One of the joys of doing ministry with internationals is that I have the chance to teach the Bible to people who come from different nations of the world. Unlike the ministry in a homogenous cultural setting, teaching the Bible to a person from another country has its own challenges. A cross-cultural Bible teaching is different in that participants may not share the same cultural values or world views.
Sometimes these differences work well, and other times they don’t. However, in either case the minister’s job is to take into account how these differences affect the Bible teaching sessions and adjust accordingly. Here I will share some insight I’ve gained along the way as I taught students and interacted with other internationals about the Bible.
Let’s define the cross-cultural setting because a cross-cultural Bible teaching takes place in such a setting. In general, a cross-cultural Bible study is any study of the scripture in which a significant number of participants comes from another culture or lives based on a culturally different worldview. In addition, a Bible study session may require a cross-cultural approach if the Bible study participants, who come from the same culture, need to factor in their cross-cultural social context.
For example, in a one-on-one Bible study, if one of the participants comes from, say, Turkey, it would necessitate a cross-cultural Bible study. However, in a group of fifteen people, if there is only one student from another nation, then a cross-cultural approach may not factor that explicitly into teaching the Bible. On the other hand, if two Americans meet, say, in Japan, and one of them teaches the Bible to the other while addressing the needs dictated by the local context (like how to preach the Gospel in a manner that would be appealing to Japanese culture), then it is a cross-cultural setting. And such a Bible study could be considered cross-cultural.
Well, enough about theory. Let’s dive in to some easy-to-apply insights that will increase the effectiveness of your cross-cultural Bible study.
1.Familiarize yourself with the student’s culture. Or if you are the student, then familiarize yourself with the teacher’s culture.
This is one of the most important tips you can apply to your cross-cultural Bible study. Familiarizing yourself with the culture of the other participant will help you put into context certain habits or behaviors that you may otherwise misunderstand. For example, in Far East Asian cultures, people are not prone to asking challenging questions and engaging in a long and disagreeing dialogue with the teacher. I suspect this is due to a high respect and authority afforded to teachers and the national educational systems that are built differently from America’s. But unless you have some familiarity with this common aspect of Far East Asian cultures, you may misinterpret a bright student’s silence as something else.
Now, obviously the personal and other unique characteristics of the student or the teacher factor in too. Your East Asian friend may be very outgoing and curious. Or he may be personally shy, which may have less to do with his culture and more to do with his personality.
But these situations do not invalidate the importance of familiarizing yourself with the other participant’s culture. Familiarization will help you to identify whether the challenges you see in the Bible study session stem from the student or from his culture or from both. When digging deep, you may find out the reason and adjust your teaching to the situation.
2.Actively observe and understand the student’s (or teacher’s) personality.
This tip will help you avoid any misunderstanding that stems from the lack of shared cultural norms in terms of interaction and body language. As you teach, pay attention to the details of the student’s behavior. You don’t need to observe him like a detective, furtively trying catch every eye blink. Just be natural but aware that you have an additional job to do when it comes to understanding the student and taking cues from his body and gestures. This is because the elements bridging the gap between you and the student toward a mutual understanding (such as shared assumptions and norms) may be few.
So observe the student’s gestures, the distance between you and him, the way he addresses you, and his time management habits, etc. If you can’t understand certain behaviors, don’t be impatient. Sometimes the meaning may emerge from the context or from a longer interaction.
3.Ask questions as you teach.
If you are teaching an international, then you may want to ask questions on things that ever so slightly look or feel different or disturbing. Ask questions to avoid any misunderstanding, and clarify what you think should be addressed. The questions will provide you with feedback, but it is important to be honest and polite. The cultural norms governing the interaction and ways of asking questions in these situations are dictated by the culture of the country in which the participants live. But if you can, take into account the student’s cultural views on interaction too.
For example, if you are teaching the Bible to an international student in the US, then you are mostly justified to go by the cultural norms or assumptions of interaction held in America. You aren’t expected to abide by the formal ways of asking questions that may be prevalent in other cultures. However, if you are teaching the student, say, in Lebanon, it would be better to be extra-sensitive to this matter and adjust your asking of questions to the local cultural norms.
4.Provide or guide the student to a Bible in his or her language.
This is a mistake I see Bible teachers make often. They just assume that because the student lives in the US, he will use or should use an English Bible. It is okay as long as the student prefers to do so, but make sure you alert the student to the Bible in his own language and encourage him to bring his Bible to the Bible study if he has one. If not, guide him to the internet so that he can buy a Bible in his language.
This matters for two reasons. First, the student who studies the Bible through a second or third language may often miss the details that he would understand better in his own language. Every translation always brings an additional layer between the reader and the text. Second, in a Bible study that incorporates a Bible from another language, you have the chance to incorporate the insights gained from both translations.
To do this, ask the student to translate the Bible passage that you are studying with his own words from his own Bible. Then discuss the meaning and connotations of key words used in his language and employed in the Bible translation. This will open the floodgates of insight, and you will learn as much as your student learns. Granted, you have to have an appreciative attitude to another culture.
5.Never dismiss the student’s culture or behavior as unbiblical without a thorough exploration.
Here we come to a thorny issue among Christians. Have you ever seen an American missionary subtly disparage another culture as if his is better or closer to the Bible? Avoid doing that even if the student’s culture has certain widespread elements that are clearly rejected by the Bible (like witchcraft) or are archaic (like bride kidnapping). Nothing justifies an arrogant, self-righteous attitude to the complex phenomenon we call culture. Just remember that yours definitely has aspects to it that are no doubt unbiblical. Moreover, the Bible itself has irritating cultural elements packed into it.
Also, such a hasty judgment can lead to a misunderstanding, to taking things personally, and — if the student is not mature enough to separate you from the biblical teaching — to distrusting God. Remember that God put you there to plant a seed, not necessarily to water it to see its growth. That might be someone else’s work. So plant the seed gently about certain cultural practices being unacceptable (whether it is in your culture or in his or in the Bible), and move on.
Be gracious, and before jumping to conclusions, interact with the student to see what he thinks, and then do your in-depth study to understand the details, underlying assumptions, and cultural context of the practice that you regard as unbiblical.
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