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You have to learn the language to communicate Christ.
Preaching once in Nicaragua, I tried my limited Spanish, but instead of the epistolas de Pablo (“the epistles of Paul”), I accidentally said the pistolas de Pablo (“the pistols of Paul”). I also mistakenly referred to mi esposa (“my wife”) as mi esposo (“my husband”).
Failure to learn the language is muy peligroso (“very dangerous”).
Language learning isn’t just important in other countries. Right here in America, each subculture has its own way of talking.
In Denver you “wash the car,” in St. Louis you “warsh the car,” and in Boston you “pahk the cah” and then “wahsh it.” (You knew that because you’re “wicked smaht.”) In the Midwest, that carbonated beverage is a “pop,” in the Northeast a “soda,” and in the South a “Coke.” Whether the differences are regional, ethnic, or generational, you’ve met people who were speaking English, but it sounded like Greek to you.
Tom Long, a Georgia native living in New Jersey, describes the difference in how those two cultures communicate:
Listen to this rather ordinary conversation between two Southerners. One of them has paid an afternoon visit to the other, and the hostess says, “Would you like something to drink?”
The other person says, “Oh no, don’t go to any trouble” (which virtually every Southerner knows is code for, “Yes, I would like something to drink”).
The hostess, knowing the code, says, “It’s no trouble. I’ve got coffee, tea, and Coke. What would you like?”
“Whatever you’re having. Don’t fix anything just for me” (which is code for, I have something in mind, but I’m not sure it’s all right to ask for it).
“Oh no, the coffee’s brewed, the tea water’s hot, and the Coke’s in the fridge. It’s no trouble at all.”
“How nice. Well then, I’d like a cup of coffee.”
“Fine. Sugar? Cream?”
“Oh, don’t mess with all that.” (In other words, one sugar and a little cream.)
This kind of conversation drives New Jersians crazy. Ask natives of New Jersey if they would like something to drink, and they will say, “Yes, I’m thirsty. I want some juice.” But…we in the Southern culture…spend much of our time saying what we do not mean, or rather, saying what we do mean indirectly with nuances, hints, winks, and verbal inflections. (Thomas Long, The Senses of Preaching, Westminster John Knox, 1988)
Whether across the world or just across a few state lines, you have to learn the local language to communicate Christ. Missions professors call this cultural agility: the ability to understand and connect with people in different cultural contexts.
The apostle Paul had cultural agility. As a missionary, he studied a people group, learned their vocabulary, then packaged the unfamiliar gospel in familiar terms they could understand. In Acts 17, preaching to pagan Athenian philosophers, Paul quotes the pagan poets Epimenides and Aratus and echoes the pagan orator Seneca, all to communicate biblical truth.
Jesus had cultural agility. The ultimate missionary, Jesus traveled from heaven to earth, followed the local Galilean customs, ate local foods, wore local clothes, spoke the local dialect, and told familiar stories of everyday Palestinian village life. Though he was from an entirely different place, Jesus connected so deeply with the human experience—specifically, the first century Jewish experience—that they thought he was one of their own. “Jesus was so thoroughly a part of his culture that, when being betrayed by Judas, he had to be identified by a kiss.” (Ed Stetzer, “Monday is for Missiology: Some Thoughts on Contextualization,” christianitytoday.com)
My friend Roger has cultural agility. An OCC graduate, he once invited me to preach at his church on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. I arrived at the church early Sunday and asked if we could talk through the morning service. But—not thinking about my cultural context—I used a word I’d often used before:
“Hey Roger, can we go to your office to pow-wow?”
He steered me to his office and there gently explained that, among Native Americans, a pow-wow was a solemn cultural ceremony. Using that word for an everyday conversation could accidentally sound disrespectful. A small thing, he said, but he wanted to be considerate of the people he was trying to reach.
When it comes to cultural agility, I have a lot to learn.
Our students have a lot to learn as well. That’s why OCC has long sought to be a multicultural campus.
Over thirty years ago, our trustee board funded the International Student Grant, providing financial support for international students to study at OCC. We’ve welcomed students from places like China and the Congo, Mexico and Myanmar, Haiti and Honduras.
About seven years ago, we made plans to welcome, not just international students, but more U.S. students who represented ethnic and cultural diversity. We created a Diversity Department and set up scholarships that did for ethnically diverse American students what International Student Grants did for students from other countries.
Why? What motivates decisions like these? Three reasons.
The first reason is theological: a multicultural campus better reflects God’s heart. God desires a people from every ethnic group (Matt 28:18-20). Since the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the world had been divided by language, culture, and race. But Christ’s death reconciled us with God and with each other—especially other ethnic groups (Eph 2:15-16).
So in Acts 2, the reversal of Babel began, and that very first church was made up of believers from at least 15 different people groups (Acts 2:9-11). Different skin colors, clothes, foods, and languages, yet “all the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44). We want Ozark to look the same. In a world where prejudices run high, a multiethnic community of believers is a compelling testimony about the heart of God.
The second reason is practical: a diverse campus better recruits future students. When I was president of the 2013 North American Christian Convention, I invited sisters (and OCC alums) Brittany Bolt and Brianna Bolt Bushnell to help lead worship. They love Jesus deeply, and their voices could draw tears from stone. They’re also black.
One evening at the convention, I met two new Orchard Group church planters. They’d never been to the NACC before. Both young men were African American, and one said, “We have really enjoyed this week’s convention! To be honest, when we first walked into the auditorium, we weren’t sure this place was for folks like us. [The vast majority of NACC attenders were white.] But then we saw those ladies singing on stage, and we thought, ‘Okay, this feels like family.’”
We want to cultivate a multicultural campus so that, when minority students come, they won’t feel like an out-of-place guest but like an expected part of the family.
In our most recent issue of The Ambassador magazine, you’ll read about the great work Director of Diversity Matthew McBirth has done, growing OCC’s minority student population from 9% to 17%. But we still have a ways to go. In 2016, 51% of all public elementary and secondary school students in the U.S. were nonwhite. America is growing more diverse, and I want those future college students to hear God’s call to ministry and come prepare at Ozark!
The third reason is missional: a multicultural campus better prepares evangelistic leaders. Our mission is training men and women to reach the world with the gospel, and a culturally diverse world is best reached by culturally discerning leaders.
The apostle Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). To the Jews, he became like a Jew, to the Romans like a Roman, to the Greeks like a Greek. When he was arrested in Acts 21, Paul surprised the Roman commander by speaking his language and thus got permission to address the rioting crowd. Turning to the threatening mob, he got their attention by switching to their dialect. “When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet” (Acts 22:2). Paul then proceeded to preach Jesus.
You have to learn the language to communicate Christ.
That’s why we want a multicultural campus. When our students build diverse friendships—with peers from Mexico and Manhattan, Latvia and Los Angeles—their cultural agility begins to grow. They start to think like a missionary. Whether they end up in Nicaragua, New Orleans, or North Dakota, they learn to speak like a local so they can speak about the Lord.
Take it from me: without that skill, ministry is muy peligroso.
This article first appeared in the most recent issue of The Ambassador magazine. Read the entire issue here.