Adapting the Message in Communication

Effective cross-cultural communication hinges on multiple key actions during the message-making process that support the mission of God. Each makes up distinct but mutually dependent aspects for effective cross-cultural communication in a multi-ethnic church environment. Prior writings examined intentionality and openness. Intentional communication supports transformation through Christ by planned and purposeful means. This communicative feature requires that we understand another’s culture to cross over boundaries that pose barriers that inhibit the listener from understanding of message. The communicator seeks purposeful strategies that diffuse cultural noise in the encoding and decoding process. Another facet that furthers cross-cultural communication comes with openness. In this manner, openness in communication occurs from a demeanor of accepting, not judging and understanding of others stemming from the love of Christ and for our brothers. We project an invitational tone with openness.

In addition to intentionality and openness in communication, adaptability presents itself as another key element for cross-cultural communication. Adaptable communication seeks a delivery mode specific to a person or group of people adjusted to the cultural patterns that influence understanding, but keeping to the fidelity of the Gospel. We build adaptability upon the realization that people perceive communication and interaction differently from one another. Being adjustable subsequently pushes us out of our box to use a variety of communication approaches and methods in ministry. This means that we continually microscope the ways we communicate in ministry since culture constantly fluxes with contemporary migratory patterns and global demographic fluxes. Since culture encompasses what Eric Law describes as, “internal and external learned behaviors and beliefs shared by one group of people,” we must have a thorough knowledge of the multiple and dynamic cultures present in our congregation, surrounding communities and target populations [1]. In essence, adaptability celebrates the diversity of the Christ community found in unity with Him.

Applications of Adaptability in Scripture

We find an application of adaptability in the early church. For example, Apostle Paul adjusted his evangelism and teaching styles to the different people groups he encountered along his missionary travels. While he never changed the Gospel message, he adapted its delivery according to the cultural characteristics of these populations. He lived out the adage of one size does not fit all. This holds true today, just it did during times of antiquity.

In one instance from the Book of Romans, Paul addressed the audience through the cultural contexts of guilt or shame. In shame cultures, a person feels explicit pressure to conform to societal norms as opposed to guilt cultures when an individual experiences the implicit sense of wrongdoing that leads to a feeling of guilt and self punishment instead. [2] We find guilt more prevalent Western cultures. Paul used a guilt-based rhetoric with Gentiles (e.g., Rom 3:19), but switched to a shame with Jewish Christians (9:33; 10:11). We see similar in the Book of Hebrews when its author spoke from a shame aspect, rather than guilt.[3]

Another occurrence of adaptability features communication relevancy. We find a missionary nature in the Gospel because of its constant adaptation to cultural challenges in order bring the salvation message to life in different “cultural, social, religious and historic settings.” [4] A leader’s task is to make the message of the Gospel relevant to contemporary society while ensuring that the Word retains scriptural fidelity. The Apostle Paul describes himself as “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel…”(Acts 22:3, KJV). In the early church, the Christ community was a mix of Gentiles who converted from paganism, Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who had synagogue connections [5] Paul’s experiences well prepared him to address these different cultures as his own were steeped in three traditions: Jewish, Greek and Roman. By drawing from his background experiences and knowledge in these cultures, He communicated the Word of God to a broad audience. In Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, the apostle began with Gentile paganism roots as a launch, “Ye know ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led” (1 Cor 12:2 KJV). Then, he redirected them to the proper functioning of the gifts (12:3). In this example, Paul communication showed relevancy to this culture with an inclusive perspective by reshaping their prior understanding.

Thinking Out of the Box for Cross Cultural Communication

Adaptability  to Promote Meaning

Get Out of the Box

First, remove any barriers to adapting communication. Get out of your box and try new strategies. The Holy Spirit will guide you. When I think of Peter in Acts 10, I wonder if this caused Peter to move out of his comfort zone when he ministered to Cornelius, a Gentile. The Spirit told Peter, ”Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them” (Acts 10:19-20). Strict Jews would not enter a Gentile home or the reverse. Also, it was considered unclean to eat or drink their wine (Keener, pp. 351-2). Following the leading of the Spirit (10:20), Peter shares the Gospel with Cornelius and his kinsmen and near friends (10:24). The Holy Ghost fell upon all who heard and they spoke “with tongues”(10:44-46). Peter, then commanded that they be baptized in “the name of the Lord” (10:48). Peter adapted to meet the challenge by obediently following the leading of the Holy Spirit to go to Cornelius’s home and God showing Peter that he “should not call any man common or unclean” (10:28).

Realize Perception Influences Communication

Be aware of your own understanding and others. Adapt leadership style and ministry methods to people from other cultures.– Apostle Paul used his knowledge of the Athenian culture and their beliefs in higher beings with supernatural powers (Acts 17). In doing so, he connected the familiar to the unfamiliar through the “UNKNOWN GOD” as an introduction to the supreme God, “Lord of heaven and earth,” who could be known. (Acts 17:23-31).

I read of an example of adapting that really touched me and shows getting out of your box. Alvin Reid (2002), in Radically Unchurched, told the story of a college student who visited a local church. The young man, accustomed to college fellowship, dressed in torn jeans and tie-dyed T-shirt, sporting wild hair. All those seated fixed their eyes on the visitor as he searched for a seat. Since the pews were full, he sat on the floor. Service already had started. One of the deacons rose from his seat and slowly made his way over to the young man. The deacon was older and used a cane, so it took awhile for him to get over to the other side of the church. In the meantime, the church silenced itself. Not even the pastor spoke. When the deacon reached the young man he put down his cane, lowered himself to the ground and sat next to the college student.The pastor’s response was, “what I’m about to preach, you may never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.” [6] Had the deacon handled communication with the college student, circumstances may have taken a different turn.

A Society in Constant Flux

Rapid technological developments and travel ease closed the distance between the world’s inhabitants. We can access information about culture with just a touch of the hand. The Internet, social media and mobile communication joins people in way unimagined ten years ago, and will continue to transform the nature of global communication. US transportation brings people together who may not touch with each other with such frequency otherwise. People generally can come and go without limitations. The early church experienced travel limitations. People went from one place by different means. Mainly they walked. An average person covered about 17-23 miles under normal conditions. “Paul (then Saul) walked about 150 miles from Jerusalem northeast to Damascus; three days of which he depended on travelling companions to lead him by the hand since his was without sight  (9:3-7). He also made the 22-mile trip from Troas to Assos by foot (Acts 20:13) and Malta to Athens while under guard. The average American walks about five miles a day.” [7]

My best advice is to learn about people and try new approaches. Let technology and travel access work to our advantage. Meet people. Get acquainted with different traditions. Learn how people think. Hear them through their perspective. Above all, be transparent and open to new relationships for the cause of the Gospel.

Peace be unto you,

Jan Paron,

All Nations Leadership Institute

September 4, 2013

Endnotes 

  1. Eric Law, Inclusion: Making Room for Grace (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000).
  2. John C. Condon and Fathi S. Yousef, An Introduction to Intercultural Communication (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), 116.
  3. Duane Elmer, Cross Cultural Connections: Stepping out and fitting in Around the World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 174.
  4. Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2005), 13-14.
  5. Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament, 125.
  6. Alvin Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who They Are and How To Reach Them. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2002). loc 102.
  7. Jan Paron, “Learning From Paul in Acts: Post-Pentecost Witness,” Specs12. n.p. (cited on 4 September 2013. Online: http://specs12.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/learning-from-paul-in-acts-post-pentecost-witness/.

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3 comments on “Adapting the Message in Communication

  1. Something that became very clear in this post is the need for understanding. We perish because of a lack of understanding. This not only applies to understanding the Word of God, but understanding each other. We must take the time and effort to gain an understanding of one another and our needs in order to effectively communicate in a multicultural church. I think that when we begin to apply the adaptability elements you described we will be amazed by what we find out about people that we see on a weekly basis and how to communicate with them more effectively. Thanks for sharing this important information:)

  2. One question, how do we expand our horizons on a church level to learn how people think? It was easy to do this when I traveled and lived globally, but I think it may be more challenging in one’s own environment. Thoughts?.. Matasha

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