Communication is a very complex human activity. Using our speech mechanism, we convert thought into a series of sounds, syllables, and words whose meaning we agree upon. Depending on our relationship, the words might change. If I am the CEO, and you are an employee, I may use very formal speech. If we are friends and co-workers, I will be much more informal. The sounds enter your auditory system and are processed in your brain. You determine the meaning of the sounds and respond accordingly.
Sometimes there is a breakdown in communication. We husbands are endowed with the ability to articulate a clear message to our wives in precise words that cannot possibly be misunderstood. Unfortunately, our memories are somewhat faulty. A month or a year later, our wives (who are endowed with infallible memories) can quote what we said word for word. Since we men cannot remember the conversation, let alone the exact words, all we can say is, “Well, maybe that’s what I said, but that is not what I meant.”
Dr. Charles Turner estimates that only eighty percent of our conversation is understood by the other person in the way we intend; and that is among speakers of the same language and culture! If that be true, imagine the potential for miscommunication when a missionary speaks to people in a new language and culture! And if he fails to communicate, his listeners will fail to understand the message of salvation! Missionary Tom Gaudet said, “Communication is a wonderful thing—when it happens.”
As Christians, we all need to improve our communication skills; but the teacher or preacher especially needs to be sure that his words are understood in the way he intends. The burden is on him to insure that his congregation understands the message clearly. He must consider the age of the listeners, their education, and especially their spiritual level. Dr. Fred Schindler repeatedly told us ministerial students, “Put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” He wanted us to make the message clear enough for a child to understand. A missionary might say, “I gave those people the gospel, but they didn’t accept it. I did my part.” The question is not whether he gave them the gospel, but whether they understood it. If the people do not understand the message, the teacher has not yet communicated it. If I am trying to lead my son to Christ, I don’t tell him the gospel once and leave it at that. I listen and get feedback as he “preaches” what I have taught him to his little brother or to the family dog. I will probably hear some heresy. But I re-explain the message and use illustrations that he can relate to. I ask questions to see what he understands, and I do this as long as needed. In the same way, we must insure that the pagan understands the message; then the Holy Spirit can deal with his reluctance and resistance.
There is a great need today for good cross-cultural communicators. There are over seven billion people in the world, speaking nearly seven thousand languages. Very few have even heard the gospel, let alone understood it. We need missionaries; but we need missionaries that can communicate! A missionary must learn the new language. Speaking through a translator often results in miscommunication. Speaking the trade language instead of the heart language may result in miscommunication. Speaking with a strong accent will certainly be distracting and will increase the chances of miscommunication. The missionary must not only speak the new language, he must dig deep into the culture and know what the pagan man is thinking. The national already has a complete set of religious beliefs that to him are true. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather lived and died believing them. He is not going to discard them and accept something new just because some foreigner comes along and tells him he must. If he is quick to accept this new Christian doctrine, it may well be that he is only mixing it with his old belief. We call this syncretism. The pagan needs to see that his belief is wrong and that his god is false. He must turn from it (repent) and turn to the true God (believe). The missionary must patiently teach, explain, and illustrate the gospel message, making a clear contrast between the pagan’s belief and the true Way of God. It is essential that I know where my son is in his understanding of salvation before I lead him to make a decision. Likewise, the missionary must know what the national is thinking before he can expect him to believe unto salvation.
A missionary going to a new village is a foreigner preaching a foreign message. He distributes gospel tracts that come from a foreign-thinking mind and pen. This is not the most effective communication. Real communication requires the missionary to do his homework, linguistic and culture analysis. That is hard work, and he must prepare himself for it. Communication may also require Bible translation. Salvation and spiritual growth can happen, but there are seldom any shortcuts. Communication is indeed a wonderful thing; and we must make it happen!