As a new missionary with the International Mission Board, I spent several weeks training at the center they have for that purpose outside of Richmond, VA. The curriculum and living experience is to provide a bridging step from everyday, normal existence in the life that the new missionary knows and prepare them for what is ahead. Much of what is taught in the coursework portion of the orientation deals with a crazy animal called Culture Shock—that demon that rears its ugly head when a person moves from a familiar surrounding to an entirely different cultural atmosphere. The concern is that those preparing for service in an unusual culture will be crippled by the overwhelming nature of immersion into a new culture. Even with all the emphasis, some still despair and return to life at ease in their home country, home state, home county, home town, home.

With all the emphasis on living in a new culture, one discovers that language is integrally related to a person’s culture. We say what we say because of what it means to say what we say. We use the words we use to mean a specific thing. When crossing cultures, one must discover the right way to say what they are intending to say. Otherwise we find that we are not saying anything near what we thought we were saying. Here are several examples I encountered while serving in a Russian-speaking setting:

1. The story is told of the American preacher on a two-week trip preaching in several places. At one church he and his translator were going well until the American used a Baseball illustration. After a moment or two, the preacher realized that his translator had stopped translating and was starring at his guest. When the preacher looked inquisitively at his translator, the young man said, “Besbol, what is this besbol? We do not know this.”

2. Some of my friends commissioned to the Russian-speaking world warn new missionaries and possible volunteers to avoid talk about their passion for Jesus. The reason is that unless they have a very experienced translator working with them (and sometimes even when they do) their helper will translate that they have a “strong sexual desire” for Jesus. That’s what the only Russian word for passion means.

3. When translators first started working on getting the scripture translated into a certain dialect of one particular Turkish people group who live in the former Soviet Union, the workers began doing a word for word translation. Without properly testing the translation with native speakers, they went to press with a scripture portion complete with pictures. Searching for pictures revealed some beautiful artwork that could be used and depicted the Christ in their gospel portions. When the portion was printed and distributed, the target people would have nothing to do with it. First of all, because the language was not smooth or communicative to the people. But even more, the pictures used were Russian Orthodox icons and represented the “God of our oppressors.” Learning from these mistakes, new teams began working and rather than rushing to print, took sometimes up to two years to field test the language learning the best way to say what they were trying to say so that the message would be clear without cross-cultural baggage. Better yet, an artist from within the people group was commissioned to illustrate the stories, and many of the people not only read the first collection of scripture stories, but accepted the Christ about whom they were written.

My point with these examples is that we need to be aware of the culture in which we are sharing our faith. That is true whether we are crossing the street to a new culture, crossing the tracks to a new culture, crossing the country to a new culture, or crossing the globe to a new culture.

Today’s suggestion: learn two or three (or even four or five) different ways to say what you are trying to say when you are speaking of spiritual matters. Take the time to know your friend, and speak their language. This does not water down the gospel, but it makes it effective on all the levels it is meant to be effective. After all, the message of Christ is one that is for any and all who will hear—not just those who speak my language.

(more to come)