Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

How Culture Shapes our Presentation of the Gospel


How does culture tend to shape our presentation of the gospel?

  I have already touched on this some: we are much more direct in our communication style than many other cultures in the world, and we tend to think that this is much better . . . because we are used to being direct.  But many cultures in the world, including Asian and Latin American cultures, are more indirect in their communication style.  Our style is not necessarily better than theirs.

Probably one of the most difficult things for us to understand about our culture is the individualism that permeates the U.S. worldview.  We have a difficult time adjusting to people from other cultures that tend to have more collective oriented worldviews. It is so much a part of who we are that it is difficult for us to see it or know how to filter it out when dealing with people from other cultures.  I include myself in that statement.  I understand that it is a huge part of our culture mostly because I have been told that it is true, not because I can easily identify it.  Our individualism taints the way we understand the gospel, and this is one of the criticisms that other parts of the Christian church level against U.S. Christians (and to some extent Christians in other Western cultures).  For the vast majority of us, salvation is a very individualistic thing.  People from other cultures point to this as the reason why vast sectors of the Christian church in the United States cannot see that the gospel should make a difference in how gospel-believing Christians act in the face of injustices in our society.  The problem is that we see the gospel in individualistic terms, but not related to injustices within our society.

It is probably true that some Christian groups have gone so far in rejecting individualism that they have lost what many of us would consider to be the soul of the gospel and become “social gospel” proponents.  This conversation gets complicated by accusations of “socialism” or even “communism”, but as the saying goes, we need to be careful not to “throw out the baby with the bath water”.  Hebrew society was always very collective, not individualistic.  Faith in God had huge implications on how the poor, orphans, widows, and immigrants were treated.  In the New Testament there are several examples of whole households (even Gentile households) who came to faith as a collective group. Most of us would point out that there are also many examples of individuals who came to faith without their families joining them, at least not immediately.

One of the areas in U.S. “evangelical” Christianity that merits evaluation in light of this individualism/collectivism difference between cultures is the almost universal belief on the part of U.S. church leaders that in many instances the best way to reach a family within our culture –and from other cultures – is to reach the children with the gospel first.  However, numerous studies in Latin American cultures show that the chances of reaching whole families with the gospel increase dramatically if the parents become Christians first.  Unfortunately, I do not know where to locate the statics from these studies.  Perhaps another person involved in cross-cultural work can provide this information.

I believe that this same individualism/collectivism divide between cultures is at the root of a problem often seen in Latin American churches (where U.S. missionaries have done most of the evangelism/discipleship). Very often pastors will tell young people to disobey their parents if their parents prohibit them to attend church.  Pastors do so without seeking to find out first why the parents made this prohibition and seeking solutions to the parents’ underlying reasons.  We tend to think in terms of individuals, not in terms of families as a unit.  More often than not, working with the parents to discover root causes and working out acceptable solutions will open the parents up to the gospel instead of slamming the door shut by counseling disobedience.

Reader comments would perhaps expand our understanding of other ways our culture shapes how we present the gospel.


This is the fourth article in a series on “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” by Lloyd Mann, D.Min.

Lloyd Mann has a BA in teaching languages in secondary schools (Spanish and English), an M.Div in theology and a D.Min with a focus in missions mobilization.  He served as a missionary in Latin America for 39 years and is the author of two books and multiple articles and materials for use in university student ministry. With his wife, Wilma, he translated many more materials and books into Spanish and some into English.

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Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

How is the Gospel Best Presented? If our Christ-given task is to make disciples, we also need to examine how we present the gospel.  Do most of the long-lasting decisions that lead to people…

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What Aspects of a Person’s “Being” Do We Need to Consider as We Share the Gospel? There are three aspects of every person’s being which need to be active in “believing”…

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Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

What Aspects of a Person’s “Being” Do We Need to Consider as We Share the Gospel?

There are three aspects of every person’s being which need to be active in “believing” or “having faith” in Jesus, regardless of cultural background. 

One of those aspects is the intellect. The fact that I mention this first does not mean this is the first thing you need to focus on in transcultural witnessing.  In most cases the first aspect that comes into play in the life of an individual who is investigating faith in Jesus are the emotions, which will be the next aspect I mention.  But I mention the intellectual aspect first because that is where most Christians want to begin.  Whether you are sharing with a person from the United States, Europe, Asia, or Latin America, whether you are working with an atheist, an agnostic, or someone from a nominal Christian background, the intellect is one of the areas on which you must focus.  There are certain things a personal must eventually come to believe (and that is the intellectual aspect):  God exists, Jesus was God in human form, sin is a problem he/she cannot solve, etc.  

People from the southern part of the United States used to already believe all these “truths” generally speaking, but that is no longer the case.  People from Europe may (but most probably will not) have a cultural background that basically accepts these intellectual concepts.  However, people from South Asia, Asia and other parts of the world probably do not have a religious background that accepts these truths.  For us, that makes our task that much more difficult because we must walk with them as they get to know Jesus of Nazareth and come to believe that He was God in flesh, that He allowed himself to be crucified so that we can have a relationship with God, and came back to life, etc. Again, when it comes to Latin Americans, belief in the basic truths of Christianity used to be part of their Catholic culture, but that is less and less true today, or those beliefs may have been distorted from the record we have in the Bible.

A quick, concept-based gospel presentation (think “The Four Spiritual Laws”) only addresses a person’s intellect: “believe these four or five truths and you will be saved.”  The intellect, without any doubt, must always be involved when trying to bring a person to faith in Jesus Christ.  But that is not all that must be considered.  What areas must be considered will depend a lot on the answer to this question:  How does the culture of the person we are talking with effect how that person interacts with others, and how they hear/understand what we say?

My area of expertise is with the Latin American culture, and within that broad range of Hispanic cultures, more specifically with the Mexican culture.  Each of you will need to study the culture of the people you are trying to reach in order to discover the answer to the above question.

Latin Americans in general terms, but very specifically Mexicans, are much more indirect in their communication style than are people from the United States[1].  People from the USA tend to go directly to the point, and we don’t worry too much if that point make other people feel uncomfortable or attacked as a person. Latin Americans, on the other hand, tend to do a little dance around “the point” before getting to it.  Part of the reason this is true is because they want to be very careful not to offend you or make you feel like a failure.  Cultural courtesy demands that even in greetings (like on a phone call) they be much less direct . . . spending time talking about some common interest before getting to their “point”.

That makes a HUGE difference when you are presenting the gospel to a Latin American.  Mexicans, especially, will almost never tell you “No” if you ask them to do something or invite them to attend an event, or to commit to something.  They will tell you “I’ll do everything possible to be there.” (It took me two traumatic years to learn that that phrase basically means “No.”)  If you make a gospel presentation and ask them to accept Christ, they will generally say “Yes” because they don’t want you to feel like a failure, or to “lose face”.  They will say “yes” but will avoid you from there on out.

This is the reason Christians from the United States who go on mission trips to Latin America can almost always return with reports of huge numbers of professions of faith.  I remember a large group of pastors from Texas who came to Mexico for an evangelistic crusade in multiple churches at once.  A few of them were Spanish-speaking pastors, but most spoke only English.  At the end of the week of meetings they returned to Texas to report 7,000 professions of faith, but not before criticizing to their face the American missionaries who had spent decades in Mexico, because (according to them) we were total failures.  The pastors said they came and in one week had won more people to Christ than all the missionaries put together had won in more than a decade.  But almost a year after that “tremendous crusade,” I talked with many (by no means all) of the Mexican pastors in whose churches those 7,000 had made “professions of faith” and asked them how many people they had in their church as a result of that crusade.  Most I talked with said “zero”, only a few said “one or two”.

This is why, when trying to share the gospel with someone from a Latin American culture, it is very important to develop a relationship with that person first.  Then from your life, from your verbal sharing of how Jesus has transformed your life and by leading them to know Jesus Christ through reading or studying the gospels you can discuss with them what it means to “believe” in Jesus.

The second aspect is the emotions.  There must develop in a person a conviction that he/she cannot solve their problems on their own, that they need help.  If a person does not feel a need for God, if they are not conscious that they are a sinner, and that they cannot correct this problem themselves, they will never draw near to Jesus.  The problem, especially in Latin America, is that often there are very obvious emotional attachments to religious icons (especially to the Virgin Mary) rather than to God, since Catholicism has reigned in those cultures for centuries. 

What we should be trying to accomplish, without making a frontal attack on those idols, is to lead the people to know Jesus of Nazareth, His love for sinners, and His grace toward those trapped in sin.  Just as happened in the Gospels when sinners came into contact with Jesus, the Holy Spirit can awaken within the people with whom we are witnessing the same awe and wonder as they get to know Him. A person who does not react in love and awe toward Jesus of Nazareth probably will not decide to open his/her life to Him.

One final word about the emotions:  Rules and laws will never transform lives; “thou shalt not” was never able to break the power of sin over people.  The Apostle Paul says that about all these can do is to show us how hopeless we are when faced with God’s perfect law.  The only motivation powerful enough to pull a person out of slavery to sin is an amazed, awe-inspired love toward One who has paid the price for our sin and who loves people so much that He was willing to “become poor that we might become rich”.  When a person really grasps how huge God’s love is for him/her, that transforms their life to such an extent that the best way to describe it is “being born again”.

But many people, especially those from Roman Catholic backgrounds, think they can check both these first two boxes.  Most Latin Americans think they have loved God all their lives.  They think they have believed in Jesus all their lives.  They think they have had faith in God all their lives, and when you share the gospel with them, they will say “I’ve done that all my life!”

I remember one university student in the Dominican Republic to whom I was trying to witness over a period of more than a month.  Every time I talked to him about “believing” in Jesus, or about “having faith” in Jesus, he would always tell me he had done that all his life.  I could not find a way to get past that argument because my definition of “believing” and of “having faith” was mostly an intellectual concept.  Since He believed that Jesus was God’s son, that He was God incarnate, since he believed that Jesus died for his sins and rose again, I didn’t know what more to say.  But his lifestyle proved to me that he was not a born-again Christian.

One day it occurred to me to ask him, “Ok, that’s fine, but would you be willing to let Jesus come into your life and to radically change your life?”  His answer, accompanied by wildly waving both arms back and forth in front of his chest was “Never!  I won’t allow anyone to tell me what to do!”  I knew in that instant I had stumbled upon an extremely important “something,” but it wasn’t until several months later that I realized what his answer screamed out about his “faith”.

The determining aspect is the human will.  Salvation never occurs unless there is a surrendering of one’s will to God.  The will stands at the very center of who we are and controls everything about our lives.  Our wills show what our values are, they reveal our idols, and they determine which of our “selves” wins out when “push comes to shove” in our lives.  Our will sits on the throne of our life and determines whether Satan and our sinful nature, or Jesus Christ will control our life.  Faith and “belief” are not just intellectual exercises; nor are they just emotional responses.  Faith and belief that are not accompanied by commitment to Jesus as Lord are not biblical faith or belief.  Without the Lordship element, all you have is a cultural religion that is dead.

Don’t get me wrong, a person who in faith turns his life over to Jesus does not suddenly stop sinning.  Not ever, for that matter!  The process of the Lordship of Christ becoming a full reality in the life of the new believer may take some time.  In my own case I struggled for a few years before I was really willing to give God control of my life.  When I did, I methodically went through every aspect of my life, giving God the right to be Lord over that area.  What I came away with from that experience was the assurance that sooner or later God would be Lord over each of those areas.  Some areas came quickly under His Lordship; other areas took longer.  Even in the lives of Jesus’ disciples He did not become Lord over their lives immediately, but there was a commitment to Him, a basic decision to allow Him to direct their lives.


[1] You will notice that generally I use the term “United States” rather than “American” to help you be more geographically correct.  Everyone from Canada to Argentina/Chile are “Americans”.   We cannot even use “North Americans” because Mexico and Canada are part of North America.

 


This is the third article in a series on “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” by Lloyd Mann, D.Min.

Lloyd Mann has a BA in teaching languages in secondary schools (Spanish and English), an M.Div in theology and a D.Min with a focus in missions mobilization.  He served as a missionary in Latin America for 39 years and is the author of two books and multiple articles and materials for use in university student ministry. With his wife, Wilma, he translated many more materials and books into Spanish and some into English.

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Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

How is the Gospel Best Presented? If our Christ-given task is to make disciples, we also need to examine how we present the gospel.  Do most of the long-lasting decisions that lead to people…

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Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

How is the Gospel Best Presented?

If our Christ-given task is to make disciples, we also need to examine how we present the gospel.  Do most of the long-lasting decisions that lead to people becoming committed followers of Jesus come from five-to-15-minute concept-centered presentations of the gospel, or do they come from some other longer, relationship-based sharing of the gospel?  Oscar Thompson, author of Concentric Circles, and Jim Petersen, author of Evangelism as a Lifestyle make convincing arguments for relationship-based, or friendship-based evangelism.  Our own experience also led us to the same conclusion.

Near the beginning of our ministry in university student evangelism and disciplemaking in Mexico, we planned a 3-year on-campus evangelistic thrust.  During the first year, we trained our Christian students in how to strengthen their own walk with Christ, in how to share their personal testimony, in how to present the gospel in a concise, visual format (the Bridge Illustration), how to use evangelistic Bible studies with friends and family and how to work with new believers to help them begin to grow spiritually.

During the second year, every two months we had a large on-campus evangelistic presentation by Christian scientists from NASA, or recognized professional people, or Mexican Christian educators.  After each conference, we offered an opportunity for people to accept Christ or to talk with the conference speaker or our trained students about their questions concerning the Christian faith.  We kept records of who accepted Christ, their contact information, in which school within the university they were studying, etc.  We began working immediately with those who made decisions to give their life to Christ, helping them to begin to grow as new Christians.

The third year was dedicated to finishing the follow-up of the new believers and an evaluation of the results of the 3-year evangelistic project.  The results of that evaluation totally surprised us and set the pattern for almost all our future evangelism not only among university students but also with adults.

We discovered that only 12% of all the professions of faith came as a result of those six on-campus, large-group conferences.  The other 78% were either friends, fellow students, or family members of our Christian students whom we had trained in how to share the gospel.  But the most telling statistics that came from analyzing the data were the following two facts: 1) we were unable to locate any but two or three of the 12% who “accepted Christ” in the on-campus conferences. (Almost all of them had given us fake contact information. The two or three who gave us correct information always had some excuse for not talking to us.)  2) Of the 78% who were friends, fellow students, or family members of our trained students, almost 100% were growing in their faith and were attending some Christian church.  Evangelism among people with whom we have a relationship is much more successful at producing disciples than “cold-turkey” evangelism with people we do not know.  Doing “cold-turkey” evangelism is useful because it can give Christians good experience in sharing the gospel but is not the best way to make disciples.

As a result of these results, we developed a multi-pronged evangelism training for university students that involved helping them develop a strong relationship with Christ in their own lives, helping them understand what the gospel is, teaching them how to share the gospel in a brief format both verbally and using the “Bridge Illustration”, helping them develop their personal testimonies and how to vary that testimony depending on the person to whom they were talking, teaching them how to cultivate relationships with non-Christians, and teaching them how to use evangelistic Bible studies with friends and families.

 


This is the second article in a series on “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” by Lloyd Mann, D.Min.

Lloyd Mann has a BA in teaching languages in secondary schools (Spanish and English), an M.Div in theology and a D.Min with a focus in missions mobilization.  He served as a missionary in Latin America for 39 years and is the author of two books and multiple articles and materials for use in university student ministry. With his wife, Wilma, he translated many more materials and books into Spanish and some into English.

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Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

What Aspects of a Person’s “Being” Do We Need to Consider as We Share the Gospel? There are three aspects of every person’s being which need to be active in “believing”…

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Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

What is The Gospel?

Any time a person decides to communicate the gospel there are always several things that need to be considered.  Here are just a few: What is the gospel? (In other words, what are we trying to communicate?) How is the gospel best communicated? What aspects of people’s “being” do we need to consider as we share the gospel? How does the culture of the person with whom we are talking effect what that person hears/understands?  How does our culture tend to shape our presentation of the gospel? 

Unfortunately, very few “Great Commission Christians”[1] take the time or energy to consider these issues when they seek to witness within their own culture, much less when they try to share their faith with people from other cultures living around them.  

What is the gospel?

We don’t have time here to analyze why, but Christians in the United States mostly have reduced the “gospel” to a series of concepts or truths to be believed – and if a person accepts, or “believes,” these concepts, he/she is born again spiritually.  This approach has been enshrined in such gospel-sharing techniques as “The Four Spiritual Laws” or similar doctrine-centered approaches that for 50+ years have been the basis of most evangelism training in the United States (and in countries where our missionaries have taken such techniques).  We need to recoup the New Testament gospel based on how Jesus and the Apostle Paul viewed the gospel.

The gospel in the New Testament was centered in a Person, not in concepts or even teachings.  Jesus did not draw people to a set of doctrines, but to himself.  Encountering and getting to know Jesus was what transformed people’s lives in the Gospels.  Jesus never told Zacchaeus that he had to believe certain doctrines (man is a sinner, sin brings death, believe in Me and your sins will be forgiven, etc.).  In the Gospel accounts He didn’t even tell him he needed to return the money he had illegally charged . . . but he did, just because he got to know Jesus.  Just meeting Jesus, and getting to know Him, radically transformed his life.  

Paul, when he preached, centered his presentation on Jesus, not Jesus’ teachings.  In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul said: For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  In Galatians 1:6 he said: I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:” It was the grace of Christ that caught their attention at first, not doctrines. 

Are there doctrines involved in a person’s salvation experience?  Certainly!  Everyone who comes to know Jesus personally will have to recognize that he/she is a sinner and will have to understand that the penalty for sin is death.  They will come to believe that Jesus is God, not just a prophet or a good man.  They certainly will need to understand that there is nothing a person can do to merit salvation because Jesus has paid the penalty they should have paid for their sin.  But believing these things will not save them, will not transform their lives.  Only the Person of Jesus Christ can do that, and a person needs to spend time with Jesus (through a study of the Gospels) in order to come to know Him and become convinced that He is the only Savior.

This truth, that the gospel is a Person, not a set of doctrines to be believed, will have a profound impact on how we evangelize and how we train people to evangelize.  Rather than training people to present a concept-focused presentation of four or five spiritual truths, or even a graphic presentation of the gospel, we must train people in how to introduce people to Jesus Christ through spending time with them in the Bible, especially in the Gospels.  Experience has taught us that life transformations that lead to people becoming disciples of Jesus mostly take place over a period of time when they are reading, meditating and studying the Gospels, or encountering Jesus Christ through gospel-centered preaching.

Can concept-focused presentations or graphic illustrations (like the Bridge illustration) be useful in evangelizing people?  Of course, they can.  That is why we train people to use them.  But these usually are clarifying, later steps in helping people come to know Jesus Christ.

Can God save a person after a short concept-centered presentation of gospel truths?  Certainly He can.  God can do anything, and He sometimes does bring people quickly to faith in Christ.  I have known people who were initially brought to faith in Christ by a simple “God loves you, man,” spoken in passing by a stranger on a sidewalk.  But that is not generally how it happens.


[1] I use the term “Great Commission Christians” because I no longer believe that today the term “evangelical” is useful. Our culture has infiltrated much of what historically has been called “evangelical” Christianity and has diluted what it meant to be “evangelical”.

This is the first article in a series on “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” by Lloyd Mann, D.Min.

Lloyd Mann has a BA in teaching languages in secondary schools (Spanish and English), an M.Div in theology and a D.Min with a focus in missions mobilization.  He served as a missionary in Latin America for 39 years and is the author of two books and multiple articles and materials for use in university student ministry. With his wife, Wilma, he translated many more materials and books into Spanish and some into English.

Share this post:

Read More in the Series

Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

How is the Gospel Best Presented? If our Christ-given task is to make disciples, we also need to examine how we present the gospel.  Do most of the long-lasting decisions that lead to people…

Read More

Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

What Aspects of a Person’s “Being” Do We Need to Consider as We Share the Gospel? There are three aspects of every person’s being which need to be active in “believing”…

Read More
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