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.
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
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.
Jerry Wells teaching in Romania
A third practice that can contribute to good contextualization has to do with using redemptive analogies. Don Richardson, author of Peace Child, makes the case that every culture includes redemptive analogies. When tapped, those analogies can open the people of that culture to Christ. We may also find cultural analogies or illustrations that facilitate the training/learning process. Romania has suffered from a long history of hardship and oppression, things which have colored the fabric of the national culture and the sub-culture of the church. Romanians in general and even Romanian Christians have a bent toward pessimism. They expect things to go from bad to worse. They expect to have more villains than heroes among them and ruling over them.
I made it a point to try to find heroes for them, heroes of their own culture and faith. One of those was actually a German. In 1866, Romania was in chaos and on the brink of dissolution. So the leading politicians petitioned a foreigner, German Prince Carol, to become king of Romania. He accepted, traveled across hostile territory to Romania and began a 48-year reign. He loved his new people. He identified with them. He fought for them. Romanians had been used to rulers who took their money. King Carol brought his own money and invested it in Romania and in Romanians. King Carol loved Romania.
We also find outstanding Christian leaders in the history of Romania’s church, such as Richard Wurmbrand and Traian Dorz, and they should be held up as examples of faith and leadership. Such examples from their own people encouraged and motivated my students and trainees.
A fourth training practice that we as a ministry embraced was promoting practical application of learning to life and ministry in our training. We emphasized application routinely throughout our training for pastors and other Christian leaders. At the same time, our flexibility in curriculum often enabled us to offer them what they needed when they needed it. If they voiced a need and we had a course dealing with that need, we offered that course. If we did not have a course, we sometimes provided special seminars or guest teachers to deal with that need. Early on, it was clear that those with whom I worked felt the need to learn how to study the Bible well and how to preach. So in our initial stages, we offered practical courses on inductive Bible study and expository preaching. We attempted to proceed according to the need.
A fifth practice: being patient and willing to accept gradual gains. When I moved into Romania and began to train small groups of Romanian church leaders, I had lofty expectations. Many of those expectations were proper, but my time frame was not. I wanted to see immediate, complete change. Of course, that expectation is not realistic even in our own cultures. Culture and traditions are powerful things. Cognitive knowledge does not necessarily bring about life change. Even conviction that something is biblical and true does not necessarily bring about life change especially when it goes against our traditions. Habits and traditions die slowly. Therefore, we must be patient in our training.
For some of us, ministry in a different culture may be eye-opening in unexpected ways. Personally, I took with me to Romania too narrow a view of Christ’s Church. During my years in that country, I gained a more accurate perspective of the breadth, the diversity and the beauty of God’s family. I am not condoning unbiblical teaching, certainly not in the essentials. But fellowshipping with and training Christians of diverse denominations, as well as learning from them, helped me realize how small my view of the Church had been. It freed me to experience and to enjoy the unity of the diverse body of Christ. It freed me to do what God had called me to do with many whom I had not expected. For that I owe a great debt to the Lord and to the churches and Christians of Romania. I would like to think that they were enriched and equipped in the process. I certainly was.
In conclusion, I would simply recommend that cross-cultural teachers or trainers learn a few basic lessons, follow a few helpful practices and prepare to learn a lot. In the process they may even learn more than their students.
1 Jackson Wu, “What’s the Difference Between ‘Contextualization’ and . . .?” Patheos, April 1, 2015, accessed April 20, 2022, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2015/04/01/whats-the-difference-between-contextualization-and/.
2 Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Acculturation,” Mission Dictionary, January 14, 2011, accessed April 20, 2022, http://www.missiology.org/blog/GVR-Missions-Dictionary, as cited in Dr. Akinyemi Oluwafemi Alawode and Rev. Joy Eno Umukoro, “Missiological Challenges Encountered by the Cross-Cultural Missionary: Man-made or Natural? The Way Forward,” AJBT, Vol 19(12), March 25, 2018.
3 David Goodman, Envision, September 2013.