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Contextual ministry: personal lessons and practices

Updated: 4 days ago

by Jerry Wells, former pastor and Entrust trainer in Romania

When it comes to contextualization in teaching and training, this process by which we “interpret, communicate, and apply the Bible within a particular context,”1 I am by no means an expert. But I have a wealth of experience. For 28 years I lived in Romania where I taught and trained Christian leaders. My experience included small groups, courses, seminars, workshops, field work and relationships. Please allow me to share with you lessons of acculturation and contextualization that I have learned as well as some I am still learning.

Initial lessons

My challenge in 1988 was to take up residence in Romania and to acquire what was necessary to function and to train leaders in that culture. Little did I realize how challenging that task would be.

First, I needed to learn that I needed to learn. I needed to learn that I was a learner. My background had included college and seminary, student ministry and pastoral ministry. I could preach. I could teach. I could make disciples. But in order to acculturate and to gain intercultural competency, I had much to learn. I needed to acquire “the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, and behaviours”2 that would enable me to use my previously learned disciplines and skills. Over my years in Romania, my friends and students proved to be gracious, patient teachers. Many a time they picked me up from my mistakes and pointed me in the right direction.

Second, I needed to learn that the American way is not the way. It is a way, and there are many other ways. Aspects of one culture are not necessarily superior to those of another culture; they are simply different. Each can learn from the other. Almost three decades in Romania showed me that Romanian culture has much to offer American culture, including their hospitality, the music and poetry in their souls, a deep commitment to family and relationships, and many other things.

A third lesson to learn and to relearn repeatedly was to be humble. I found out that someone seeking to cross the cultural boundary is not only a learner. He is a kindergarten-level learner. This is humbling and sometimes humiliating, especially for the teacher-trainer. For instance, learning a second language necessarily includes making mistakes in that language. Some of those mistakes will be hilarious. Even visiting teachers who function through translation are not immune. They may try their best ahead of time to learn a few words or a greeting in the host language—something that their hearers will appreciate immensely. Yet they may stumble comically.

It did not take me long to learn this lesson upon entering Romania in 1988. At the time, Romania was a communist dictatorship. To gain legal residence, I had to enroll as a university student. All foreign students were required to live in student dorms. Let’s just say that my assigned room was not particularly clean. I went to the dorm administrator and asked, in my halting Romanian, to borrow a broom. Little did I realize that there is a one-letter difference between the word for “broom” and the word for “aunt.” So, you guessed it, I asked, “May I borrow an aunt?” She nearly fell out of her desk chair laughing. Finally, she gained control of herself and explained what I had just said. Then I could laugh, too—at myself. My humbling experience was the beginning of a relationship and rapport with my dorm administrator.

Of course, as one learns a language, the mistakes become fewer. But humility is always needed in order to function well and to train others in another culture.

Fourth, I learned the value of a healthy curiosity. Curiosity and questions about people and things, about words and phrases, about customs and ceremonies, about sights and sounds. In fact, we ought to involve not only our mind but all our senses in exploring our target culture. This is the way we learn the context into which we have come and the context in which we will teach and train others.

Failure to ask the right question at the right time can undermine what we hope to accomplish. Once while doing short-term ministry in India, I changed into gym shorts and went jogging through the neighborhood without asking anyone for tips on jogging in India. It was so hot that I did not wear a shirt. It struck me as odd the way everyone stopped and stared at me as I passed. Children stopped playing and stared. Laborers stopped working and stared. Later I asked what I should have asked ahead of time: “Is it a problem if a man goes jogging without a shirt?” “Oh yes, no respectable man would ever be seen in public without a shirt.” Had my purpose been to minister to the people of that neighborhood, it would have been a lost cause even before starting.

Regarding humility and curiosity, Dr. David Goodman, president emeritus of Entrust, writes

It is almost impossible to go to a foreign culture without committing cultural blunders and finding oneself in messy situations. Anyone reaching across cultures becomes adept at apologizing, taking a posture of humility and developing the art of asking the right questions to determine the needs before making any assumptions.3

Helpful practices

As an Entrust teacher-trainer in Romania, I learned that certain practices promote contextualization in the teaching and training process. One such practice is valuing relationships. I made it a point to spend as much time as I could with key people involved in our training ministry, both during training sessions and in informal settings. When we met for seminars or workshops, I tried to spend free time interacting with students rather than alone in my room gathering my thoughts for the next session. My experience underlined the truth of the old adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” They see you care when you give them time and build relationships. This enhances training and learning.

A second practice that helps bridge the gap in cross-cultural teaching and training is adapting one’s teaching style. Romanian education from kindergarten through university is lecture oriented. The teacher speaks. The students listen, take notes, memorize and replicate on tests what the teacher has said in class. Working with Entrust, I was committed to a combination of guided, participatory interaction and directive teaching. Our Lord in His teaching offers positive examples of both. The two types of instruction can both contribute to effective teaching and training. So, our Romanian training groups moved toward more and more discussion but always with the element of lecture. Eventually, most students looked forward to and eagerly engaged in the discussion. It is wise to maximize the host culture’s study and learning style while gradually introducing other elements that may be preferable or advantageous.