There are many reasons why the gospel spread so remarkably in the first century. However, I personally believe most Christians, including most Christian leaders, evangelists and Bible teachers have not really considered the methodology employed by the early Christians when they encountered their new audiences.
The Book of Acts is given its name because it contains the acts of the Apostles in carrying out the Great Commission. Here we have examples for preachers, teachers and missionaries so that they can carry out the task of presenting the gospel.
One thing that is often missed concerning these early Christians is that they started preaching and witnessing to their audience, beginning at the level of understanding these people had in relation to Christian beliefs. In other words, they had to start with a common denominator—there had to be communication at a common level that was understood. Thus, starting at the level that corresponded to the background of a particular culture, the missionaries went on from there to direct their hearts and minds to Christ.
I believe that our method of communication often lies at the heart of some of the difficulties we have in evangelizing in today’s world. Let me give you an analogy.
A missionary once explained to me that even though he had gone to a university and learned the language of a particular culture, when he went to live in that culture and preach the Word of God, he had great difficulty in communication.
For instance, he told me about a time he was speaking to a tribe of dark-skinned people in Irian Jaya (north of Australia). He told them that the blood of Jesus would cleanse away the dark spots of sin and make them pure and white and clean before the Lord. But the people he was speaking to were perplexed. They wanted to know why the blood of Jesus made a person dirty. He had run into a problem of communication. It took quite a while, but eventually he figured out the problem.
Because these were a dark-skinned culture, they understood what the missionary had said in a totally different way. When the white ash from their fire was on their skin—they were dirty, but also white! Thus, when the missionary said that Jesus’ blood made their souls white, they understood that this meant that Jesus’ blood made them dirty!
This missionary told me that if anyone thinks that just because they have learned a different language that they will be able to communicate to a different culture, they need to think again! One can have a great grasp of the language, but may still not communicate, unless there is an understanding of the culture and how the language is used within the culture.
Missionaries abound with similar stories. Many of us smile as these accounts are related. But sadly, most Christians don’t realize the importance of the underlying message that these intriguing true-life adventures have for all of us in communicating the gospel.
It also ought to be said at this stage that even if people speak the same language but come from different cultures, then the same words or phrases can have very different meanings. Because I am an Australian who has lived in America for many years, I can give many examples to illustrate this.
I recall many years ago when we still lived in Australia, but I had conducted a number of speaking tours in America. A teenage girl from America came to visit us at our home in Brisbane. Our son Jeremy was just a baby. I was trying very hard to be nice and hospitable toward this American teenager. So I asked her if she would like to nurse our baby.
From the horrified look on her face, anyone would have thought I had highly insulted her or said something terrible. She was at a loss for words to respond. Without thinking, I told her that it didn’t matter, and that I would just continue to nurse the baby. Again she reacted in shock. I couldn’t even begin to describe the look on her face.
At this stage, I realized there must be some great gap in our communication. Suddenly, I remembered something from my previous visits to the United States. And then I understood what had happened.
In Australia, ‘nursing the baby’ just means to hold (or cuddle) a baby. In America, ‘nursing a baby’ means to breast-feed a baby. I remember saying to myself, I just asked this girl to breast-feed our baby! If that wasn’t bad enough, I said I would do it! I wondered whether this girl must have thought that we Australian males had gone through some onward, upward, evolutionary mutational change, so now we could nurse our babies!
You see, the same words from the same language, but used in different cultures, had totally different meanings!
After I had related this story at a seminar in America, one lady asked me, ‘Well, what do Australians call it when you breast-feed a baby?’
And my reply? ‘Well, we call it breast-feeding a baby. After all, that’s what you do, isn’t it?’ And that’s another aspect of Australian culture people need to understand. The average Australian is rather blunt and just tells it ‘like it is.’ (This has actually caused me to get into trouble many times in America.)
Having now lived in America for many years, I think I could write a whole book just on the problems of an Australian communicating in such a culture. There are many differences. But let’s consider a totally different culture.
Carl, a close friend of mine who is American by birth, is married to a Japanese national. One day Carl and I were sharing jokes with each other in front of his wife. We thought these jokes were hilarious. However, Carl’s wife didn’t laugh at one of them.
She then said to us, ‘I don’t see what’s funny.’ So we tried to explain the jokes in detail. She then stated, ‘The Japanese people don’t think like that. We don’t understand why you would think they are funny.’
As I have traveled around other parts of the world, mixing with different cultures, I have increasingly come to realize how important it is to understand how people think, before trying to communicate with them.
Time and time again, I’ve had missionaries tell me, ‘You shouldn’t say that in this culture, it means something totally different.’ Or, ‘They didn’t understand that particular point, because they don’t think like this.’
I can smile now, but I was highly embarrassed when my Japanese translator said to me after I had finished my speaking tour in Japan: ‘Remember how the Japanese people laughed heartily at some of your jokes?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Well, I have to tell you that I knew they wouldn’t understand your joke at all. They just don’t think like that. I told them that Mr. Ham just told a joke, so please be polite and laugh.’
But there is another problem in communication that most Christians are unaware of. Even within the same culture, there can be massive communication gaps. People often talk about the ‘generation gap.’ I suggest there is an increasing generation gap in our Western cultures. This will become much clearer later in this book. It will suffice for now to say that the more we have generations of unchurched people in an increasingly secularized culture, the more those who are churched will not be able to effectively communicate to them. In essence, it’s like communicating with a different culture—the same words either have different meanings or are even meaningless.
For example, many Christian denominations use phrases and jargon that have no relevance for younger generations. Sermons and even hymns can point to ‘being washed in the blood,’ or ‘crossing over Jordan,’ and increasingly large numbers of people will have no idea what those things mean. It’s almost as if traditional Christianity is now just another subculture, complete with its own terminology.
In the next two chapters, we are going to look at two particular sermons in the Book of Acts that may bring some surprises for many Christians. We will see that when these sermons are examined in the light of our discussion above, they give us clear examples of not only how to preach the gospel in different cultures, but how to reach an increasingly anti-God Western culture (and other nations).
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