In our previous city we once tried to host a reconciliation meeting in our living room. Two key families in our young church plant had fallen out with each other. So we tried to get them in the same room together with a respected believing brother who we hoped could help mediate.
We quickly learned why locals do not attempt this sort of meeting format, but rather depend on each party sharing their side separately with a “judge” who then gets them together, but only to pronounce the binding judgement. This set up prevents the angry parties from breaking out into a shouting match or a fist fight, both of which almost took place in the middle of our living room “reconciliation meeting.” The gravitas of the honorable judge figure demands they keep their peace, at least in the meeting itself. I’m not saying that the kind of reconciliation meetings where both parties get to share their side in front of one another are utterly impossible here, once believers mature in their faith. But we quickly saw that we were at that point completely unable to keep that meeting from spiraling out of control. Hard hearts and sharp words led to an almost complete disaster.
We had by that point come into the Advanced-Mid language level, the much longed-for goal of all of the first term families with our organization. But having reached that point where we were able to teach, evangelize, disciple, and befriend almost entirely in the local language, we still experienced a very frightening thing that night. Our language level was nowhere near strong enough to handle angry and arguing local believers who were right about to throw punches. We were, having supposedly “tested out,” utterly linguistically incompetent for that kind of situation. It was a sobering and humbling realization.
A few months later one of those local men embarked on a campaign of slander, half-truths, and deception against us that ended up splitting that fledgling church plant. Once again, we found our language ability woefully insufficient to keep up with this divisive man who was practically running circles around us.
Why do I share these things? Well, my wife actually inspired this post. In a meeting today she shared this story as a way to spur our team on toward pressing on in our language learning, in spite of the difficulty and cost. To do church planting work well in places like this, we simply must get to the point where we are able to navigate angry and emotional conflict language. Our experience that night was that our comprehension, usually up around eighty to ninety percent, had dropped down below twenty. And the emotion of the moment meant that our tongues and brains were stuck. We were unable to broker peace at the crucial moment. And yet as cross-cultural church planters, we absolutely need to be able to do that – and to be able to counteract the Titus 3 divisive man when he emerges. To stop proactively learning language when we get to a point like Advanced-Mid is to leave the young believers in great danger.
So, we must press on. If you have been overseas for a number of years, then you know well the toll language learning can take. It is awfully tempting to plateau, assuring ourselves that we have enough language to do fruitful ministry. Often we do have enough language to do fruitful ministry. The question is, do we have enough language to do the urgent ministry required when it all hits the proverbial fan? This is another question entirely.
Press on, weary language learners. That phrase, that verb, that idiom – it may the key to defusing a dangerous situation, to saving a church plant.
I waited anxiously at the hole-in-the wall restaurant where we had agreed to meet. It was the kind of place that specialized in a Central Asian pizza of sorts, flatbread with ground beef, oil, and spices spread on top of it. Not the most compatible meal with anxiety. *Hama was running a little late and I was worried that he would bail on me. I was excited that he had agreed to visit a local house church with me for their midweek evening meeting. But I also knew the great fear locals have of meeting with others from their own people group to do something technically illegal – to study the teachings of Jesus in rejection of Islam.
Thankfully, both Hama and *Aden arrived. Aden was another good friend of mine. He had been a believer for a couple years and was a passionate young evangelist as well as being a goofball. I hoped that they would hit it off given the fact that Hama was almost a believer and also appreciated a good prank. The first meeting could have been worse. They sized one another up and had some respectful dialogue, but I sensed some hesitation in Hama.
“Still want to go, Hama?”
“Yes, I still want to. I have some important questions and after what happened with my sister…”
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad you’re taking this risk. I’ve visited this group a few times over these past months and I think they’ll be very receptive to your visit and to your questions.”
I wondered if this visit would be the one to push Hama over the edge. He clearly was wrestling with faith in Jesus, but he knew it would come at a cost.
We walked the ten minutes or so to the house where the church was gathering. It was in a neighborhood just down the hill from the strip of restaurants where we’d met. We left our shoes at the front door, contributing to the couple dozen that were already fanned out there. As we entered the room, everyone broke from their conversation and immediately stood up, proclaiming respectful greetings, making honorable gestures, and shaking hands at the same time. We were pointed to the more honorable side of the room, where guests were always invited to sit. We chose a spot still considered honorable, but shifted over to the side a bit, communicating both an appreciation for the gesture and our own desire to let others take the better spots on the floor. The hosts waited to sit until we had already found our spots, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.
More choruses of welcoming phrases followed, accompanied by honorable responses from Hama and Aden and to a lesser extent, myself. Americans just say “thanks” to everything so it takes us a while to get used to utilizing the several dozen respectful greetings and responses that Central Asians fire, machine-gun style, into their every day interactions. Twelve years later, I’m still not a pro, but I’m certainly better at it than I was back then. It helped when I realized that the other party isn’t actually fully listening to your barrage of pleasantries, busy as they are producing their own.
Two men in their late thirties were the obvious leaders of the group, both dressed in traditional attire. Most of the rest of the guests were young twenty-somethings, like my friend Aden. They were dressed in Western clothing. There were only a few women present at this meeting and they chose to meet in the next room over. One of these men, *Zane, was the pastor, and *Allen was his assistant-in-training. Both had quite the background story, with Zane surviving assassination attempts and *Allen being a former member of a terrorist organization. As a twenty-year-old missionary, I was just going to sit back and pray and let these guys do the talking.
The plan had been to continue their study through the book of Revelation and spend some time in prayer together, but they condensed their meeting in order to have abundant time to interact with Hama. After a brief study and prayer together (lifting up one of the members who couldn’t come because he’d been beaten by his brothers again), we sang a few worship songs. This particular house church had some issues with tying their teaching too closely with the political aims of their people (sound familiar?), but man, could they sing. I’ve yet to be part of another group where the singing was as passionate as this one. They would often start their songs off in roaring A Capella, clapping, and in the wrong key and tempo, much to the consternation of the violin player who was supposed to be leading. Still, they meant it. Living through persecution together can have a powerful effect on corporate worship.
After this, they invited Hama to share his story and why he was interested in knowing about Jesus. Hama shared for about fifteen minutes, telling about his years in the UK, his disillusionment with Islam, his study in Matthew, and his sister’s recent healing. Zane listened intently, leaning in. I could see why all these young men were a part of his group. He was a natural leader. His sudden and secret departure for Europe a year later would largely shatter this church – an unfortunate result of him being offered some kind of position as a pastor in Germany.
After Hama was done sharing, Zane began his response. He probably spoke for about thirty minutes, weaving in and out of different reasons why Jesus was the true way and Islam was false. Hama listened and nodded soberly. I kept praying. Zane’s words were going deep. The one part that I clearly remember is when he gestured to a young man sitting in the corner.
“You see him? He’s a part of our enemy people group. His people committed genocide against us. If we were Muslims we would still hate each other. Right, *Elijah?”
“That’s right,” Elijah grinned.
Zane continued, “But because of Jesus we are brothers now. We love one another and we even love that American guy who brought you too. We are all one family now because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Only by believing in him is this possible.”
Hama nodded and I stopped listening to what Zane was saying next as I chewed on what had just occurred. I hadn’t known that Elijah was from that enemy people group. What a powerful testimony to the unity the gospel can produce. These men really should hate one another and Elias should hate me, given his background. Yet here we are.
Zane finished up eventually and closed the meeting. We said our respectful goodbyes and walked back toward the restaurant area. Several of the young men were heading that way too. One of them kept pressing Hama with one evangelistic argument after another. Hama was half listening, but his brain was clearly already saturated. He wasn’t in need of more information, but in need of some time for reflection.
“It’s true, you know,” Elijah said putting his arms around me and Aden. I should hate you and I should hate you and you should both hate me! But we are brothers now… Look at what Jesus has done!”
Even though that house church eventually fell apart, Elijah’s words that night have remained with me. The power of his mere joyful presence in that group of natural enemies was a small window into what eternity will look like – and into what healthy churches among our people group can look like also.
Many in missions emphasize the need to plant only people-group specific churches. The logic is that planting churches combining those from different ethnicities will hamper church multiplication. While I understand the push for speed comes from a motive to see as many reached as possible, I can’t help thinking that the speed will come at the loss of a particular kind of power and beauty. The power and beauty I saw on display that evening as Elijah walked with us. No longer an enemy, now a brother.
Have you ever felt like you and another person are not speaking the same language, even though you are speaking the same language? Effective communication happens when the words and forms you are using convey your intended meaning to the one you’re speaking to, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, a different meaning is often what is understood despite our best efforts to make ourselves clear. What is going on when this happens? Turns out there are quite a few cultural elements at play in the midst of our miscommunication. It’s often when you study another culture and language that your eyes are opened to these dynamics of your native culture that have been there all along. But we like to assume that if we share the same language, we share the same culture of communication. Often, this is not the case at all. Here are twelve aspects of communication culture. How many of these dynamics might be at play in the conflicts we are currently experiencing? Given the complexity of communicating clearly, we should even more seriously take to heart the biblical wisdom of being “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:9). This post will be a flyover, with hopes of digging into these various aspects one at a time in the future.
Personality – This one is a no-brainer. Different people with different personalities communicate accordingly. The complexity of individual personality bears on the way we communicate, as extroverts and introverts will readily attest.
Family – Many a marriage conflict has been affected by different family cultures of communication. Growing up, did your family communicate directly or indirectly? Was there a lot of joking and sarcasm or serious conversation? How much emotion was normal in the home?
Subculture – Generations have a particular subculture of communication about them, as do those who associate with different social movements. Evangelicals have a different vocabulary than Catholics do. Hipsters like to speak in tones that are emotionally-muted. Why? The effects of subculture.
Region/Nation – Ever moved to a different region of your home country or to a different country altogether? It’s no secret that Yankees speak more directly than Southerners do, and that Southerners are far more likely to greet a stranger on the street. Regional culture affects communication, as does national culture. Canadians attach the friendly “eh?” to the end of their statements and Americans like to drop the honorary titles, “Just call me Jim.”
Orality and Literacy – Most would be familiar with the categories of literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (not able). But literacy should be thought of as a spectrum, with many gradations along the way from illiteracy to highly literate. Many never read for pleasure, but only when necessary. Others can technically read, but struggle to summarize a text in their own words and write a response. The poor the world over lean more heavily on proverbs and truisms than the wealthy do. Some think in soundbites while others think in paragraphs. These are the effects of orality and literacy.
Honor vs Justice – When it comes to motivation, does a culture primarily speak about what is right and wrong or on what is honorable vs what is shameful? Is a person guilty by nature of what he has done or guilty only if pronounced so by the community? How is one praised or condemned?
Gender Roles – How does a culture idealize gender roles? Are they viewed as largely interchangeable or as distinct and unable to be exchanged without bad effects? Some cultures, for example, even forbid communication between unrelated men and women. Restaurants have sections for men only and sections for families. Western culture, on the other hand, used to distinguish between waiters and waitresses, but now uses the generic term “server.”
Social Power – How does a culture idealize differences in positions of authority? Should the playing field be leveled or should the power differentials be maintained and strengthened? This effects the use of titles, first names, how communication proceeds to superiors (and back down to employees), and how the young relate to the elderly.
Contexting – This is how directly or indirectly a culture communicates. In a culture with high contexting, individuals assume a shared understanding with those they are communicating to. Therefore, their communication is more indirect since everyone is supposed to know what a certain action or phrase means. In a culture with low contexting, individuals do not assume that there is a shared understanding of meaning, therefore communication is more direct and explicit.
Individualism vs. Collectivism – Individualism and collectivism represent a spectrum of how people define themselves in different cultures. Is a person defined as primarily an individual or as primarily a member of a group? Which is more prominent, “we” or “I”?
Time – Cultures tend to be either monochronic or polychronic in their beliefs about time. If a culture is monochronic it believes that time is unitary and dividing up time is not valued. Time is viewed as more of a circle and less like a line. If a culture is polychronic it believes that time is a commodity that can be divided up and used like a resource. Time is viewed like a line or a road. Does the meeting starting at 10 am mean 10:00 sharp or anytime from 10:00-11:00?
Non-Verbal Communication – This refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority (75 percent!) of actual communication that takes place. When a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. This can include body language, the use of physical space and distance when communicating, and choice of clothing.
This flyover should suffice to demonstrate many of the factors that might be affecting our communication. While none of us can keep all of these things in mind at the same time, it’s helpful to be aware of these categories just enough to recognize when a conflict may be the result of some clash of cultural background or values. Sometimes merely clarifying that a conflict is a difference of culture rather than only a sin issue can bring needed grace into the conversation.
For items 6-12, I’ve relied upon the categories spelled out in Scott Moreau’s excellent book, Effective Intercultural Communication.
I recently joined twitter after many years of conflicted avoidance. And I thought missionaries could fight. Wow. Twitter seems custom-designed to bring out the pugnacious side of the human heart. You know, the part that loves to lob verbal grenades and smash metaphorical bar chairs over others’ heads in a saloon. The global population lockdowns have probably made this worse. After all, fighting is better than doing nothing, as my Central Asian friends say, in a jaded logic that most of the world would probably agree with.
But we are those who know that the peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of God (Matt 5:9). Still, we often find ourselves in need of practical spiritual help to not quarrel and fight, even if we’ve been believers for many years. Otherwise, why would Paul exhort Timothy regarding the relatively sound Ephesian church, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling“? All kinds of believers struggle in these ways. Yes, even pastors, theologians, and missionaries need to be reminded of these things. I need to be reminded of these things.
In this vein, I have found the doctrine of believers’ future resurrection to be a trustworthy friend and ally when I am tempted to fight and argue with other believers. This doctrine is the biblical teaching that when Christ returns he will raise the dead to life and believers will be given new, spiritual bodies. We are given fascinating hints of what this will be like in the scriptures. Passages like Daniel 12:13, which says that “those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the sky above; And those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” This future resurrected existence will not only include freedom from sin, but also a transformation such that believers will shine with glory, honor, and beauty. We will be clothed with a physical form fitting for the new heavens and new earth and for beholding the face of God. Resurrected humanity will be stunning, apparently even higher in glory than the angels.
This is true of my teammate. This is true of my supervisor. This is true of that messy new believer who keeps self-destructing. This is true of my spouse. This is true of that social media warrior who took that sentence out of context and is causing all kinds of digital mayhem. In spite of this present frustration, one day we will be sitting together on the banks of New Zion’s river, sipping heaven’s equivalent of cold brew and laughing together, filled with holy delight in one another’s glory and in the glory of the Lamb. Our friendship will be perfected.
Sometimes I imagine scenes like this when I’m about to head into a hard meeting or when I have to respond to a tense email or text. This use of biblically-informed imagination helps me to approach my brother or sister in Christ in a better posture, one informed by their future glory. I am better able to love my fellow believer and to speak and listen appropriately as I let our future resurrected friendship bleed into this present conflict.
If you are looking for practical, but biblical strategies for peace-making in the midst of conflict, for dealing with that frustrating relationship, consider turning your imagination toward the coming resurrection. There is some untapped power there that could be of some real help.