Connecting with Culture

Some of you may wonder why we invest so much time in learning the culture, and not just the language. 

Culture is essentially the outward expression of inner belief. Interestingly, language is intimately intertwined with culture. When words are spoken, there are expected behaviors/actions that accompany them. And not only that, but there are deeply-rooted belief systems attached to those spoken words and actions.

For example, in our earlier CLA days, we learned many different terms related to sight/vision. And trust me, there are many. There is looking, spying, staring/looking intently, daydreaming, seeing (vision), watching (people do something), watching (a movie), and looking like ('looking like' someone, or 'looking like' it will rain, etc...)... 

As in every culture, there are different behaviors/actions associated with those terms for sight/vision. 

To take it even deeper, there are beliefs that correspond to the behavior and the word used. 

Here in Tigak, there is a term for staring/looking intently at someone. When we learned this term, we had to act it out for our language helper. So we stared at each other for a minute, and then asked her what we were doing. She told us the term in Tigak for staring/looking intently, and we wrote it down. As we continued learning language and culture, we quickly became aware that staring at someone is a way of shaming them, particularly if they have done something wrong or embarrassing, or built something poorly. For example, a few months ago, we attended a funeral. The 'casket' was brought to the island by boat, and as people started gathering, some men were attempting to put the casket up on a stand they had made for the funeral service. However, the posts were not sturdy enough to hold it. So they had to take the casket down and do some impromptu fixing of the poles. It was clear that the man who had made the stand was embarrassed, so we and others looked away and ultimately walked to another part of the island for awhile. (In our Western culture, the expected and actual reaction would have been different. Shame wouldn't have been in play, and likely several men would have jumped in to help make the stand suitable, as a team effort, as fast as possible.)


Staring can also be provocative, so persons of the opposite sex are not to stare at each other or even maintain eye contact. Even when shaking hands and greeting one another, it's not culturally appropriate for a woman and a man to make prolonged eye contact, if any. Yes, try that during a conversation! It was a bit awkward getting used to that... hopefully we won't offend any of you when we are home on furlough! Imagine if we were prancing along in our language learning but hadn't taken time to understand the culture! We would be looking at the opposite gender the way that is normal to us in our home country, not even realizing that we were causing shame or embarrassment the whole time. 

As church planters, translators, and disciplers, it is incredibly important to take time to understand the culture. If we do not, we could very well be ignorantly offending the very people we are trying to reach. Likewise, that could be a huge barrier to them hearing and accepting the validity of the Person and the Gospel message we are endeavoring to introduce them to.

In these past few months, the Tigak church has been reading through the book of John for the first time. As we have gone through it, it was very interesting to see how some of the Biblical culture had similarities to the Tigak culture.

In Chapter 8, when the Pharisees brought the adulterous woman to Jesus to condemn her (and to trap Him), they asked Him what should be done. And Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground. In our Western culture, we've spent many hours wondering 'why' He bent down to write on the ground... and we've even taken it a step further and wondered "What" He was writing on the ground. We've heard ideas such as, "He was writing the 10 commandments" or "He was listing out some of the Pharisees' own sins"... but to refer back to the Tigak cultural example above, it hit us anew that perhaps He was simply NOT staring/looking intently at the woman so as to overwhelm her with shame and embarrassment. I imagine the Pharisees were hoping that He would stare her down with an angry glare, convincing her of her sin and shaming her. But I think she was already well aware of her sin. And I think she was already deeply ashamed. Had He chosen to stare at her, perhaps that would've have sent a deserving but unloving and unmerciful message to her heart. Instead He looked down at the ground so as not to shame her further. He did not condone her sin (He told her to 'go and sin no more'), but He was not 'out to get her'. For we know that He is a God of justice, and also a God of love, mercy, and grace. 

In Chapter 9, Jesus is asked if it was the blind man's sin or his parents' that had caused him to become blind. I don't know where you grew up, but in my world growing up, it was NOT a common thought that physical disabilities were a result of sin. (I'm not talking about physical consequences of some sins... staying in context here, talking about those born with physical disabilities or deformities.) However, here in the Tigak culture, it IS a common belief that such physical ailments are directly related to sin. So the question in John 9, while perhaps unusual to us, would seem a normal question here in Tigak, just as it was for those asking Jesus in person. 

There are other small things that we've noticed as we've gone through John along with our Tigak brothers and sisters. But we were eager to share these examples with you. We hope that it encourages you, and we hope it also gives you more of an understanding of why it is SO important for missionaries in foreign contexts to learn and understand not just the language, but the culture of the people they are reaching. And that means the culture of the specific people group, not just the overarching culture of the country they are in. To use PNG as an example, there are well over 800 different language groups (NOT counting dialects), and each have very different cultural beliefs. There are some beliefs and customs that overlap, yes, but there are many that are distinct to each people group/language group. Without a clear understanding, it will be difficult to translate His Word effectively, preach the clear and untainted Gospel of grace in a way that is both linguistically and culturally understood, and to disciple people effectively.

Some of the believers doing a short drama of Jesus washing the disciples' feet in John 13

Some of the believers doing a short drama of Jesus washing the disciples' feet in John 13