The Social Barrier
The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh barriers are somewhat different from the first three in that they are not unique to cross-cultural contexts. The “social barrier,” in particular, must be taken into account even in contexts in which the communicational sender is from a background that is culturally near to that of the receptor. The “social barrier” has to do with the related issues of credibility and trust. To a certain degree, these issues are tied into a successful overcoming of the first three barriers. Though there are some exceptions to the rule, someone who is geographically, linguistically, and culturally near, in many, if not most, cases, will be more likely to be viewed as credible and trustworthy by the receptor of the message. Nevertheless, in many contexts in which the first three barriers have been successfully overcome, the “social barrier” still poses a significant obstacle toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Overcoming the “social barrier” involves gaining personal credibility with the people one is seeking to influence, leading them to see the sender of the message as a person whose word is worthy of consideration and trust. Though this list is not meant to be conclusive, there are at least four important ways in which missionary practitioners may gain credibility and win the trust of their hearers. These include personal friendship, good works, a life testimony consistent with spoken testimony, and the communion of the church.
The gospel is a message of personal relationship between God and man, as well as between man and man. It is a natural corollary, therefore, that the communication of the gospel best takes place within the context of authentic, heartfelt, and caring personal relationships. It has well been stated: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Gioia Michelotti shares the following reflections on missionary work in Japan, based on her interview with Japanese pastor Takeshi Shiraishi:
During bridge-building, which Shiraishi calls the first stage of evangelism, the concept of common grace must be appreciated and nurtured. In this stage Christians prove that they are Christians by their love. After warm relationships have been formed, the second stage of seed-planting can occur naturally, because the soil of the heart has been adequately prepared. Finally, after much watering and tending by caring Christians, soul-harvesting will come at the time ordained by the Holy Spirit. “The direct, confrontational approach used by most Western missionaries is not the best way to win the Japanese heart,” said Shiraishi. “Eastern culture esteems the indirect, relational approach.” (19)
Rankin endorses this approach as a basic principle for cross-cultural witness in any context:
When missionaries, or even short-term volunteers, go to plant their lives in a culture and among people who do not know Jesus, the living presence of Jesus Himself goes with them. As they live out their faith through friendships and personal relationships, people can observe the reality of their faith. They gain credibility that allows them to share it verbally. Being there, they can communicate with an understanding of the worldview of the people they live among. They can cultivate a witness, follow up and nurture new fellowships of believers, and walk alongside those God calls out as indigenous local leaders. We call this an “incarnational witness.” It is not only using media tools, humanitarian platforms and occasions for teaching and preaching, but it is allowing nonbelievers to observe in flesh and blood what it means to be a follower of Christ. (20)
Another important way to help overcome the “social barrier” and gain credibility in the eyes of the people one is seeking to influence for the gospel is by means of what may broadly be classified as “good works.” Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 4:5: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” In a real sense, then, our acts of service toward other people to whom we are seeking to proclaim the gospel are a form of preaching in and of themselves. However, the essential message we proclaim is not merely one of humanitarianism and goodwill to fellow human beings, but rather the lordship of Jesus. Though there is a definite priority placed in the Bible on the verbal proclamation of the message of spiritual redemption, the implication of this text is that neither our preaching of Jesus Christ as Lord nor our acts of service toward those to whom we preach are complete without the other.
Dick Grady and Glenn Kendall share some very practical advice on the relationship between social ministry and gospel proclamation in a church planting context:
More effective church planters establish greater credibility. . . . Credibility is established in two ways, by meeting social needs and by building relationships with community leaders. These steps of themselves do not make church planters more effective. But as church planters incorporate social work and building relationships into their total ministries, people respond. Social work is not the primary focus of effective church planters, but one of many activities done by the more effective ones. They do not say, “First, we will fill your stomach and then you will be willing to hear our message.” Rather, they say, “We will proclaim our message. If you want to have your stomach filled, that is possible, too.” Social activity and gospel witness go on simultaneously. One does not depend on the other. (21)
Howard Searle, Director for Community Health Progams of MAP International, argues for the strategic value of development ministries as a vital part of a balanced holistic approach to missions:
When Christians actively demonstrate Christ’s love by responding to physical need, relationships of trust develop which often lead to opportunities for sharing Christ’s message on a one-to-one basis. . . . The Great Commission and community development are not antagonistic. Rather, the Christian who patiently, gently helps people learn to relieve their suffering heightens receptivity to the Christian message. People see that Christianity is a vital faith lived out through love and deeds. (22)
Another important way of contributing toward the overcoming of the “social barrier” is a life testimony consistent with one’s spoken testimony. Paul’s description in 2 Corinthians 4:2 of the standard practice of his missionary team serves as a model for modern-day Christian workers: “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” It is vitally important that potential receptors of the gospel message perceive the senders of the message as sincere, authentic, and consistent in their personal lifestyle.
A final means for overcoming the “social barrier” is the communion of the church. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus himself appears to link evangelistic effectiveness with Christian unity: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21)
In 1 John chapter 1, John writes of three different spheres or levels of communion. First, in v. 3, he references the fellowship that “we” (presumably John, together with the other eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry inferred in v. 1) share “with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Next, in v. 7, he references the fellowship that “we” (this time, the broader community of followers of Christ wherever they are found) have “with one another,” as “we walk in the light.” Finally, in the first part of v. 3, he writes of proclaiming “to you” (the receptors of his epistle) “what we” (John, and his fellow eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry) “have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”
A logical inference from this passage is that an important basis of gospel proclamation is Christian fellowship, first between the proclaimer, God the Father, and God the Son, but also between the various disciples that comprise the Christian community. A necessary previous condition for inviting others to “have fellowship with us” is a pre-existing fellowship between those who are already believers.
Jim Reapsome makes some cogent observations on the strategic value of this vital means for overcoming the “social barrier”:
Our unity is the most overlooked ‘strategy’ for world evangelization . . . When we throw out John 17 for the sake of the good old church fight, we send ripples of spiritual degeneration around the world. Divisiveness at home is connected to spiritual resistance abroad. If what Jesus said means anything at all, it means lack of response overseas is connected to what we are here. Praying for a breakthrough in the 10-40 Window? Great. Where are the great prayer summonses for unity in Christ’s body? Where are the churches and mission agencies that will issue a call for unity before studying the ramifications of Generation X for world missions? (23)
Though frequently overlooked or minimized, in many missionary contexts, the “social barrier” can be one of the most significant obstacles that gets in the way of successfully fulfilling the Great Commission. Providentially, there are also various tools the Lord of the Harvest has given to his workers, which are effective means of overcoming this barrier.
(to be continued…)
(19) Gioia Michelotti, “The Search for the Best Way to Win Japan,” EMQ (1995): 295.
(20) Rankin, 143.
(21) Dick Grady and Glenn Kendall, “Seven Keys to Effective Church Planting,” EMQ (1992): 368.
(22) Howard Searle, “Development Work Fits the Great Commission,” EMQ (1982): 160–61.
(23) Jim Reapsome, “Our Most Overlooked Strategy,” EMQ (1996): 134–35.