Experienced cross-cultural missionaries know of the great challenges of communication in a foreign land. The longer a missionary is there and the more the culture and forms and meanings of words and symbols are understood, the more the missionary knows how inadequate past communication was. In my opinion, the ultimate goal of a missionary is to share the Gospel to a people so that they can understand and respond to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
However, not everything a person says is understood the way it was intended. Distortion is caused by the fact that a person of one culture is speaking through his cultural filter to a person of another culture who is receiving that message through their own cultural filter. A missionary who ignores his own personal filter and the filter of the receptor culture, will fail in communicating the gospel.
Consider this hypothetical example of a foreign missionary sharing the gospel in Cambodia.
The Intended Message:
One day an imaginary missionary (we hope) went to a village in rural Cambodia to preach the Gospel. As the pith helmeted, Bermuda short and t-shirt wearing missionary entered the village after hours traveling through rural jungle paths. The people of the village gathered to see this strange sight. The missionary then began to share his message in fluent Khmer (the national language of Cambodia) which he had learned before arriving on the field through a US State Department audio tape series produced by the CIA. He confidently spoke:
“Greetings unto you,” he said. “I come to you in the name of the almighty God, the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. I want to share with you today about how you can find rest in cool green pastures being at peace with God in heaven. Religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus because he preached the truth of salvation. They did this because Jesus died on the cross for your sins. Today you can have forgiveness as well! All you have to do is believe Jesus is God. Have you thought, ‘if you were to die today, where would you go?’ Jesus can answer this question for you.” As he finished, he called out “what will be your response today!”
The people just stared at him. While he spoke in fluent Khmer, they were certain he must be mentally ill, possessed by an evil spirit, or came to wage war on the village. Either way everything he had to say was, to them, complete nonsense.
What they observed, heard and understood in their culture was that a rebellious, arrogant white man, who showed no respect for the people wanted to give a speech to show how important he was. As he spoke they knew that what he was saying were all lies. He said “Hello poor insignificant people, I come to you in the name of the King, the landlord of the rubber plantation where there are many spirits. I want to tell you about fields full of horse manure where I will let you sleep in your stubborn bitterness and stop waging war. The Buddhist monks wanted to kill the landlord of the rubber plantation because he told a bunch of lies about trying to free people from their poverty. The landlord of the rubber plantation died because you didn’t keep the evil spirits away and you killed animals. Today if you pay me off with a bribe I will pardon you and let you off the hook. You have to submit to the landlord of the rubber plantation as the King. I curse you and hope you all die! The landlord of the rubber plantation will tell you what you need to know. So, how much are you going to pay me?”
The people quietly discussed among themselves whether to run, hide or just act pitiful and hope he will go away. Others planned an ambush to kill him before he could get out of the jungle so he wouldn’t report the village to the king.
The missionary went home dejected, but confident that he took enough pictures to be able to send out a newsletter about his brave adventure and raise another $5,000 a month for his living expenses. The village people still do not know the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are living in eternal condemnation.
Of course this example is showing an extreme misunderstanding which happens when forms and meaning are used which mean one thing in one culture, but completely different things in the receptor culture. In the following few blogs I will break down and show how the Cambodian perception of what is said is very different than what the foreign missionary intended. This funny little story is in fact acted out daily in places all over the world.
In our modern day global community, with a plethora of worldviews and cultures living all around us, we would all be wise to learn how to be better cross-cultural communicators. You may wonder if a blog article about cross-cultural communication is relevant to you. Well just look at your community? Sikhs in northern California; Sudanese in Iowa; Nigerians in Cambodia! It is highly likely that wherever you live there are dozens of other ethnic groups from around the world living right next door to you. Communication is crucial. Just because they live near you doesn’t mean they think like you, or you like them. It takes effort to learn to be a good cross cultural communicator. In the following blogs I will give you some issues to think about and some recommendations.
Note: This blog is part of a series of posts dealing with cross-cultural communication. You can find them in the category labeled <cross-cultural communication>.