What does humor have to do with mission?

Photo credit: Gary Wilmore (Creative Commons)

There is a saying that the British and Americans are two nations separated by a common language.

That proved very true when we moved from the UK to the States in 1987.  We naively anticipated that with a common language, the transition would be an easy one. How wrong we were! After about a  year, we realized that, even though we were holding what we thought were reasonably intelligent conversations with people, we were actually miscommunicating. The reason? People were filtering what they heard through the background of their own culture. It might even have been easier if there was a language difference because at least we'd expect a culture shock.

Take a phrase like "body ministry" in the church context. Within the British house church tradition I came from, this meant that the whole body was supposed to minister. If someone had a need, anyone could pray with them or minister to that need in some way. When we moved here to participate in a more traditional church, that same phrase meant that anyone who had been specifically chosen and trained could come up after the pastor's sermon to minister to someone who had come to the front in response. When we held a conversation on that topic, we were misunderstood.

Even today, 24 years later, I sometimes pronounce or spell words the British way. I use British vocabulary and idioms. I still occasionally miss the nuances of, for example, American humor. American humor is much more physical than verbal and often alludes to things I'm totally unfamiliar with like old TV shows. We never saw those shows and so have nothing to peg the humor on. The same would apply in the other direction. British humor is more verbal and subtle. I remember visiting England after we moved here and listening to a speaker that had all of us in fits of laughter. I turned to Tony and said, "Our American friends wouldn't find this funny at all!"

Even with a common language, culture has to be taken into account.

What does this have to do with mission? 

The best person to reach a group of people who don't yet know the Lord is someone from within that culture. The best person to reach a group of skateboarders is another skateboarder–or maybe someone from a very similar subculture like a rollerblader.

The best person to reach someone from an unreached people group is someone who is culturally very close to them.

My parents-in-law were wonderful missionaries who made quite an impact in Taiwan where they ministered for many years. They moved to a foreign nation in obedience to the Lord's call on their lives and had to spend years in language study before they could communicate with the local people. This is old-style missions; it obviously still has its place.

With the advent of easy communications and travel, I believe a new type of missions is potentially more effective. We can train local believers in the principles of discipleship and mission and they then reach their own people.

What do you think?

2 replies on “What does humor have to do with mission?”

What you have said here is absolutely true….I have found that in South Africa, there are just so many cultures that it can be really difficult to communicate even in a language others can understand but when one can connect in th spirit, there is an instant bond regardless of language.

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