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.
VANCE PITTMAN - GUEST BLOG
Used with permission from Vance Pitman and the IMB. www.imb.org/2017/05/23/missions-must-be-accomplished-in-community/
The notion of following Jesus outside of community has been steadily gaining popularity in the United States over the last decade and a half. Digital downloads of Sunday services are on the rise across the United States. Increasingly, believers are opting for “the virtual option” as opposed to gathering together with brothers and sisters in Christ to hear the Word preached and to worship him together.
Let’s face it, fellowship is inconvenient and messy. It’s easier to choose a podcast over face-to-face encounters with people who actually know us. The temptation to avoid relationships, both in and outside of our churches, is not only real, it’s not going away soon.
The modern world might be making faith a private endeavor, but the picture of faith in Scripture couldn’t be more different. The early church, in Acts 2:42-47, could not get enough of studying, breaking bread, praying, meeting needs, worshiping, celebrating, visiting, hosting, and being on mission together. They were enthusiastic for both the preaching of the Word and fellowship in the body of Christ—to the point, in fact, that it could be said that the New Testament knows nothing of Christianity without community.
In his Word, God not only encourages fellowship but calls it out as an authentic mark of following him. Ironically, the very thing that God has called a necessity—fellowship in a local body—is something that too many are viewing as merely an option.
God not only encourages fellowship but calls it out as an authentic mark of following him.
When I think about how critical fellowship is in the life of the healthy church, my mind turns to thinking strategically. I wonder how we encourage biblical fellowship in our churches. It may be possible that we do a great job of teaching how much the local church needs its members, but are slack in our teaching about the important ways in which the Bible says believers need their own spiritual family. I’d like to share three realities that I think require us to both live and teach the necessity of following Jesus in fellowship with other believers as we join in his mission.
1) We need others to help us grow in intimacy with God.
The New Testament makes clear that Christian community is an indispensable part of biblical discipleship. That truth can be difficult to hear, however. Western culture (and in particular, American culture) has been heavily influenced by individualism and consumerism—baggage that, if we’re not careful, we can bring into our churches.
While it may be common to show up on Sunday searching for information or programs that we think will help us grow in our walk with Jesus, it’s important to remember that God says the most significant part of our growth in intimacy with him happens in relationship with others. As the Proverbs remind us, “Iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, ESV).
There are things about God that we will never learn apart from relationships with other believers. Living our lives together exposes our faults and allows others to speak truth into our lives. It can be messy, confusing, and painful at times, but the blessing we experience as we obey this command of God’s far outweighs any of those obstacles.
2) We need others to help us walk through the ups and downs of life.
In Paul’s description of the marks of a true Christian found in Romans 12:9-21, he urges us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15, ESV). We cannot obey this command without being in community. If believers are commanded to rejoice and weep with one another, the implication is that there are going to be times when our joys need amplification and our sorrows need distribution. True humility involves a willingness to say both “God, I need you,” and “God, I need others.”
The mission of God has always existed in the context of community.
3) We need others to help us accomplish the mission.
The mission of God has always existed in the context of community. This fact is displayed in the most basic element of the gospel: God the Father sent God the Son to be “Savior of the World” (1 John 4:14, ESV). When Jesus ascended from the earth, he charged his followers to take the gospel to the entire world. What’s more, he didn’t just say it once—he said it five times, and each time, his commission was in the context of a group of believers. The New Testament pattern for community assumes mission, and the New Testament pattern for mission assumes community.
Nowadays, the word fellowship has expanded to mean any of a number of ways of connecting with people—some real and some that we euphemistically call “virtual.” In an era when virtual commutes and relational distance are real-life concepts, it’s important to remember that face-to-face fellowship in the local church is not merely an option for Jesus’ followers, but, rather, an imperative.
Because we have a relationship with Jesus, we now have a relationship with his family. And, just as our relationship with Jesus is central to our lives, so should be our relationship with his family. Our position in Christ has never been up for debate. Why should our place in His body be? Not only does my church need me, but, if I’m a follower of the living Christ, I need my church as well. If we are going to accomplish the work into which we’ve been sent, we must do it together.
Vance Pitman is the Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas, NV. As a seasoned church planter who has commissioned more than 40 churches, and now as a national mobilizer for NAMB, Vance seeks to promote awareness that the gospel is very needed in the United States as well as all over the world. He and his wife, Kristie, have two sons, two daughters, a son-in-law, and one grandchild on the way.
In our last blog, we closed by posing several questions:
In this blog, we address the first of these, albeit in an abbreviated fashion. For fuller consideration and treatment of these topics, please consult the resources available through the Newbigin Center for the Study of Indigenous Missions (www.unfinishedtask.org/resources).
Conversion is worldview shift, meaning that cross-cultural evangelism is essentially an effort to introduce change into a specific culture. As a result, it is helpful to consider what is meant by culture. In ordinary speech we use the term “culture” to refer to the behavior of the rich and famous. It is listening to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, having the proper taste for good clothes, and knowing which fork to use at a banquet. However, anthropologists in their study of mankind in all parts of the world and all levels of society, have broadened the concept of “culture” and freed it from value judgments, such as good and bad. A good working definition is the one proposed by Paul G. Hiebert: “Culture is the more or less integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.” Another way of stating this is to say that culture is the learned part of man’s environment.
We learn about culture by observing the behavior of people and looking for patterns in that behavior. For example, two North American men when meeting each other usually shake hands, while Hispanics embrace, the French kiss one another’s cheeks, Indians put hands together and raise them towards their foreheads with slight bow of the head, and Suriano men of South America spit on each other’s chest when meeting. Culture is not inherited, but it is learned. In other words, an ethnic Chinese raised in an African environment would act, think and speak as an African. An Anglo child raised in an Indian environment would act, think and speak as an Indian. This process of learning a culture is called enculturation.
Cultures are made up of a great many patterns of behavior, ideas and products, but is more than the sum of them. These patterns are integrated into larger cultural complexes and into total cultural systems.
Hiebert asks if his readers have noticed that Americans have an obsession with platforms (chairs)? He goes on to say that this North American peculiarity may be regularly observed in airports as U. S. travelers uncomfortably drape themselves over chairs in airports while most others sit or lie comfortably on the floor. Behind this pattern of behavior is a basic assumption that the ground and floor are dirty, explaining why we keep our shoes on when we enter a house/building. For a North American, when food touches the ground, it instantly becomes dirty, no matter how clean the floor is. The exception is the unofficial three-second-rule invoked by a number of households, mine being one of them. On the other hand, Asians believe the floor is clean. They take their shoes off at the door, sleep on mats, and eat squatting on floor. These basic assumptions that people have about the nature of reality and of right and wrong, are all integrated into ‘worldview.’ This linkage between cultural traits and their integration into a larger system have important implications for those who seek to introduce change into a culture. Culture abhors a vacuum. When changes are made in one are of culture, changes will occur in other areas of the culture, often in unpredictable ways. A classic example of this may be seen in the low budget film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” – in which a Coca Cola bottle finds its way into Bushmen of Botswana, resulting in selfishness, ownership, jealousy, anger, etc.
In our next entry, we consider in more detail the implications of such cultural differences for Evangelism and church planting.
The word indigenous means "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native." The term is often used in mission circles to describe the proper aim of missionary endeavor. Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, two missionary statesmen, initiated the modern concept of the indigenous church. In their view, the goal of missions was planting the Church through preaching the gospel, cultivating leadership, and developing indigenous churches. They articulated a 'three-self' formula to describe an indigenous church: self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. The Venn/Anderson model of missions offered a radical departure from the old paradigm. Later, John Nevius, an American missionary to China and Korea, developed a similar strategy of indigenous methods known as the “Nevius Plan,” which stressed the three-self formula, but added an emphasis on laity training. Roland Allen, an Anglican missionary to China and East Africa, wrote Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (1921), in which he offered a revolutionary element to the indigenous church philosophy. In church planting strategy, the word indigenous can be applied to the planter or to the church. If applied to the planter, indigenous means that the church planter is from the people group and context in which the church is being planted. If applied to the church, indigenous means that the church members, leadership and forms of the new church largely reflect the people group and context in which the church is being planted. Indigenous churches govern, teach, support and reproduce themselves with local, “home grown” leadership rather than with non-indigenous leadership brought in from outside the context of the new church plant. The goal of indigenous church planting strategy is always to start churches that reflect the cultural and worldview context of the Christians in the new church.
By definition, indigenous church planting among unreached peoples is always, at least initially, a cross-cultural process, simply because there are no believers among the people to launch the effort. Cross-cultural evangelism and church planting is largely about recognizing and identifying walls. The different walls within which people live are not physical ones made of stone or brick; they are invisible, yet they determine our values (right and wrong). There are three basic value systems that enclose people:
1. Social System - traditions/customs that determine how people behave.
2. Cultural System – what holds people together as a unit.
3. Beliefs System – people’s religious beliefs.
Our task is primarily one of communication that takes into account these walls, but refuses to leave people behind them where they are shielded from the Gospel. We are to proclaim the good news and victory in Jesus in such a way that people who are walled in by their social customs, cultural forms, and religious beliefs, and enslaved by sin and evil, can hear and understand what we’re talking about. Only when they understand are they ready to respond to the love of Christ.
In other words, our task is not to fight against systems, but to communicate effectively within them. For example, a great deal of evangelism is taking place in India. There are 13 million Christians in a nation of 1 billion; however, a large percentage of these Christians are drawn from tribal societies rather than mainstream Hinduism. The Christian church has largely been ineffective in penetrating the citadel of Hinduism, with the past exception of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Various teams are going out with gospel literature all across the country of India. Gospel programs are broadcast in most of the major languages of India. But for some reason, and for the most part, the Christian message is not penetrating into the minds and hearts of Hindus. Obviously, an essential element is missing, one that effectively communicates the Good News of Christ so that Hindus hear, understand, believe and obey, without feeling forced to scale unnatural or "foreign" obstacles in the process. E. Stanley Jones called this encountering "the Christ of the Indian road."
In our next blog, we will consider the following questions related to cross-cultural evangelism and church planting: