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Know their culture

By Chinedu Oranye

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more…I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor. 9:19, 22)

I recently shared my conversion story with a group in the Arab world, and I was surprised that some did not receive my story well. Why? Because in seeking to show how Christ had transformed me, I had gone into details about my old, sinful lifestyle. Given the shame culture of this region, such a graphic illustration of my pre-conversion life made people very uncomfortable. So, though I meant to showcase God’s power in redemption, I ended up showcasing shame, and this did not go down well. I was reminded of a very important lesson in cross-cultural communication.

One of the most effective ways of communicating any message is through incarnation. When we incarnate, we identify with the audience, and build bridges of acceptance and communication in the process. Seeking to deliver a treasured asset without first investing in understanding your audience can easily convey the wrong message. Jesus is our perfect example. He did not just “identify” with humanity; He lived in the flesh among us, thereby giving us a practical example of the possibilities before us as God’s creatures.

Knowing the recipient’s culture is a powerful first step in communicating Christ to them.

Cross-cultural communication seeks to convey God’s love and truth in such a way that the recipient is able to embrace and accept the message, without the noise of a “cultural clash.” As expected, every message is encased in a culture, and whenever we carry God’s Word to a new culture or community, we must be aware of this reality. We are cultural beings, and we always operate within a cultural milieu. Nobody exists outside a culture, and those who claim to be non-cultural are actually expressing “non-culturality” as their culture. Culture is not wrong, but it can distort and confuse truth.

Knowing that we all carry our cultural baggage, we need to do two things assiduously. Firstly, we must consciously work to identify the priorities and values of the new culture where we plan to bring the Gospel. Knowledge is life, and ignorance is death. Knowing the recipient’s culture is a powerful first step in communicating Christ to them. Secondly, we must seek to present Christ within the acceptable “cultural language” that the host community can understand. This will require that we “extract” our culture from the Gospel and begin to internalize the new culture as ours, so that it becomes increasingly natural to communicate the Gospel in the new culture without struggling.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, we see Paul’s ethos for ministry. He was a master at cross-cultural adaptation. He knew how to adjust his lifestyle and message to fit different audiences. His chief aim was always this motivation: “that I might win the more…that I might by all means save some.”

In this edition, you will read about Constance Mohapi Arão, a South African missionary to Mozambique, who experienced the initial shocks of a different culture, but learnt to adapt over the years. The Perspectives article by Emmanuel Akawu gives insight on the interplay of different cultures at the center of mission work. You will also read from African missionaries, tips and practices for language learning—a key skill in understanding culture.

May this edition of AfriGO inspire and equip you for effective cross-cultural adaptation in missions.

Dr. Chinedu Oranye is a Nigerian Bible teacher, author, leadership mentor, and pastor. His ministry has taken him to over 30 countries. He serves with Calvary Ministries (CAPRO) and Haggai International. He is married to Taiwo and they have three children. Contact him at: chinedu_oranye@gmail.com.

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