A Meeting of Meanings

Someone described communication as a meeting of meanings. Mere telling isn’t communication; a bridge of mutual understanding must be built or the speaker is still speaking to himself. Jim Peterson wisely writes “The test of communication is not to be found in the words of the communicator but in the understanding of the listener. Telling is a one-person function. Communication is a two-way street.” (Living Proof, p. 61) Am I content with telling? Is it enough to say some words I understand, but my listeners do not? Do I really believe God is pleased or people are helped?

This becomes more difficult as we step away from our own culture. People who visit another country for a short period of time often come away with the false notion “people are pretty much alike wherever you go.” There are certainly some common features to the human experience everywhere, but a little more time would begin to reveal profound differences which must be understood to communicate beyond a surface level.

I am putting down these thoughts not with the Christian in mind who will move to a foreign country or even one who will reach out to the internationals living down the street. Both endeavors are vital. I am thinking instead of the Christian who does not yet realize the profound cultural gulf that exists between us and the secular-minded people born and raised around us. Perhaps he is so involved with church friends and activities he is like the short-term visitor to another country in regard to the larger culture.

Foreign missionaries understand it all very well or at least should. You have to take time to respectfully listen and learn in order to speak in terms the listener comprehends. Instead of asking a question such as “Do you believe in God – yes or no?” A better approach might be to ask a person how he sees God and then be quiet and listen. The shock occasionally comes when the full answer reveals absolutely no common ground, and the term “God” contains no Biblical meaning at all to the person.

Tellers would see such listening as a waste of time. Communicators understand it is essential.

Four observations:

1. It falls to the Christian to work to understand the secular culture sufficiently to communicate adequately. It is foolish to expect secular people to learn our “language” to ask us about Jesus Christ. The Great Commission is about going, not about waiting on them to come to us on our terms.

2. We perhaps admire the costly dedication and love for the Lord of the foreign missionary. We need the same dedication and love to reach what is probably now a majority of the population in the US and Canada. All cross-cultural ministry is costly. It is servant work, and it requires Holy Spirit fruit. (See Galatians 5:16-26)

3. The best and brightest example of all I am saying is Jesus Christ who left heaven to dwell among us. The living Word adapted to us (but not our sins) so that He might communicate with us and save us. He lovingly came to me where I was and as I was, and He calls me to do the same.

4. We are much like Jesus when, through the Holy Spirit’s power and fruit, we recognize and reach across cultural divides. It was probably uncomfortable at times for the Creator of the world to live in it. It certainly creates tension and discomfort to reach out, but He said “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.”


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