The Cultural Barrier
Closely related to the “linguistic barrier” is the “cultural barrier.” Actually, however, they are not the same, and warrant separate treatment in an itemized description of the missionary task. Those without a good understanding of cross-cultural dynamics and the complexity of human relationships and communication often make the mistaken assumption that, as long as an accurate linguistic translation has been made, effective communication has taken place. However, effective communication involves much more than language alone.
As alluded to in the previous reference to Hebrews 1:1–2 in the discussion of the “linguistic barrier,” God himself, through the incarnation of Jesus, has taken the initiative, and given us the example par excellence to follow. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:19–22, gives the classic articulation of this principle for missionary praxis:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
Normally, those who come from the same cultural context as the intended receptors of the message will be more effective at communicating in a culturally relevant manner than those from another cultural context. There are situations, however, in which there are not yet enough evangelists and disciplers available from the local cultural context to effectively reach everyone. In these situations, the most effective evangelists and disciplers (even though they come from outside of the cultural context) will usually be those who best adapt to the cultural context.
Donald Larson, reflecting on years of field experience in the Philippines, offers the following observations that corroborate this line of thinking:
Noise takes many different forms. For example, when a sender uses a language in an unfamiliar manner, this “foreign accent” constitutes a kind of noise for the receiver. In certain instances, it is difficult to differentiate noise from reinforcement. For example, when the receiver has a strong case of prejudice against the sender, every message may be obscured in part by a kind of noise emanating from the receiver’s feeling that “I don’t believe a thing this guy says.” Noise and reinforcement, in the sense used above, account for the discrepancy between the message as the sender sends it and as the receiver understands it. . . . All sorts of complications set in when information is passed from one culture to another. Insiders know the patterns; aliens don’t. When an alien tries to communicate with a group of insiders, his patterns and theirs begin to clash. Differences between them suddenly appear; old habits hang on persistently. . . . Fluency, however, is not the same as an insider’s awareness of communication patterns. An American in the Philippines may have a native-like control of pronunciation and grammar, yet he may not have learned to preface each request with a good bit of small talk. (15)
In general, missionary theorists and practitioners have long seen effective cultural contextualization as one of the most important factors affecting the ultimate success of the missionary enterprise. However, this often requires hard, diligent effort on the part of the missionary. The following are merely a small representation of the many comments that could be presented in support of this thesis:
Cross-culturalism refers to the learned skill of relating to people of other cultures within the contexts of their cultures . . . The above definition implies several characteristics of cross-cultural missionaries. They have gone through a process of culture and language learning to become cross-cultural. Becoming cross-cultural requires many hours of listening, speaking, observing, asking, and experiencing—all within the local cultural context. (16)
Some missionaries seem to have greater sensitivity to cultural differences, a greater patience for learning from others, and a greater willingness to subordinate personal goals to mission and national church objectives—traits essential to establishing and maintaining cross-cultural relationships. At a deeper level, however, credibility relates to the worldviews of the missionaries and the people they serve . . . We often see best after we live deeply in another culture—after we put on other glasses and then look back on our own cultural presuppositions. (17)
A technical grasp of a culture assures no more than a curio hunter’s interest and understanding of a people. Some individuals may never be able to see the larger structure that constitutes the culture. Many can, but they will need to be taught to “spell” and form “sentences,” then construct flowing cultural “paragraphs.” For most students, it will be a long, difficult study involving years among the people. It is not likely to be gained during a few months of short term service. (18)
In any case, in spite of the progress that may be obtained by diligent efforts toward appropriate cultural contextualization on the part of missionary workers, in order to reach a greater effectiveness in the communication of the gospel, it is almost always best to transfer the main responsibility of communicating the gospel to those who come from the same cultural context as the intended receptors as much as possible, and as soon as possible.
(to be continued…)
(15) Donald N. Larson, “Cultural Static and Religious Communication,” EMQ 3 (1966): 42–44.
(16) Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations & Contemporary Strategies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 105.
(17) Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 137.
(18) Robert C. Gordon, “The Silent Language Every Missionary Must Learn,” EMQ (1973): 231.