“Nobody likes you. It would be better if you and your Jesus had never been born. We hear that you are all cannibals–you eat the flesh of your children in your sacred meetings.” This was said by Caecilius to his friend Octavius in the 2nd century. Pretty significant cultural misunderstanding about Christianity, don’t you think? Cultural barriers are not new to us today.
As we work with people from other faith backgrounds, these misunderstandings feel huge. Could they even prevent the starting of a Disciple Making Movement? How can they be overcome?
Good News: It’s A Short-Term Problem
Many cultural misunderstandings about Christianity exist. These do create difficulty in the early stages of the movement. Over time, the problem lessens. More and more indigenous people come to Christ and express the gospel in simple ways. Barriers fall.
One of the characteristics of DMMs is that they are locally led. As outsiders recede into the background, cultural expressions of the gospel emerge naturally. The image of Christianity (and of Jesus followers) in the region begins to shift.
Aren’t You A Christian?
I was riding first class on an Indian train. I almost never did that, but no other seat was available. A well-educated Muslim businessman sat in the opposite seat in my compartment. I was tired, so I relaxed and read a book.
He was busy on his cell phone, talking to clients. I noticed that he was articulate. He spoke excellent English and was clearly well-traveled.
After a few hours, he too relaxed a bit and pulled a book out of his briefcase. He began to read a publication put out by a group called Osho. Having had some experience with this group, I was surprised to see him reading this.
We began a conversation. I asked what he thought of the book and the Osho philosophy of life. “What do you think about their attitudes toward freedom and sexuality?” I inquired.
Slowly, the door opened to share that I believed God (using the Muslim word- Allah). “He has given us guidelines about how to function well in this aspect of life,” I shared.
“I believe the all-powerful Creator loves us and gave these rules to us for our good and blessing,” I said. Surprise showed on his face.
He then asked a revealing question. “Aren’t you a Christian?”
He automatically assumed I was. After all, I was from a Western country.
“I am a follower of Jesus,” I replied. “I worship the Creator of the world.”
His face twisted into a confused look. “I thought all Christians believed in free sex,” he said.
Though educated and well-traveled, he had never met a genuine follower of Christ. His only perception of Christianity came from Hollywood movies. I was so happy to share with him more about who Jesus is and how He taught us to live.
4 Tips For Overcoming Initial Cultural Barriers
1) Don’t promote Christianity, share Jesus.
“It is He whom we proclaim as we admonish and wisely teach everyone, so that we may present everyone mature in the Messiah.” Col 1:28 ISV (Italics added).
Many times, cultural misunderstandings about Christianity relate to organized religion. I often say, “I don’t care if people become Christians or not, I want them to become disciples of Jesus.”
Our goal should not be to promote our religion or to convince anyone to change religions. We must change our mindset.
We are there to share about Jesus. Introduce people to Him. Focus on who He is, what He taught and that He is alive today.
Barriers fall away when we stop trying to get people to become Christians and simply introduce them to the One who changed our lives. If it helps, call yourself a Jesus follower, and don’t use the term Christian at the beginning (or at all).
2) Learn about the cultural barriers and how to bridge them without watering down the power of the gospel.
Talk to local friends who are not yet believers. Ask them what they find difficult about Christianity. Then, find ways to dialogue about those areas bringing greater understanding.
Ask a lot of questions. Be a humble learner rather than a teacher.
This will give you a platform to also share your ideas with your friends. Be curious and interested in why they believe what they believe. This will lead to much better fruit.
3) Use barriers as opportunities.
A common obstacle in Asia is the idea that “All roads lead to god.”
Mike Shipman in his excellent book Any 3, uses this as a bridge to share the gospel.
When someone says this, you can reply “I agree that all religions teach similar moral principles.” You just prevented a big wall from going up.
Now talk about those moral principles. Ask, “Do you think anyone can perfectly follow all the principles of Buddhism (Hinduism or Islam)? How do you know if you have obeyed them well enough to receive salvation?”
You’ve gained the opportunity for a meaningful conversation.
4) Lastly, be inclusive rather than using a “us and them” approach.
When sharing the gospel avoid language that emphasizes your differences. Don’t say things like “Our God is like this.” You don’t want it to become an Our God vs. Your God conversation.
Instead, look for ways to show that we are all humans with problems and needs. Identify with them in the issues that matter to them in their culture and worldview.
Then show how Jesus provides answers for those needs. Personal testimony is often a great way to do this.
You Need A Movement!
These tips for overcoming cultural misunderstandings about Christianity will help. They won’t end the problem completely, however.
It will only be solved when there are thousands of genuine Jesus followers there. When people actively live out the reality of transformed lives, the perceptions about Christianity can change in a very broad way.
That takes time. It takes a movement.
What do you do to overcome cultural misunderstandings in your location?
Let me know in the comments below, or on the DMMs Frontier Missions Facebook Page.
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