target people as covers and introductions to gospel tracts, Scripture portions and cassettes. The people are fascinated by materials that highlight their traditional clothing styles, but they have also responded by the thousands to the message attached to those pictures.
18. Affirm Their Highest Aspirations. Every group of people has positive aspirations. Presenting the gospel as the fulfillment of one of them can break down walls. I have seen this done where the people’s desire to restore their land has been fulfilled by the gospel and an effective agricultural project. I had a co-worker once who often tied his gospel message to government policies and issues. For a long time I could not understand why, but I finally caught on that he was connecting the gospel with the people’s highest ideals and aspirations to be good citizens. He was proving that he was a faithful citizen every time he taught the Bible, the exact opposite of what the community usually thought about Christians.
These are just a few ideas of how to make the gospel more sticky. As Gladwell says, “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically change their behavior or beliefs with the right kind of impetus” (2002, 258). We are not looking for deceptive tricks, but the message of salvation in Jesus Christ deserves the best communication possible in each context. May we have enough faith in the Holy Spirit’s power to convince lost people that we ourselves are convinced of the need to keep experimenting to find the best way to share the world’s most compelling message.
Gladwell, Malcolm. 2002. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Griffin, Emory A. 1976. The Mind Changers: The Art of Christian Persuasion. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House.
Don Dent has served for more than twenty years in Southeast Asia with the International Mission Board, SBC. He currently gives leadership to 475 missionaries.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 152-158. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.