If we were to set up ministry in a culture other than ours, we could be taught to speak, write and listen in the receiving countries native tongue. We would be taught about cultural taboos, and about the formation of their thoughts. We would hopefully learn why it is that they are offended by chopsticks left standing up in a bowl of rice, or why you never let someone drink alone. We would learn why one should take their shoes off in one culture’s home, and why you should burp after a meal in anothers.
Culture is deeply personal. People are inseparable from the culture in which they are reared.
We understand that, while the Gospel is greater than language, it can often times be undone by a careless word or an uneducated assumption. For some reason, God has chosen to operate within the rigid confines of our narrow words. He chooses to operate through us, and move through our words. This is why Peter warns that not everyone should strive to be preachers and teachers because they will be judged by a higher standard. (James:3:1-12)
Those who speak to others are responsible for the words they choose to speak.
So the responsibility becomes ours, then, to speak our words with a greater understanding of how they will be perceived. In an age of political correctness, it is easy to want to react against the wave of cautions words. We want to “say what we mean and be done with it.”
The danger in this, though, is that our words have a larger impact than we might understand. “Saying what we mean” might be another way to say, “saying what we think they deserve.” Our recklessness might cut deeper than we know, and make the receivers heart further from the true message of Christ.
So take account of the audience to which you are speaking, and consider the audience you want. Reflect on how you choose to use your words. For generational gaps can be as large and deep as continental gaps. Socioeconomic gaps can be as vast and wide as the oceans. It would do our churches some good to take these “cultural” differences into consideration, and begin to view the local church as an intercultural ministry- even if everything on the surface seems similar and comfortable.
If Christians start with an assumption that the words they say, and the views they hold, might not be received as they intend, and then speak from a place of care and sensitivity, they might find that the beautiful words of Christ will have a more unobstructed way to the heart.
The South African president, Nelson Mandela, once said,
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
The Gospel isn’t intended for the head, rather it’s intended for the heart. May we be a people who seek to use the language of the people, and with that language, speak to the heart.