How can we reach the people from within their culture rather than reaching out from our own?

By Hillary Vargas

In a small Moldovan town, there is a church that I attended for a few months. The pastor’s wife was the worship director. The songs she chose were usually songs that I was familiar with, except we were singing in Romanian and Russian. The songs were pre-recorded with minimal instruments, but still had a very Western feel. I noticed that while the Moldovan church members sang the songs and knew them well, they wouldn’t respond to the music by clapping or raising their hands.

One day, the worship leader decided to sing a song that had a very Moldovan/Eastern European feel to it. This was the first time I had heard this type of music within the church walls. At first I didn’t notice any reaction from the church members, but then I noticed a man who was tapping his foot to the beat. I was surprised at first, but it actually made sense. The people hadn’t been singing songs from their culture at this church; they had been singing translated versions of another culture’s music that they couldn’t really connect to. Translating the song wasn’t enough; the song itself needed to be from Moldova in order for the people to respond from their hearts.

I wonder how differently these church members would worship if they sang songs that were made in the traditional Moldovan style. At weddings and parties, these fast-paced, upbeat songs are played at full volume, and the people dance with high energy while shouting from the top of their lungs, with light practically shining from their faces. To see this is to see true freedom in self-expression. I can only imagine how the worship services would be if there existed songs of this type with worship lyrics.

When we do any sort of outreach, whether in another culture or in a subculture of our own, how do we think about the people we are trying to reach? What music do they relate to? What part of their culture must we understand in order to communicate God’s love in the most effective way? How can we reach the people from within their culture rather than reaching out from our own? Jesus did this whenever He told a parable. His disciples and the communities He visited were largely made up of farmers, so in order to reach their hearts, He first reached their minds through the common understanding of agriculture. He told stories like the shepherd leaving his herd to go find one sheep that was lost (Luke 15:3–7); He used the analogy of Jesus being the vine and believers being the fruit-bearing branches that grow from the vine (John 15:1–17); He even caused an actual fig tree to wither as an illustration of how our faith should stand (Mark 11:12–14, 20–26). If Jesus were conducting His earthly ministry today, I can imagine that in order to reach us, He would tell quite a few parables using cat memes and referencing modern technology. (Something akin to “I am the power strip, and you are the charging cord. Anyone who remains plugged into me will always produce a phone with a fully charged battery.”)

How can we reach the minds of those we serve in order to ultimately reach their hearts with the gospel message?

Assuming that I Know Nothing

One key to reaching people is through humility. If we enter a new culture thinking that a) we already know how to do a certain thing and b) that how we do it is the only way to do it, that automatically creates a barrier between us and anyone we may be trying to serve. This next story illustrates how not to do this.

Lessons from Moldovan Ham

In Moldova, the town I lived in had a nice downtown area with shops and a couple of restaurants. There was also a deli chain that had a few locations around the country. I had bought a few things there before, and never thought of it as being any different from ordering from a deli in my local grocery store in Pennsylvania. But one particular day, I decided to order some lunch meat for sandwiches. I ordered 500 grams of the ham and perused the other deli options while the attendant prepared the meat. She handed me the bag of ham, and when I looked at it, I noticed that I was holding one chunk of ham, not the sliced ham I had assumed I was ordering. I asked her, “Why is this not sliced?” She replied simply, “You didn’t ask me to slice it.” My pride flared as I thought to myself, I shouldn’t have to ask you to slice it. This is a deli, for crying out loud! I asked her if she could slice the piece she had just given to me, but she said that it was too small to be cut on the machine. No thinly sliced meat for me that day!

Instead of internally responding with pride, what if I had thought about what made more sense culturally? Something like, Oh, that actually makes sense. I’ve more often seen people chop up blocks of ham for traditional salads than I’ve ever seen people eat sandwiches. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone eat a sandwich with sliced meat in the year and a half that I’ve lived here. Having this type of response automatically come to mind may require a paradigm shift of seeing other cultures through their own lens rather than through our own. Assuming that I knew nothing about how to order at a deli could have prevented that small wall from being built up inside me as a result of that experience.

Changing Our Paradigm

This paradigm shift can be applied in missions as well. Just because evangelicals in the USA worship with guitars and drums doesn’t mean that we should take guitars and drums to the mountains of Peru or to the Indian countryside and expect the people to suddenly worship God “appropriately.” In fact, the very way in which we present the gospel could potentially build a wall between us and someone from another culture, as illustrated below.

Could it be that when we take the “American” way of doing things with us in missions (which we will if we don’t think about it beforehand), the people we are trying to reach might not respond well to our way of communicating, our way of building trust, or our way of presenting the gospel story?1 For example, think about how a person with a Western background might present the gospel message to a room full of people versus someone of an Asian background. A Westerner would likely first present the fact that Jesus loves us and died for our sins, followed by explaining why. An Asian would most likely start in Genesis and tell the backstory of the Jews before arriving at Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.2 If you as a Westerner presented the facts first to someone in Asia, they may wonder if you think they are stupid enough to just take a “fact” at face value without first showing them the bigger picture, followed by how all of the pieces fit together. Likewise, if you as someone with an Asian cultural background start in Genesis when presenting the gospel to Westerners, you run the risk of losing the attention of your audience fairly quickly.

Being aware of the culture we enter on the mission field, and responding to everything with humility helps us to reach people’s minds and then their hearts, the way Jesus would have.

1.  The book The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, (2015) dissects several actions that we take in cross-cultural situations and offers a continuum for each one. Cultures can be placed anywhere along each continuum. Communicating, trusting, and persuading are three of these continua.
2.  The Culture Map, pp.104–112.

This article is from the book Evolving Missions: 24 Voices Reflecting on Missions Today. This book is a collection of 31 articles which show the diversity of modern missions and ways in which we can all be involved today. For more information or to purchase a copy, click here.

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About Hillary Vargas

Hillary has joined and co-led short-term teams to Guatemala. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Moldova from 2014 to 2016 with her husband, Adrin, Hillary has felt her long-term call to missions through administration. She has worked in the DMI office in Lititz, PA, since 2018.