Know Your Audience
Over the last few months, I have been enjoying conversations with a number of missionaries and mission workers about their task.
These interviews are a part of my efforts to become familiar with the highs and lows, the whys and hows and wheres, of the work of mission. Before taking up my role as Professor of Ministry and Mission at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I’d love to learn as much as I can about the work of spreading the gospel among people who don’t know the Lord.
Each interview so far has been a delight. That’s in large part because all of my interviewees have a wealth of knowledge that they’re keen to share. In preparation for doing these interviews, I put together a list of a couple of dozen questions. But so far I have found that there is little need to consult my question list. The experiences and lessons and stories typically come gushing out with little prompting from me. I just have to sit there and try to remember everything that I hear!
Having now listened to a handful of brothers (and one sister) who have laboured—or are labouring—on the mission field, I’ve noticed some interesting points of connection. They have worked in diverse places among widely disparate populations, but there are some similarities in the things they choose to highlight as important.
One common element that all my interviewees have shared is the importance of coming to a deep understanding of those you’re telling the gospel to. You have to know your “target audience,” and be properly sensitive to their context in order to communicate God’s truth to them. Such a knowledge goes well beyond an ability to understand and use their native language—which can be no small challenge in itself! But it requires a person to know something about their cultural practices, social priorities, group values, and worldview. In many ways, you want to learn what is beneath the surface for the people to whom you’re ministering.
For instance, why would an otherwise faithful Christian turn to the village witch doctor when prayers to God for healing go unanswered, or when conventional medicine doesn’t help? What are the layers of thinking behind such a choice, and how can you respond in a way that is both sensitive to the person and faithful to Scripture? Or what should a Chinese Christian think about the practice of sweeping the family tomb once annually? Does this imply a pagan veneration of the ancestors, or is it basically a harmless custom?
Every culture has its own views on how to establish good interpersonal relationships, on the place of authority, on the obligations that are inherent in gift-giving and receiving—the list really is endless. In short, a missionary wants to know the deeply engrained patterns in the mind and heart of his audience, and then also be ready to show how the truth of God’s Word addresses these matters.
You don’t attain such knowledge by scanning the Wikipedia page on the people group that you’re ministering to, or even reading a book or two about them. As one missionary put it to me,
You have to be a student of their culture.
Being a student implies that you’re committed to ongoing learning. And for a student, there is a progression in knowledge, going from the rudimentary elements to the more advanced.
This kind of learning requires a good dose of curiosity. As you listen carefully to what people talk about, as you watch them relate to one another and “do life” on a daily basis, be prepared to admit when you don’t understand. And when you don’t understand, dig deeper and ask questions. As another brother put it, a missionary should always be humble when encountering another culture and its foreign (to us!) practices: “Sit on the floor,” he said, accepting instruction, seeking clarity—and not quickly providing the “correct” answers.
I imagine that for a missionary, accustomed to being in the position of a teacher with authority, this could be an uncomfortable experience. Uncomfortable, yet so necessary. For a missionary seeks the opportunity to connect the transforming power of the gospel of Christ to the lives of these particular sinners. If he knows his audience at a deep level, his presentation of the gospel will be more focused, and it will be more connected to their own realities—and God willing, it will also be more effective.
These encounters with other cultures are often challenging. The things that people have believed and practiced from the time of their youth are not quickly forgotten or dismissed, even when they are shown to be in conflict with Scripture. One worker advised: “When you meet a strange or even sinful practice, always remember to think of yourself as a sinner needing the same gospel of salvation.”
After all, we too, are indelibly shaped by our culture when hearing and responding to the gospel. Michael Horton writes, “It’s easy for people like me to pick out the distinctive ways in which ‘others’ (nonwhite, non-Western) bring their biases to the Scriptures. It is much more difficult for me to examine my own spectacles—especially when I’m wearing them.”
With patience and humility we seek to understand people, and with prayer and diligence we seek to submit together to the truth of God’s Word.
This is where a missionary’s quest to understand his audience is valuable for us all to consider. God calls us to be faithful prophets, confessing his name in a world so devoid of his truth yet in such desperate need for Christ. Carrying out our prophetic task, perhaps we assume by now that we know our message.
We know our message, but do we know our audience?
How well do we know the people around us, our neighbour and our work colleague and our hairdresser? What makes our fellow citizens tick? What cultural values are they shaped by? What are the rituals they have to give higher meaning to their life? Maybe we assume that we know what our neighbours are all about, but do we really have a deep understanding of the people we encounter every day? What are their longings and regrets? What do they think about death, and truth, and forgiveness? How do they experience a need for the saving gospel of Christ?
When we better understand a person, we can better speak the gospel into their life. So let’s ask, let’s listen, and then let’s tell.
 Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 121.