Complications of Communicating the Gospel: Why We Should Take the Culture of the People Seriously

Aristotle viewed communication in relationship to three points of reference: speaker, speech and audience.1 Based on his view, a simple hypothetical assumption about communication can be developed:

SPEAKER  →→→  SPEECH  →→→  AUDIENCE

In reality, communication is a more complex process because the truth communicated does not travel in a vacuum before the audience encodes the message; rather, it travels through an already programmed mind, which has a distinct worldview and culture. The figure below illustrates this reality:

Culture X

  Culture Y
 

      Worldviews/Ways of perceiving the world       

 

 S          M

E   E

            Cognitive process/Ways of thinking

 M   R

E  D      E

 O        E

U N      S

   C    S

      Linguistic forms/Ways of expressing ideas

 S  E  

P S    O

 R   O

C  D

            Behavioral patterns/Ways of acting

 S   C    N

D   A  O

  E       A    D         E

 

When the source in “Culture X” encodes a message, that message passes through a cultural grid or screen, which largely determines the way in which that message will be decoded by the respondent in “Culture Y.” This grid or screen has seven dimensions, which collectively influence the message and the way in which the respondent will decode the message.2

Communicating to the Buddhist Community
Communicating the gospel to the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka could be illustrated by the figure below:

           Buddhist ascetic worldview   

C P E G    

H R N O    

            Sinhala Buddhist culture

   M D B

          E E U B 

R E C S

I A O P

            Sinhala linguistic forms

          S C D E

          S O D L

S C D E

T H E L 

 Sinhala Buddhist behavioral patterns

          A D H I

          G E I E

I E

A R

     Buddhist Sinhala social stucture 

          E D S V

                 T E

N       Media motivational resources                     R

In the above context, the message communicated will be decoded from a perspective of the Buddhist worldview and culture. This is a major barrier in communicating the gospel to the Buddhist community.

If communication is so complicated, how can we communicate effectively without taking the culture of the people into consideration? For effective communication we must take into account not only the culture of the people, but also the following:

  1. The culture and worldview

  2. Their understanding of the scriptures or their prejudice
  3. Their cognitive knowledge (i.e., Am I speaking the language they understand?)
  4. Their felt needs (i.e., Do I know their real needs?)

Most Asian countries which were colonized by colonial rulers have spent their post-independence years striving for a national identity. An integral part of the national identity is perceived as being anti-Christian. In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist clergy seem to be developing a term called the “Sinhala Buddhist,” referring to the fact that if you are a Sinhalese, you also have to be a Buddhist. To become a Christian is to become a traitor, turning your back on your family, community and country.

Ralph Winter and Bruce Koch comment,

“The church does not really grow within peoples where relevant churches do not exist. While there are tens of millions who have never heard the name of Jesus at all there are hundreds of millions who may have heard of Jesus and may even have high regard for him, but who cannot see a way of becoming his disciples. Standing before them are barriers ranging from the relatively trivial to the seemingly insurmountable, many of them beyond the demands of the gospel.”3

Cultural distance from our people is a barrier to communicating the gospel.

Contextualization Is Imperative to Reaching the Unreached
If we want the message of Christ to be culturally relevant we need to:

  1. Seriously consider using more indigenous forms of music.

  2. Rethink and develop culturally relevant forms of worship.
  3. Rethink and develop culturally relevant forms of celebrating Christmas, Easter and other important occasions.

  4. Rethink and develop architectural models in keeping with the culture.
  5. Discover and develop indigenous public preaching styles.
  6. Incorporate local art forms of communication.
  7. Take advantage of the community life we enjoy and use it as a means for evangelism. (Individualism and a disconnected verbal approach are not acceptable to our people.)
  8. Seriously consider adopting an incarnational approach to ministry.
  9. Rethink and use a holistic approach to ministry, because we minister in a context of poverty.
  10. Seriously consider our involvement in community life. We are too detached. We remain detached because of a faulty theological perspective (“We are not of the world”) and a minority mindset.
  11. Seriously reconsider our lifestyle. (i.e., Is our lifestyle in keeping with our people?)
  12. Pay attention and develop relevant national and Asian theology.
  13. Research and develop relevant teaching models.
  14. Develop relevant models to developing leaders and leadership styles.
  15. Build relevant reproducible church models.
  16. Identify and celebrate healthy, wholesome cultural practices within the community that is not in conflict with biblical teaching.

Paul Hiebert provides guidelines for responsible contextualization:

  1. The Bible is the final and definite authority for Christian belief and practices. Every one therefore must begin at the same place.

  2. The priesthood of all believers is accepted as scriptural teaching. The priesthood of believers assumes that all the faithful have the Holy Spirit to guide them in the understanding and application of the scripture to their own lives.
  3. C. Norman Craus points out that the contextualization of the gospel is ultimately not the task of individuals or individual leaders, but of the church as a discerning community; “within that community, individuals contribute with their gifts and abilities.”4

Culturally dislocated models or Western models might work in the cities, but if the Church is to impact a country, culturally relevant models will be more relevant.

Our attempt to use local culture does not mean we will overlook cultural beliefs and practices that are in conflict with biblical truths; on the contrary, we will sit in judgment on such that are inconsistent with biblical teaching.

The truths that are central to biblical teaching or at the core of the gospel cannot be changed or altered to suit any culture. This will be a violation of the trust that God has entrusted to us. These unchangeable truths are considered as “Supra Culture,” that is above all culture.

 

Endnotes

1. Hesselgrave, David J. 1978. Communicating Christ Cross-culturally. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Zondervan Publishing House, 28.

2. Ibid, 98-100.

3. Winter, Ralph and Bruce Koch. 2000. Mission Frontiers. June.

4. Hiebert, Paul A. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Book House, 53.


Rev. Adrian de Visser is the Lausanne International Deputy Director for South Asia. He is also senior pastor and president of Kithu Sevana Ministries, a church planting ministry in Sri Lanka. De Visser serves as vice president for partnership development for Asian Access, a ministry committed to developing leaders across Asia.