By Robert Guinn
Culture plays a major role in how someone communicates to others and interprets communication of others. For example, in the United States if someone says they are “under the weather,” we know that they are sick or ill. I have been told, however, that in Australia that same phrase indicates that someone has a hangover or is feeling the affects of intoxication. There is an obvious difference in communication within cultures.
The Bible tells us to, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person,” (Colossians 4:6). This teaches us the importance of being flexible in our methods of communication. If we truthfully desire to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then our communication needs to adapt to the culture of those we are trying to reach.
Our national culture, for better or worse, is changing. We can no longer ignore the fact that the culture of the United States is switching to what historians and observers refer to as a Post-Christian culture. This means that the culture is becoming more and more “unchurched.” The trend seems to be that fewer people are actually being raised in a religious atmosphere. The average American’s knowledge base of the Bible appears to be decreasing. How should this alter our communication? We cannot assume that everyone we talk to believes in an Eternal Creator of the Universe (i.e. God), a Divinely inspired, inerrant written document of God’s word (i.e. the Bible), or that they believe in a crucified and risen Savior of the world (i.e. Jesus Christ). We may not be able to teach them about Jesus the first time we talk to them. An example of this is found in Acts 17 when Paul addresses the Athenians on Mars Hill.
Language varies from culture to culture. Aside from the obvious differences that exist when common languages differ, different cultures exist among those speaking the same language. Whether it is how something is said or a difference in vocabulary, each culture has its “fightin’ words” and its expressions of love and comfort. The cultures might vary due to geographic location, level of education, occupation, or socioeconomic status. How should this change our communication? The Bible teaches us that our communication should be constructive in nature (Ephesians 4:29). We should never seek to talk DOWN to or talk AT someone, but to communicate WITH them. It is not about proving our point or superiority. Rather, communicating the eternal love, mercy, grace, and justice of our Lord.
Relationships greatly impact our culture’s perspective. Living in an experience driven culture, the desire for deep meaningful relationships has been cultivated. How should this impact our communication? Attention needs to be given to non-verbal communication. Our culture is looking at the outward conviction of those professing their faith. They want to see that we actually have the personal relationship with God that we are advertising. Since there is such a stress on relationships, not only does our culture desire a sincere Heavenly relationship, but we also want to see the love among God’s people (John 13:34- 35).
Paul, as God’s spokesman, altered his communication as fit best the culture of those he was teaching (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). He understood the need to adapt to the culture of others in order to reach them with the Gospel. May we, as God’s people, be willing to seek the best way of communicating to others, considering the importance of culture.
- Robert Guinn preaches for the Central Church of Christ in Paducah KY. He may be contacted through the congregation's website.