Crossing cultures

by Michael E. Brooks

“A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink .’ . . . Then the woman of Samaria said to him, ‘How is it that you, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:7, 9 NKJV).

“Cross-cultural evangelism” is a major area of emphasis in studies of missions. How it can best be done; whether it should be attempted; how to become qualified and adept in the skills required – these and similar subjects draw much attention, and for good reason.

By definition, when a Christian goes to one who has not yet embraced that faith, or perhaps has not even heard of it, there are major differences in the cultures of the speaker and audience. They are never exactly on the same page; frequently they are reading out of different books altogether.

When I first began to teach in South Asian countries I met and spoke with those ethnic peoples for the first time.

As we talked I might ask them whether something was true, or ask them to do something for me.  I was often disconcerted when they shook their heads slightly from side to side.

“Why are they disagreeing with me?” I thought. It took a few trips before I learned that in Nepal and Bangladesh a slight sideways head shake was “yes.” Once I figured that out, my unease disappeared.

There are innumerable such differences in the way people think, talk, dress, and act. Every culture has its standards, recognized and mostly adhered to by the members of that culture. And some of those standards will differ from those of any (and every) other culture.

Recognizing and adapting to those differences is of critical importance if we wish to relate meaningfully with people who are different than us.

There are many possible consequences of failure to adapt to our audience’s culture. One may:

  • offend them
  • amuse them
  • confuse them
  • amaze them.

The stranger to the culture may wind up being attacked, laughed at, ridiculed, rejected, or otherwise abused. Rarely if ever will cultural ignorance or transgression be rewarded with respect.

We may consider the many differences as inconsequential compared to the great importance of our basic message and mission. “I am preaching truth and they need it; they should overlook my social blunders” is a fairly common attitude of missionaries.

Though that is true in an objective sense, the fact is that failure to successfully bridge the gap between cultures will make it difficult or impossible for that message to be heard and accepted. Cultural ignorance is a handicap that will greatly hinder our work.

The apostle Paul was committed to crossing cultures:

“And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; . . . to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).

Jesus demonstrated the same spirit. As the Son of God, he took on human flesh that he might relate to us and save us (Hebrews 2:10-18). When he confronted a Samaritan woman he reached out to her, even though his human culture (Jewish) said not to do so.

Her needs were greater than his tradition. May we have the same love, compassion, and understanding, prompting us to prepare ourselves to reach out to the lost, whoever and wherever they may be.

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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