When we arrived in the Middle East over a decade ago, my wife and I were anxious to start learning Arabic as soon as possible.
We knew that language acquisition would be crucial for ministry in our new country, and we were ready to throw ourselves into full-time study. Just a few days after arriving, we were introduced to a language teacher and started studying with him multiple hours each day.
We understood the importance of hospitality in Arab societies, so shortly after starting our studies, my wife got up during a break to serve refreshments to our teacher. Trying to be as culturally appropriate as possible, she carefully brought out a tray laden with glasses of water. My wife presented the tray to our teacher, and in a serious tone, he looked at her and said, “Don’t ever do that again!”
We were both taken aback. What had she done wrong? She had gathered matching decorative glasses, clean filtered water, and a nice silver tray.
Our teacher explained, “Those glasses are not full enough.” Even though my wife had filled them within an inch of the top, that was not considered full. Confused, she tried to explain that she didn’t want to spill the water—she was not used to carrying items on a tray.
He replied, “It doesn’t matter if they spill—fill them all the way to the top!” In my wife’s attempt to be clean and careful, she had inadvertently shamed our guest by presenting him with a glass that was only partially full, as if he wasn’t worthy of a full glass. We learned a vital lesson that day. We had been told that language and culture were inseparable, but we soon found out that, although we were often given much grace for our incorrect and broken Arabic, there was very little grace given for cultural mistakes or misunderstandings. An offense was not soon forgotten. We quickly became avid students of the culture around us.
When we think of cross-cultural ministry—especially among unreached people groups—we acknowledge the need to acquire the language of those with whom we are trying to communicate. So, we set up a language learning schedule and have measurable goals that we can test and assess. When we speak of cultural acquisition, however, we often see it as a burden we have to endure, or simply a consequence of living cross-culturally.
When we speak of culture, we are referring to “the beliefs that people hold about reality, the norms that guide their behavior, the values that orient their moral commitments, and the symbols through which these beliefs, norms, and values are communicated.”1
The problem is that we are often blissfully unaware of our own culture, or of the fact that others may view the same circumstances or situations differently. Without an awareness of the perceptions of those around us, we can make some very serious mistakes before we realize what is happening.
Without adapting to the culture of the unreached people groups we are seeking to reach, we risk making three serious mistakes:
1. WE CAN INADVERTENTLY HINDER THE SPREAD OF THE GOSPEL.
If I offend someone before the gospel has an opportunity to confront their sinful heart, I have failed. When we cross cultures for the sake of Christ, we become subject to the culture we enter. This can be a very humbling, painful experience as we willinglylay aside our own systems, thought processes, and ideals, and seek to understand and adapt to the values of our host culture.
2. WE CAN SAY THINGS THAT ARE NOT UNDERSTOOD.
While the truths of Scripture never change, how these ideas are perceived and understood can vary dramatically from one culture to another. Without a grasp of how the people around us understand the basic elements of life, we cannot be confident that we are communicating clearly, even if our language is impeccable. Concepts like love, forgiveness, redemption, sin, and eternity can be understood very differently by different societies, and miscommunication can happen despite our good intentions.
3. WE CAN LEAVE FALSE IDEAS UNCONFRONTED BY THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL.
If we do not clearly understand the core values and religious beliefs of a people group, we cannot be confident that, as they consider the gospel message, they truly grasp concepts like the sufficiency of Christ or the exclusivity of the cross. Historic examples from work among unreached people groups have demonstrated the risks of an incomplete understanding of the gospel. If people do not truly understand the truths of God’s Word, they may add Jesus to a list of gods they worship or profess a conversion experience as simply another good work they hope will win God’s favor. We must understand the cultural lens of our listeners to prevent dangerous misunderstandings.
As these three warnings illustrate, global workers must passionately and actively adapt to different cultures to reach unreached people groups with the gospel.
Adapting to culture takes humility—a dying to self and our old culture. Culture is not sacred or holy. Our way is not always better or right. As we listen to the conversations, fears, dreams, and goals of those in our host culture, we will start to understand what is important to them. We will begin to glimpse their mind and soul and see how the good news of Jesus Christ could answer the deep longings of their heart.
We must enter a new culture as a humble servant—a slave to Jesus and to those he has called us to reach. As cross-cultural image bearers of Christ, our goal is to make the gospel beautiful to those around us. Just as Paul challenged in Titus 2:9-10, “Urge slaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be pleasing, not argumentative, not stealing, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.”
As we respect, understand, and love our new neighbors, we can pray that the eyes that have been blinded by the god of this world will be opened so that they can see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
This article originally appeared on ABWE.org. Used with permission.
1. B. Steenland, “Sociology of Culture,” in Oxford Bibliographies, last modified July 27, 2011, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/document/obo-9780199756384/obo-9780199756384-0055.xml