Dr. Stan Wafler PhD
Stan and his wife, Pam, lived in Arua, Uganda, from 2001-2015. They served in a variety disciple-making roles, including Bible translation consulting, orality training, pastor training, marriage encouragement ministry, expository preaching training, and student ministry.
I would like to invite you to join me on my African journey of engaging language and culture. The journey was full of challenges and victories. The investment of becoming an intentional student of language and culture was well worth the effort. My desire is that you may benefit from some of the lessons I learned along the way.
One rite of passage to become an effective missionary is language and culture learning. Language and culture learning may take place in a structured classroom setting or with informal local tutors. The language learning reality often seems to be a combination of the above. Regardless of the learning environment the attitude of the learner and awareness of the opportunities afforded him are critical. There is a definite journey from confidence in your home culture to humility in your new target culture that sets the stage for effective ministry and growing confidence. My own journey was enhanced by an introduction to orality before I went to the field and orality sensitive mentoring along the way.
I served in various church staff roles and as a senior pastor before we were appointed to serve in East Africa in 2000. I remember the uncomfortable thought of my own uselessness dawning on me about six weeks into our African adventure. Virtually everything about my identity failed to transfer to my new African context. I realized within the short time of two international flights I had been reduced to a mere childlike proficiency in the most basic task areas. I needed instructions about bathing and buying tomatoes, washing clothes, and transportation. I experienced the vulnerability that comes with realizing I needed toilet training as well.
What I had known in my former life seemed irrelevant in my new African setting. One morning as I woke up in central Tanzania and looked out of my tent, I realized that I was living in a place where my proficiencies were extremely limited. Recognizing my own uselessness was actually helpful for the process I call role surrender. For me role surrender meant setting aside my previous proficiencies, confidence, credentials, and yes even my pride to decide to become a humble learner. This was a painful but significant valley that led to opportunities to discover a new identity and new proficiencies based on language and culture learning.
I cannot speak of painful adjustments made for the sake of culture and language
without mentioning the model of Jesus, the ultimate missionary. Philippians describes the
purposeful but painful descent of Jesus to leave behind his rightful role as Lord of the universe, enter our world, and participate in our culture and language in order to communicate.
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:5-8)
One of the ways Jesus accommodated his audience was to engage the oral culture in
which he lived. Of course, Jesus could have chosen any communication style but more often than not he employed narratives, asked questions, and recited parables (Mark 4:34). Rather than delivering lofty lectures on theology, Jesus connected with His audience by teaching truth using stories from daily life. The model of Jesus motivated me to consider setting aside my comfort, my communication preferences and my literate expositional style. The choice to start thinking about the oral preference learners around me was presented to me by passionate mentors who demonstrated the use of oral methods at home and in ministry settings. With these models in view, I began discipling my children with oral Bible stories in the evenings. I also decided I would take each invitation offered me to share, speak, or preach as an opportunity to model telling a story from God’s Word.
Once I realized that I could not maintain my familiar home culture role and that I
needed to discover the new role I needed to fill in my target culture two significant questions arose:
1) What do I need to learn?
2) How do I learn it?
When you are entering a new culture you need to learn to communicate but equally important is the task of learning who you are communicating with and how to build relational bridges for your message. You might say that you could make this massive transition from the person you used to be to the person you are trying to become by employing only literate communication patterns and disregarding the notion of orality. However, there were certain benefits to be gained from choosing to acknowledge and engage the oral preference culture around me. Orality became like a new cultural language pattern for me that opened up new worlds of discovery. Awareness of the oral culture around me allowed me to see opportunities to become a learner and listener and
set aside my previous role as an expert outsider.
Orality provided opportunities for learning, participation, contextualization, interpretation, creativity, and the discovery of the uniqueness and beauty of the local language. After laying this basic foundation, next time I will share some practical applications to the ways that oral methodologies provided various opportunities for communication that encourages going deeper in a local language and culture.