Crossing cultures with the gospel
Posted on: 17th August 2020
How do we share the gospel in a culture where the people believe, think, act and feel in ways that are completely unexpected or different? CMS Director of Training and Development David Williams believes that the answer is both simple and complex.
When I was serving in Kenya, a group of friends from the Proclamation Trust, UK, taught some preaching classes at Carlile College in Nairobi, Kenya. The first four days, held on the College’s main campus, went well. The students were engaged, and my British friends were encouraged. On the fifth day, we ran a special one day intensive in Kibera slum. It had rained the night before, so the open sewer was overflowing across the path. As we slipped and struggled through the sewage to the College’s Centre for Urban Mission, one of my friends stopped. In the middle of the path he held out his arms and said, somewhat despairingly, “What on earth does it mean to preach the gospel here?”
Clearly this was a crisis of confidence. But a crisis of confidence in what? He might have lost confidence in the gospel itself, thinking that Kibera slum needs a different gospel. He might have retained confidence in the gospel message but lost confidence in gospel methodology—losing confidence in preaching as God’s means of spreading the good news. Or he might have retained confidence in both gospel message and gospel methodology, but lost confidence in his ability to communicate the gospel in Kibera slum.
It was this third area of lost confidence that was stressing my friend. His mind was in his notes, in his opening story. He had planned to begin the first class by saying “When you had breakfast with your family this morning…” But looking around Kibera, it was painfully obvious that he could not assume the luxury of breakfast. Every story, illustration, assumption and application needed re-thinking.
In this edition of Checkpoint we are thinking about cross-cultural evangelism—of the Lord Jesus’ great commission to make disciples of all nations. My opening story helps us to understand both the simplicity and the complexity of the task of cross-cultural evangelism.
The simplicity of cross-cultural evangelism
Cross-cultural evangelism is simple because the Bible is clear that all human beings face one identical problem, regardless of our culture. We are objects of God’s wrath because we are sinners who have rebelled against him.
This truth lies at the heart of our understanding of the gospel. The gospel is an authoritative message about God’s kingly rule. The heart of this message is God’s saving work, fulfilled through the person and work of Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. The Bible’s narrative clarifies what it is that we need to be saved from. We need to be saved from God’s wrath and judgement.
Simplicity seen in Passover and the cross
The need for salvation from wrath and judgement is clear in the story of the Exodus. The central moment of rescue in the Exodus is the Passover. In the ninth plague, darkness covers the land. In the final plague, God’s angel of death visits every home. In every house there is a death—either of a substitutionary lamb or of the first-born son. Immediately after the Passover, the children of Israel begin their journey out of Egypt. There is a further moment of rescue at the crossing of the Red Sea. But for generations onwards, it was the Passover—the sacrifice—that was remembered and celebrated.
The Passover story supplies the context that enables us to understand the cross of Christ. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the ninth plague is repeated as darkness covers the land. Then the substitutionary lamb of God, who is also the first-born son, dies to propitiate God’s wrath and judgement.
“The heartbeat of the CMS conviction is that the message of the gospel is powerful and true, and must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth”
The gospel message
The gospel is the message of the cross of Christ, set in the context of salvation history. We are used to talking about the gospel as good news. However, this message is only good news if we receive it by faith. For those who repent and believe, the gospel is marvellously good news. We are forgiven, justified, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, adopted as heirs, raised with Christ, friends of God. But for those who reject the message, it is not good news at all. Those who do not obey the gospel will be punished with everlasting destruction.
God sends the gospel message into the world on the lips of heralds—men and women who speak out the good news that has been entrusted to them. Only those who have accepted the good news can be heralds—those who have been forgiven, justified, and filled with God’s Spirit. Their lives must embody the message that they proclaim. Their distinctive godliness is salt and light to a watching world.
As the gospel word is spread around the world, God gathers his people into communities that confess his name. These communities are distinctively different to the world they are placed in, characterised by radical love for God and neighbour. Their good deeds will cause people to glorify our Father in Heaven.
The heartbeat of the CMS conviction is that the message of the gospel is powerful and true, and must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. If we believe this message, we must proclaim it. It’s as simple as that.
The complexity of cross-cultural evangelism
There is also a complexity to cross-cultural evangelism, a complexity that we can trace right back to our New Testaments. Put simply, cross-cultural evangelism is complex because the gospel is translatable.
The New Testament is proof that the gospel can be translated
Our New Testaments stand as evidence of the translatability of the gospel. The Lord Jesus almost certainly conducted his day-to-day teaching ministry in Aramaic. The gospels are written in Greek. The gospels are therefore translated documents. The apostles believed that they could faithfully and accurately translate the words of Jesus from Aramaic into Greek while retaining their meaning, purpose and power.
The same truth is evident on the Day of Pentecost. A great miracle took place. The apostles are given the wonderful gift of speaking the gospel in many different languages. Those who heard the message in their own tongue were able to believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved. The gospel was translated and retained its meaning and power.
This may seem an obvious and straight-forward thing to us. But compared to other world religions it is startlingly unusual. In Islam, for example, God speaks Arabic and the Qur’an cannot be translated.
We can go further still. Not only is the gospel linguistically translatable; it is also culturally translatable. Again, we see the cultural translation of the gospel taking place in the New Testament. When Gentiles begin to come to faith in the Lord Jesus, the early church must decide how much Jewish culture should be replicated in predominantly Gentile churches. The answer is very little. As the New Testament unfolds, it is clear that Jewish and Gentile churches, while deeply united, are culturally different.
Mission history is proof that the gospel can be translated
The history of Christian mission also testifies to the translatability of the gospel. Across sub-Saharan Africa, missionaries translated the gospel. When they did so, they needed to translate words like ‘God.’ Over and over again they chose to use a local word for ‘God’ instead of importing a foreign word. Usually they used the traditional name given to the high god of the local culture. The message was clear: the God we proclaim speaks your language. For example, in Kenya, you can be Kikuyu and Christian.
The complexity of cross-cultural evangelism lies in the linguistic and cultural translation of the gospel. Translation is much more complicated than the simple transposition of words. Languages are structured differently. The grammatical structure of a language may be completely different to Hebrew or Greek—there is no ‘find and replace’ method of translation. And in many cultures, words used in the Bible do not exist at all.
Cultural translation is as complex as linguistic translation. The early church had to call a council in Jerusalem to think through the implications.
CMS understands the complexity of the linguistic and cultural translatability of the gospel. It is why we pay such careful attention to training, to in-depth language learning and to long-term ministries.
A question for each of us
My friend had not lost confidence in either the gospel message or the gospel method. He knew that people in Kibera needed the same gospel as the rest of us. Despite teaching in English, he had suddenly been confronted by the translatability of the gospel. Perhaps it is a question we should all be asking: “What does it mean to preach the gospel here?”
The cross-cultural mission of CMS requires training and ongoing support, first at St Andrew’s Hall and then through regular pastoral visits and other means. Will you give generously to CMS so that this training and support can continue to help missionaries proclaim the gospel to the nations? Support CMS missionaries.