Communicating the Gospel Cross Culturally

What Aspects of a Person’s “Being” Do We Need to Consider as We Share the Gospel?

There are three aspects of every person’s being which need to be active in “believing” or “having faith” in Jesus, regardless of cultural background. 

One of those aspects is the intellect. The fact that I mention this first does not mean this is the first thing you need to focus on in transcultural witnessing.  In most cases the first aspect that comes into play in the life of an individual who is investigating faith in Jesus are the emotions, which will be the next aspect I mention.  But I mention the intellectual aspect first because that is where most Christians want to begin.  Whether you are sharing with a person from the United States, Europe, Asia, or Latin America, whether you are working with an atheist, an agnostic, or someone from a nominal Christian background, the intellect is one of the areas on which you must focus.  There are certain things a personal must eventually come to believe (and that is the intellectual aspect):  God exists, Jesus was God in human form, sin is a problem he/she cannot solve, etc.  

People from the southern part of the United States used to already believe all these “truths” generally speaking, but that is no longer the case.  People from Europe may (but most probably will not) have a cultural background that basically accepts these intellectual concepts.  However, people from South Asia, Asia and other parts of the world probably do not have a religious background that accepts these truths.  For us, that makes our task that much more difficult because we must walk with them as they get to know Jesus of Nazareth and come to believe that He was God in flesh, that He allowed himself to be crucified so that we can have a relationship with God, and came back to life, etc. Again, when it comes to Latin Americans, belief in the basic truths of Christianity used to be part of their Catholic culture, but that is less and less true today, or those beliefs may have been distorted from the record we have in the Bible.

A quick, concept-based gospel presentation (think “The Four Spiritual Laws”) only addresses a person’s intellect: “believe these four or five truths and you will be saved.”  The intellect, without any doubt, must always be involved when trying to bring a person to faith in Jesus Christ.  But that is not all that must be considered.  What areas must be considered will depend a lot on the answer to this question:  How does the culture of the person we are talking with effect how that person interacts with others, and how they hear/understand what we say?

My area of expertise is with the Latin American culture, and within that broad range of Hispanic cultures, more specifically with the Mexican culture.  Each of you will need to study the culture of the people you are trying to reach in order to discover the answer to the above question.

Latin Americans in general terms, but very specifically Mexicans, are much more indirect in their communication style than are people from the United States[1].  People from the USA tend to go directly to the point, and we don’t worry too much if that point make other people feel uncomfortable or attacked as a person. Latin Americans, on the other hand, tend to do a little dance around “the point” before getting to it.  Part of the reason this is true is because they want to be very careful not to offend you or make you feel like a failure.  Cultural courtesy demands that even in greetings (like on a phone call) they be much less direct . . . spending time talking about some common interest before getting to their “point”.

That makes a HUGE difference when you are presenting the gospel to a Latin American.  Mexicans, especially, will almost never tell you “No” if you ask them to do something or invite them to attend an event, or to commit to something.  They will tell you “I’ll do everything possible to be there.” (It took me two traumatic years to learn that that phrase basically means “No.”)  If you make a gospel presentation and ask them to accept Christ, they will generally say “Yes” because they don’t want you to feel like a failure, or to “lose face”.  They will say “yes” but will avoid you from there on out.

This is the reason Christians from the United States who go on mission trips to Latin America can almost always return with reports of huge numbers of professions of faith.  I remember a large group of pastors from Texas who came to Mexico for an evangelistic crusade in multiple churches at once.  A few of them were Spanish-speaking pastors, but most spoke only English.  At the end of the week of meetings they returned to Texas to report 7,000 professions of faith, but not before criticizing to their face the American missionaries who had spent decades in Mexico, because (according to them) we were total failures.  The pastors said they came and in one week had won more people to Christ than all the missionaries put together had won in more than a decade.  But almost a year after that “tremendous crusade,” I talked with many (by no means all) of the Mexican pastors in whose churches those 7,000 had made “professions of faith” and asked them how many people they had in their church as a result of that crusade.  Most I talked with said “zero”, only a few said “one or two”.

This is why, when trying to share the gospel with someone from a Latin American culture, it is very important to develop a relationship with that person first.  Then from your life, from your verbal sharing of how Jesus has transformed your life and by leading them to know Jesus Christ through reading or studying the gospels you can discuss with them what it means to “believe” in Jesus.

The second aspect is the emotions.  There must develop in a person a conviction that he/she cannot solve their problems on their own, that they need help.  If a person does not feel a need for God, if they are not conscious that they are a sinner, and that they cannot correct this problem themselves, they will never draw near to Jesus.  The problem, especially in Latin America, is that often there are very obvious emotional attachments to religious icons (especially to the Virgin Mary) rather than to God, since Catholicism has reigned in those cultures for centuries. 

What we should be trying to accomplish, without making a frontal attack on those idols, is to lead the people to know Jesus of Nazareth, His love for sinners, and His grace toward those trapped in sin.  Just as happened in the Gospels when sinners came into contact with Jesus, the Holy Spirit can awaken within the people with whom we are witnessing the same awe and wonder as they get to know Him. A person who does not react in love and awe toward Jesus of Nazareth probably will not decide to open his/her life to Him.

One final word about the emotions:  Rules and laws will never transform lives; “thou shalt not” was never able to break the power of sin over people.  The Apostle Paul says that about all these can do is to show us how hopeless we are when faced with God’s perfect law.  The only motivation powerful enough to pull a person out of slavery to sin is an amazed, awe-inspired love toward One who has paid the price for our sin and who loves people so much that He was willing to “become poor that we might become rich”.  When a person really grasps how huge God’s love is for him/her, that transforms their life to such an extent that the best way to describe it is “being born again”.

But many people, especially those from Roman Catholic backgrounds, think they can check both these first two boxes.  Most Latin Americans think they have loved God all their lives.  They think they have believed in Jesus all their lives.  They think they have had faith in God all their lives, and when you share the gospel with them, they will say “I’ve done that all my life!”

I remember one university student in the Dominican Republic to whom I was trying to witness over a period of more than a month.  Every time I talked to him about “believing” in Jesus, or about “having faith” in Jesus, he would always tell me he had done that all his life.  I could not find a way to get past that argument because my definition of “believing” and of “having faith” was mostly an intellectual concept.  Since He believed that Jesus was God’s son, that He was God incarnate, since he believed that Jesus died for his sins and rose again, I didn’t know what more to say.  But his lifestyle proved to me that he was not a born-again Christian.

One day it occurred to me to ask him, “Ok, that’s fine, but would you be willing to let Jesus come into your life and to radically change your life?”  His answer, accompanied by wildly waving both arms back and forth in front of his chest was “Never!  I won’t allow anyone to tell me what to do!”  I knew in that instant I had stumbled upon an extremely important “something,” but it wasn’t until several months later that I realized what his answer screamed out about his “faith”.

The determining aspect is the human will.  Salvation never occurs unless there is a surrendering of one’s will to God.  The will stands at the very center of who we are and controls everything about our lives.  Our wills show what our values are, they reveal our idols, and they determine which of our “selves” wins out when “push comes to shove” in our lives.  Our will sits on the throne of our life and determines whether Satan and our sinful nature, or Jesus Christ will control our life.  Faith and “belief” are not just intellectual exercises; nor are they just emotional responses.  Faith and belief that are not accompanied by commitment to Jesus as Lord are not biblical faith or belief.  Without the Lordship element, all you have is a cultural religion that is dead.

Don’t get me wrong, a person who in faith turns his life over to Jesus does not suddenly stop sinning.  Not ever, for that matter!  The process of the Lordship of Christ becoming a full reality in the life of the new believer may take some time.  In my own case I struggled for a few years before I was really willing to give God control of my life.  When I did, I methodically went through every aspect of my life, giving God the right to be Lord over that area.  What I came away with from that experience was the assurance that sooner or later God would be Lord over each of those areas.  Some areas came quickly under His Lordship; other areas took longer.  Even in the lives of Jesus’ disciples He did not become Lord over their lives immediately, but there was a commitment to Him, a basic decision to allow Him to direct their lives.

[1] You will notice that generally I use the term “United States” rather than “American” to help you be more geographically correct.  Everyone from Canada to Argentina/Chile are “Americans”.   We cannot even use “North Americans” because Mexico and Canada are part of North America.


This is the third article in a series on “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” by Lloyd Mann, D.Min.

Lloyd Mann has a BA in teaching languages in secondary schools (Spanish and English), an M.Div in theology and a D.Min with a focus in missions mobilization.  He served as a missionary in Latin America for 39 years and is the author of two books and multiple articles and materials for use in university student ministry. With his wife, Wilma, he translated many more materials and books into Spanish and some into English.

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