Ministry in Cross-Cultural Contexts (2 of 3)
Mark Yarbrough:Welcome to DTS Dialogue - Issues of God in Culture. I'm your host, Mark Yarbrough, executive director of communications at Dallas Theological Seminary. Today, our discussion topic is "Ministry in Cross-Cultural Context." Specifically, we want to raise awareness of how cultural differences affect ministry.
Guys, I know that you're here for a reason: you have been invited. And, again, thank you for participating in this discussion. The Lord has done a variety of things in each of your lives; and you have been formulated by the Lord in many different ways. And we would love to hear about that. I know our audience, which is listening in right now, would love to know a little bit more about your background and why this is a heartbeat, why this is a passion, in your life. It's going to be hard for us to do this; but can you take about two or three minutes and talk about why this is a passion for you, where you've been, what the Lord has done to bring you to this point. Scott, let's jump across to you, let you start first with that.
Dr. J. Scott Horrell:I'll be glad to. For reasons a little beyond my country, I went out with Youth with a Mission. When that was all Pentecostal, my friend and I were the first two non-Pentecostals to go out in that organization. We were shifted, in the last several days, not to go to the New Hebrides islands, in the South Pacific, but to Trinidad and Tobago, at the bottom of the Caribbean.
But, going door to door, all day long, in village after village - some were Hindu villages, some were Muslim strongholds, most were just a potpourri of almost everything one could think of. Going door to door in those situations, sharing the basic gospel of Christ, was amazing; and we preached in the streets at night, or wherever we could.
That kind of experience, I think, stretches us all; and we begin to realize that the gospel is indeed universal. You try to communicate it more carefully with different kinds of people in ways that they might understand; but the gospel has such power of its own that we are but vessels that carry it on to others.
That became addictive. I went back into the Caribbean five different times, with TEAM and independent leave and a team from Dallas Seminary, later on. But my wife and I spent most of our ministry time in the urban centers of Brazil.
We began in the far south, in a city called Porto Alegre, which is mainly German and Italian. And that was rocky ground for the gospel; we began in the largest city in that area; and the Lord was gracious as we moved out of a kind of church building, which no self-respecting spiritist or Roman Catholic would go to, and we began to experiment, saying, "How can we do this better? How can we reach your parents and so many others in a culture that's different from the church culture that we rather presuppose to be correct?"
The Lord blessed very much that kind of moving in to a neutral hotel, in the middle of the city, changing when we meet to four in the afternoon for three hours, rather than the typical that we do with our own churches in the U.S. That was fruitful, and we ended up going into São Paulo, where I was teaching more broadly as well as being always involved in church planning.
That bridged in, for me, to Africa: Angola and Mozambique, in particular; Portuguese, or Lusiphone, speaking of Africa, as well as some other countries there and, to wrap it up, in a few other places as well. This summer, I will be in ʿAmmān, Jordan, again, teaching amongst Arabic believers, at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, and later, in the summer, with a Ph.D. program for Latin America, in Guatemala, for seminary presidents, academic deans, theological educators, on the highest level.
Mark Yarbrough: Fascinating. Mark, do you want to go now?
Dr. Mark Young: Well, "addicting" is the right word.
I think one of the appropriate metaphors of culture is a set of blinders. In the old days, when they had horse-drawn taxis, they'd put blinders on horses so that they wouldn't be distracted. Blinders limit your peripheral vision. That's what culture does. Culture gives you only one pathway to see the world around you. Some of the addictive power of cross-cultural ministry is that, all of a sudden, your blinders are moved out.
There's something terribly exciting about gaining a breadth in your beliefs and gaining new perspectives, new things to value, which you've never before seen as important before; I think this is intimately satisfying in cross-cultural ministry.
For me, the opposite of that, however, is the unpredictability of cross-cultural ministry. I think there's never been a time in my life when I've needed, and felt that I depended more upon, the power of Christ to accomplish ministry than in a cross-cultural setting - because, when you're working cross-culturally, you simply can not predict what's going to happen next, and you must depend solely upon God to show up in ways in which you've never seen Him before, or nothing's going to happen.
Mark Yarbrough:Can you identify that point? One of your first cross-cultural ministry experiences in which that addiction was turned on and you went "That's it. That passion is there." Is there a specific time when, you could say, that seedbed was really beginning to -
Mark Young:Oh, sure. God completely changed me in the summer of 1979, after I'd come to Dallas Seminary and become intoxicated not only with learning but with myself. God took me to the mountains of southern Poland and broke me, showed me the arrogance and the elitist attitudes that I'd been developing about my theological studies here, and gave me, all of a sudden, a reason to study theology and study the Scripture. That being - standing in front of 200 to 300 Polish young people none of whom could articulate the gospel, none of whom had any clue that Jesus had died on the cross for them in a way that could transform their lives - and one by one seeing literally their eyes light up with the realization of what Christ had done for them. I've never been the same; never.
Mark Yarbrough: Never been able to get over that.
Mark Young: And I won't; I pray to God that I never will.
Mark Yarbrough: Vic, how about you?
Victor Anderson:I certainly echo Mark's sentiment that one of the great joys is seeing the power of God at work. In my own experience, I know, God just blessed me with being at the right place at the right time to enjoy the fruits of the seed that had been planted for many years and a cultural situation that was just about to explode with the production of fruit.
When I arrived in Ethiopia, in 1991, they had been suffering under 17 years of severe church persecution - persecution of believers - Marxism had been in power. And, just before we actually set foot in the country, that government was overthrown.
But I had gone there to start working in a little Bible institute that was meeting at night, with a handful of 40 or 50 students, kind of in an attic and not very publicly. It was a very low-profile kind of ministry. And, in the next four years, that ministry went from that handful of students to about 300 men and women being trained for pastoral ministry and church leadership. And being involved in helping to craft the program for that school that's being used today - to be able to see some of my initial students go on and get advanced degrees in the States and then come back and now take over as principal of the school - and the teaching faculty is basically made up of some of my own former students - it's just a great blessing, a great joy. It makes me feel old; but it's great to see the Lord working in lives.
Along with that, besides focusing on Ethiopian culture, and the many, many changes that were taking place in a country where the church was exploding, where new government was taking place, I was involved, for most of my 15 years, with the International Evangelical Church, in Addis Ababa. I don't think there's a church in America quite like this. Most Sundays, we had about 1, 500 people, which is not remarkably large - but they came from 40 to 45 different countries - ever Sunday. And so you would see, as you stood up on the platform, people who had come in chauffeur-driven limos, from the diplomatic corps - and sitting next to them in the auditorium were also barefoot people, people in rags. And they came from all over the world and were trying to worship - and they were worshipping - together.
To be part of that was not only testimony to the power of God, but just a tremendous joy: you sensed that Heaven was coming closer to Earth, as we gathered around the throne and worshipped.
I might mention one other thing that, I think, my mission experience has affected me deeply in this area. It has to do with learning, for the first time, the real joy and value and challenges of teamwork. I have yet to come across the same kind of atmosphere that you have when you're really in the harness together, with missionary colleagues. It's that cross-cultural challenge that you mentioned, where you were at the end of your rope and you're crying out to God and also crying out to your brothers and sisters - and, together, together, by your unity, you keep going.
Mark Young: That's very true.
Scott:I would want to add to that how nationals become your best friends. Often, they're the ones who suffer for the ministry, more than we expatriates, with our security - so often. I found myself nourished over and over and over again simply by being with nationals who love the Lord so much that their lives were radiant with the presence of God. They served as examples to me, even though we were given the privilege of knowledge, and so much more of it, at least in Scripture - and basic theology was so vital to their growth as well.
Mark Young:Ask yourself this question: whom would you rather spend time with? My wife and I were talking about this. Whom would you rather spend time with: a group of people who are fussing over whether the drums are too loud, or a group of people who, when they walk out the door, face death for their confession of Christ? It's as simple as that.
Mark Yarbrough:It kinda puts it into perspective, doesn't it?
Mark Young:If you were to ask us - my wife and myself - where we'd rather be, just for the kind of people whom God would give us fellowship with, to pray with in urgency, it would be that kind of people - nationals, primarily - who are facing issues that most of us can never imagine.
Mark Yarbrough:Let's change gears here for a little bit, and let's talk about communicating in another culture. When you go to another culture and you find yourself in another culture, there are different patterns and traits; and, if you are there to communicate the gospel, you learn rapidly that, sometimes, you have to do things differently. And part of it is to be a really good student of that culture. Let's talk about that.
Vic, prior to the recording, you were talking about a passion that you have, in this regard of communication and the role of orality. Often, when we think of communication, we think of written formulas and words and books, because that is part of our culture; but that is not true of every culture. Let me punt that over to you. Talk about communication and different cultures, and talk about that issue of orality.
Victor:Thanks. I think most of us are aware, when we go cross-culturally, that there are differences in perhaps the language itself - they don't speak English, but speak, in Ethiopia, for example, Amharic or Oromifa or Tigrinya, or Spanish or whatever your language might be in your part of the world. That communication always comes to the fore; it's the one that kind of slaps us in the face most quickly. And then we begin to notice that, even as you use the same words and you master the mechanics of the language, we still have difference - because, we realize, they pack those words with much more connotation and much more cultural background than we are aware of, even after 10 or 15 years in a country. You need to be at it a long time.
But, in the last, oh, 15 years or so, there's been a lot of awareness being gained because of research and some careful study, recognizing that there's another element of cross-cultural communication that, perhaps for a long time, was not given a lot of attention to. That has to do with the difference between people who are primarily oral in their orientation to learning and those who are primarily literate - or we might think of those who've spent a lot of time in formal-education settings, which is where many missionaries, at least those from the West, spend their time - and, of course, theological graduates - and those whose lives are not characterized by large amounts of formal education.
It doesn't take long for us to realize that, if someone picks up a book and starts to read to us a journal or something that we'd rather read - when it comes orally, it doesn't quite communicate the way as if someone is just telling us a story. We almost intuitively begin to speak a little bit differently when we do it orally from how we do when we're doing reading and writing and that kind of channel.
It turns out that, for those of us who spent a lot of their time in increasing their literacy, learning to read, to write papers, those kinds of things - that we struggle to communicate well for people who don't use that technology. We call it the technologies of literacy - because there's a whole package of skills that go along with that.
I'm really pleased to see that this is a growing awareness, which is actually crossing multiple disciplines. I recently attended an organization in Colorado that met, called the International Orality Network. This was a group of interesting people from multiple mission agencies - from Campus Crusade, the International Mission Board, S.I.M., multiple groups - coming together and asking, "How do we reach people who will learn the gospel and become disciples primarily not through written means?"
If you think about it for a minute: our standard paradigm for missions for the last hundred years or so has been that you go into an unreached-people group, you learn the language, you script the language, and you translate the Scriptures, and then you teach people to read, and then you try to get enough copies of the Scripture out there for people to learn the Scripture.
Reading it still good - but that's a long process. And so the challenge becomes, how can we communicate the gospel and bring spiritual growth, and even raise up church leaders and church planters, by way of a completely oral means of communication? We have lots to learn; but it's a huge gulf for us to encounter and to get over, to bridge over.
Scott: In so many ways, like our Savior.
Mark Young: In what way?
Scott: Well, Jesus never wrote anything that we know of, other than something in the sand - someone's tried to figure out since.
Well, I'm thinking along a different line, and not only is the issue of orality, but also the issue of corporality as we look at other cultures. Coming from Latin America and Brazil - in our church services, everyone as they would arrive, you'd give them big hugs, pat them on the chest. You would kiss each married woman twice - once on each cheek - and the nonmarried three times - one more for good luck. And it was a very affectionate, physical - but in a beautiful kind of way - community.
In one goes to Africa, it's a very different reality. You do not touch the women. Indeed, you usually do not even look them in the eye, or there's a lot of caution in that regard. With men...
Victor: In some places in Africa.
Scott:Well, that may be true; yes. It depends on which influence they've also had from Brazil, in my situation. But there's a whole different bodily language. Even coming into Texas after that - I remember standing once, as a doctoral student, amongst three tall Texans, and I was a short whatever, in the middle of them all. And, just out of habit, I kind of leaned over and patted one - he was so stall that it was more on the - not on the chest, but on the stomach, almost - and I recall those three looking down at me like "Where did this guy come from? And what is his gender preference?" or whatever it was. But there were questions involved.
We all have bodily language. And we, as North Americans, like a lot of space. Many other cultures are quite accustomed to much closer space, even if there's not a touchy space.
I was flattered when a very dear friend of mine from the Middle East, here at Dallas Seminary, kissed me as he said goodbye. That would strike many as odd. I took it as an enormous compliment, that he trusted me enough to do so, because he knew I would understand what he was trying to say.
So, in all of this, I wanted to get in my $10 word - and that is "cosmopoliteness." As we circulate from one culture to another, there grows a capacity to begin to read ourselves as others see us, and therefore to adapt into their culture in sensitive ways, something that we all need to try to cultivate, as we go to different places, for the sake of the gospel.
Victor:Scott, it strikes me. As you're speaking, all kinds of things come into my mind about things you should and shouldn't do in different cultures, whether you look directly at someone, whether you look down or look away - and, in Ethiopia, you have to bow lower than the other person as you shake hands for quite an extended handshake.
Scott: With two hands.
Victor:Yes; we always use two hands: you can't shake hands with just your right hand. But there is one that seems universal - at least I've never found it to be violated - and that is a smile. It is amazing how, on the streets, no matter where you go, when it is permitted to make some kind of communication, communicating the love of Christ by smiling is just an amazing thing. I've never had anybody throw me out and say "That was culturally inappropriate." Even in the U.S., when I cross cultures from one part of the country to another, or from one socio-economic class to another - it's amazing when you walk into a store, whether it's a higher-class or one down on the bottom rung, when you go to the clerk and you smile and you say something with kindness, they can sense that there's something different here.
Mark Young:You know, Vic, in cross-cultural communications, as all of us who've been living overseas in other cultures know, everything you do has meaning. Or, I should say, everything that's perceived is ascribed meaning. And, so, often times, we forget that the most indiscreet behaviors are adding to the meaning of what we're saying - or even our presence has meaning.
So, with the smile, example: in my setting, in Poland, you would never smile at a stranger, ever. That would be perceived to be far too aggressive, far too forward - or perhaps it would make you seem to be not all there, mentally. Now, in another setting, where you were with someone that you knew or you had some type of working relationship with, smiles were very acceptable. But, typically, smiles raised caution among strangers.
And the Japanese, of course, and the Koreans, mask smiles - because smiles are signs of embarrassment or signs of shame. I think that the issue is that everything we do, everything we are, the nature of the social relationships we find ourselves in - all of that affects the meaning ascribed to our presence and certainly to whatever words we use.
We tend to be, as a culture, more vocal, in terms of the weight of meaning in a message, than many other cultures. So we fight over words and the meaning of words, and we quibble over the context of words.
Victor: It's a mark of literacy.
Mark Young:It is, exactly. Whereas many of the world's people bring far more meaning to, or gain far more meaning from, context and behavior, social structure - and they may, in fact, use words that we would consider dishonest, but that, in the context of all the other signals in a given encounter, have a meaning that, everybody knows, is diametrically opposed to what we would normally ascribe to them.
That is tough, cross-culturally, for an American: we tend to think "Your word is your word. Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes'."
And the truth is that, in some cultures, someone can say "No", verbally, and mean "Yes", and everybody knows it who's a part of that culture - but we don't, because we're outsiders, and so we think the guy's lying.
Victor:Let me give you a very clear example of that. A similar issue similar to that came up in our lives frequently in Ethiopia. In fact, in teaching theology and ethics in the Bible school, we were really quite confused about how to handle this issue; we had to keep asking the Ethiopians themselves to solve this one, because, as missionaries and outsiders, we really couldn't do it. But the situation was this: if, for example, your mother has died and I know it, I can't call you up and say "Mark, your mother has died." That would be terribly out of place, rude. So the only thing I could do would be to say "Mark, your mother is sick" - even if I know she's died. Now, those of us in North America would say "That's lying." It's not perceived within that Ethiopian culture as being lying. And then you might say "Well, is she REALLY sick?" And I would respond with "You know, she's QUITE sick; you really ought to come now." And so there's a little cultural clue there that says "We're not messing around this time." And so you would come, and only the appropriate person, close enough to you within the family, could actually help you see that she had died.
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