Words are powerful. They give meaning and value and relay a variety of information and ideas to the listener. Words are the building blocks of language and carry the potential to enhance or dampen human relationships. Without the use of words vibrating off of our tongues and sending our conceptual thoughts into the air and then landing on an open ear-way, life as we know it would end up being more shallow, suspect, and overall, silenced, wouldn’t you say? Wait! You need words to answer that!
The Bible teaches, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Col. 4:6 NKJV).
As a church planter, pastor, and evangelist, I certainly love to jump on any opportunity to share the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. I am convinced that words carry great influence to change lives and bring people together, unless, of course, a language barrier gets in the way.
It has been said that the message given is not always the message received. Without a common language, our words may mean something very different to those we are speaking. Thus, words conceived still need to be received. You understand? Comprende? Capisce? Comprenez vous?
Language barrier is not limited to people who speak different languages but includes those of the same language who come from two entirely different cultures. Diverse cultures create certain barriers that give way to the same words having different meanings and causing different reactions. In Isaiah 36:11, we see that the men representing King Hezekiah were concerned about the reaction of the people, so they asked the Assyrian commander to speak only in Aramaic instead of the Judean or Hebrew language.
After eight years of serving the Lord in Cambridge, England, I learned that the English and the Americans are separated by more than just a large body of water, but by a more complex river that fragments with a common language. It seems that new words and meanings are always floating to the surface. For example, I have learned to say “trousers” instead of “pants”, since pants refer to undergarments to the English. I often say “mate” as an affectionate term instead of “bro” or “buddy,” which I had grown up with. I have also learned to use the Queen’s English when writing and to adjust my ways of communicating by lowering my volume, being more selective in my language, and sometimes even ending my statements with the British proverbial question, “Isn’t it?”
In order to adapt to the culture we live in, we must turn barriers into evangelistic opportunities. When a Brit hears my accent, I am often asked what brought me over to England. This serves as a great open door for any foreigner to share their faith and to connect people with the real Jesus that religious facades often misrepresent. Thus, my intention is not to interfere with daily life but to influence daily life with the authentic reality of Christ.
Regardless of our cultural background, we must fully embrace our new identity in Christ and replace our former ways of thinking. We must learn to adjust our background, beliefs, and behaviors to what the Bible says, and not the other way around. Since Jesus came to the earth as the servant of all (although He was a true citizen of heaven), we must follow His example and take the lowliest position to reach people from every walk of life.
The apostle Paul understood this well when he wrote, “Although I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant of all, that I might win the more” (1 Cor. 9:19). I had to learn to be like the “Brit” to win the “Brit”. If we are to win souls in cross-cultural situations, we need to distinguish what the Bible actually teaches from what our cultural lens sometimes assumes the Bible is teaching.
When sharing Christ in foreign countries, I have learned to speak more slowly, simply, and clearly for my message to properly translate. When Christ’s love and cultural alertness are joined together, we are able to bridge the gap of any cultural divide.
Here are a few essential tips in overcoming language barriers.
1. LEARN, OBSERVE, AND LISTEN TO THE LANGUAGE OF THE CULTURE (LOL).
In order to avoid offending someone or causing someone to laugh out loud, try this version of LOL instead, and find out what people are saying, what they value, and the meaning behind unfamiliar words.
2. HONOR OTHERS AND “BEND” TO THEIR CULTURE.
As a foreigner, you will never be able to perfectly blend into the culture since your differences will always stand out to the locals. But you must learn to bend to the culture by intentionally respecting its values, even when people automatically stereotype you up as soon as you open your mouth. The Proverbs tell us that “before honor is humility” (Prov. 18:12 NKJV), so humbly seek to treat people the way you want to be treated and greeted––with respect and honor.
3. POINT PEOPLE TO YOUR CHRIST RATHER THAN YOUR COUNTRY.
Do not try to make people become more like you or the culture from which you came, but seek to make them more like the Jesus you worship. Your calling is to make them citizens of heaven, not your country on earth. So don’t draw additional attention to your cultural background and preferences.
4. ABOVE ALL, VALUE THEM AS THE OBJECTS OF CHRIST’S UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
As Romans 14:15 reminds us, “Do not destroy with your food [or whatever] the one for whom Christ died.” It is easy to get irritated by cultural differences, but we must see cross-cultural experiences as an opportunity for the love of Christ to supersede our own preferences and comfort zones. We must believe that “love bears all things” and “never fails” (1 Cor. 13:7-8). Isn’t this what Jesus modeled for us? He left His glorious throne in heaven to dwell among fallen sinners on earth to reconcile us to God so that we “through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
The gospel truly breaks through every language barrier and rolls every stone away so that the living Christ can be seen and praised in every tribe, tongue and nation. The message of the cross is the only cross-cultural message that breaks the greatest of all barriers, which is sin, bringing eternal life to all who put their trust in Him.
Now that’s a word the whole world needs to hear!