“Teaching the Bible across cultural and linguistic divides is a complex enterprise,” says Rev Dr Wei-Han Kuan, CMS Victoria State Director. He outlines CMS’s approach, and the lessons learnt, when sharing the Bible with gospel-poor peoples.
There once was a missionary named Edwin Stevens. Edwin was a Yale graduate who became a missionary to China in 1836. Operating illegally in Canton, he gave a young student an evangelistic tract in Chinese that told the story of Noah and called for repentance towards God.
Now that student’s name happened to be Hong Xiuquan. When he read the story, he saw his own name in the Chinese text – Hong or ‘flood’ – as the instrument of God’s judgement against unrighteous humanity. Hong immediately identified himself as a convert and, as ‘God’s Chinese Flood’, he believed himself to be an instrument to right the wrongs of the Qing Dynasty against the masses. He fled to the hill country and went on to become the leader of the disastrous and bloody Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).
While such an unusual and dramatic result is unlikely, this story demonstrates the risks associated with a blunt and unreflective use of the Bible in cross-cultural work.
Teaching the Bible across cultural and linguistic divides is a complex enterprise. For missionaries there are no guarantees around how their message will be received. At a really basic level, linguistic competence is required. Otherwise embarrassing and hilarious mistakes will be made, like the time someone meant to say, “Jesus really loves you” but ended up saying, “My head will fit in your shoe”!
The first step for cross-cultural missionaries is to invest the time and effort required to become as competent as possible in the local heart language and learn its culture. This is a high priority for the first phase of every CMS missionary’s placement.
Yet even after acquiring basic linguistic skills, other challenges and questions remain: How does the other culture hear the Bible’s stories or respond to its theological ideas? What interpretive framework is brought to texts and narratives, poetry and argument, apocalyptic literature and history? There are issues to do with the large gulf between one culture’s way of processing the world and another culture’s way.
All CMS trainees spend time at St Andrew’s Hall to receive an introduction to these concepts and the tools that they will need to keep using in order to be effective long-term ministers of the word.
CMS is a learning organisation. We are learning all the time with our missionaries on location as they report the challenges and issues they face. For example, how does an Australian evangelical commitment to careful exegesis in study and clear exposition in preaching translate into other cultures? How do our models of preaching and Bible study work in contexts where literacy is low and there is perhaps no local language Bible translation? What if the predominant way of learning and transmitting ideas is more kinaesthetic (tactile or physical)? What if it is a power-fear culture where anything that is said must be backed up by deeds of power in order to be believed?
Keep the Bible central
CMS believes there are two main factors in effective cross-cultural gospel communication. First, we must keep the Bible central. This means not giving up on preaching and teaching, and sharing the words of the Bible, and showing how the whole Bible points to the saving, powerful and honour-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. This must happen whether or not the target cultures are literate. It must, of course, happen in a culturally-appropriate and sensitive way so that people actually hear, understand and (under God) are challenged by the Bible’s words.
In 2 Timothy 4, Paul issues this charge to young Timothy: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction … keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist.”
To do this we must not only love God, but more particularly love God’s word and also love the people that God has placed before us. Loving one without the other is simply not enough. If we only love God’s word, we can too easily become trapped in exercising a word ministry on our own cultural terms. If we only love the people, we can fall into the temptation of over-accommodation or inaccurately translating the scriptures in an ultimately unhelpful way.
Be a humble servant
Second, CMS has learnt that godly humility and going with the attitude of a servant learner is critical to the long-term effectiveness of a missionary’s ministry of the word. Inevitably, mistakes will be made as we learn to preach and teach in a new culture. But if we have humble hearts and have worked hard on relationships with locals who trust that we are there as servant learners, we will get the feedback we need to keep growing in our ability to communicate the eternal word of Christ in an alien culture.
Just as our missionaries need a language helper when they are learning a new language, they also need language-and-cultural helpers when processing the effectiveness of their word ministry on location. This is not always easy to achieve in contexts where missionaries are automatically placed on a high pedestal, beyond criticism. Or where missionaries are automatically derided because of the ‘otherness’ of their ideas and lack of cultural awareness. It takes godly humility and a servant heart to be able to be responsive to feedback about our ministry, while holding onto the conviction that God’s eternal and unchanging word about Christ the Lord still needs to be proclaimed.
Isaiah 40 declares: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
Deep in the structure of Christian revelation is a commitment to the eternal worth and unique efficacy of God’s word to bring about saving knowledge of God’s powerful love in Christ. It is a commitment that CMS takes seriously and one in which we find great joy as we serve the Church of God throughout the world.
Please pray that CMS missionaries will uphold and effectively communicate the centrality of the Bible in all their work. Pray that the training of CMS workers will thoroughly equip them to share God’s word in cross-cultural contexts.