By Marie Burrus
“We have a lot of languages because we’ve had a lot of wars.”
My West African “uncle” considered aloud why his ethnic tongue (Dioula) is so different from the version others speak as a trade language. “We keep pieces of our language to ourselves so we can know who belongs and who doesn’t.”
Years later, his words ring in my ears as I see Americans doing the same. How many times do people miss or twist another’s words to say something the speaker didn’t intend? How many times have I talked circles with someone only to find out we actually agreed? If we’re honest, it happens all the time. Call it tribalism or virtue signaling, we seek quick ways of dismissing others as outsiders.
As those charged with the Great Commission, how we communicate (or miscommunicate) with others is a gospel issue. Our ability to hear and speak clearly affects how we teach, disciple, gather and evangelize. It’s vital. Learning to speak the truth in love requires knowing how to speak and to whom we’re speaking.
So what should we do?
1. Ask more questions.
As a missionary in West Africa, I learned a thing or two about miscommunication. As our team tried to maneuver our cross-cultural environment, we found ourselves in weird and downright frustrating situations. Most of these circumstances could have easily been prepared for or avoided completely—if only we had the right information beforehand.
To prevent the awkward situations, our team motto became: Ask more questions.
Attending a wedding, baptism or function? Ask more questions. Someone wants you to entertain a “few” kids for “just a bit?” Ask more questions. A friend calls to tell you his son fell (or possibly died)? Ask. More. Questions.
When trying to learn and understand a foreign language, we know it will require work. We may be more prepared to admit how we misinterpreted another’s words. However, when it comes to people who speak the same language but hold a different worldview, we’re less on guard and more likely to make unhelpful assumptions.
When you talk to people you disagree with, ask more questions.
2. Ask, “What do you mean by that?”
It’s one thing to misunderstand a stranger on social media, but what happens when it shows up in ministry? What do you do when one of your youth tells you he’s gay or when someone joins your church claiming to have been a Christian since birth? How do you respond to someone accusing you of espousing the latest controversy?
Ask, “What do you mean by that?”
Asking more questions is an act of humility. We pause and listen to understand another’s perspective before plowing past them with answers. Asking such a question helps us to know how to best minister to someone and consider how God would have us respond.
Do they need to be reminded of biblical truths? Do they simply need to be heard? Do they need to be rebuked? Do we need to explain, apologize or repent? It’s worth our time and effort to understand the difference.
Of course, asking the right questions isn’t going to bring everyone together and solve all the disagreements you face. Agreeing on your terms is only the first step of good communication. Listening first helps to diffuse tension and allows us to get the information we need to teach, lead and shepherd well.
3. Be a linguist, not a grammarian.
With so many different worldviews surrounding us, we can just as easily mess up communication as in any other cross-cultural context. Whether they hold religious, generational, racial, class or other differences, your neighbor may have a vastly different worldview and way of explaining himself than you do.
In these situations, it’s helpful to be a linguist instead of a grammarian.
Here’s what I mean: When studying a language, we lean towards one of two basic approaches. The grammarian is focused on what language is supposed to be. He’s the proverbial English teacher jeering, “I don’t know if you can go to the bathroom, but you may…” The grammarian tells you the definition of the word you used instead of dialoguing about what you meant when you used it.
The linguist, however, curiously observes and tries to discern how someone is using language. The linguist understands that everyone uses their own grammar (even if it’s not “correct”) and wants to find out why. The linguist laughs with Winston Churchill as he joked, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
When faced with a communication conflict, the linguist asks, “What does the speaker mean by that?” This approach doesn’t mean that truth is relative or that people’s assumptions are always right. Instead, it ensures we know what the issue is so we can address it with real, biblical truth.
Listening first helps to diffuse tension and allows us to get the information we need to teach, lead and shepherd well.Click to tweet
4. Ask for help.
As we regularly wade into the sticky and beautiful work of gospel ministry, we must steep ourselves in the wisdom of God.
In 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for wisdom to be able to lead the Israelites. He knows he’s in over his head, and you may likely feel the same way about ministry these days. Take encouragement from God’s response. God was pleased with Solomon’s humble desire for wisdom and blessed him with so much more just because He could.
Remember, God is pleased when we pray and especially pleased when we ask for his wisdom. As humans in an already/not yet world, our perspective is easily skewed. Our hearts, our cultural context, and the limits of our languages can deceive us, so we need the Holy Spirit’s input as we communicate. Let’s take the time to pause and ask more questions so we can better minister to those around us.
A version of this article originally published at UBA Houston.