Some Difficulities of Cross-Cultural and Cross-Linguistic Evangelism

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by a GRN recordist

This is a memo on the problems of determining the language groups that need evangelism. These notes from a Paul Hattaway lecture during the recent recordist training provided much of the material.

Most of the examples here are based on China, but the principles are very applicable to a number of countries including Thailand.

At one time, the Chinese government acknowledged there were more than 400 minority groups in China, but because they did not want to have so many groups to deal with they grouped them together into 55 groups, plus the Han (which are about 90% of the people in China). As a result, groups that are totally different are classified under the same name. There are more than 490 different groups researched so far and of course many dialects among those groups.

For example, there are 110 minority groups that are all called Yi by the Chinese government. There are around 50 groups called Miao. I do not know how many groups are called Lisu by the government. In some cases the names were created by the government and mean nothing to the people. In some cases the name is derogatory.

In Europe they call Swedish, Finnish, Spanish, English, etc. languages although they have many similarities. In China they may call languages, dialects even though there is not one word that is the same between the languages. There are many similarities between cultures, religions, food, dress etc. in Europe. In China there may be almost no similarity and yet the government calls them by the same name.

Imagine if you called Koreans "Japanese" or if you called Americans and Canadians "Mexicans." It is the same way in China, they are called Lisu although they may be Lemo. They are called Miao although they are Ge. They are called Tibetan although they are Deng.

So how does this relate to the spread of the Gospel in China or other countries? Let me give you an example. There are 2000 Lemo people in Yunnan province of China. The government lists them as Lisu.

Everyone knows there are many Christians among the Lisu, so why would you send a missionary or make a recording for the Lemo people? First of all, they would not understand a word of a Lisu recording. Secondly, they are not Christians or Animists -- they are Buddhists -- and so giving them a recording or message for an animist would probably not be effective. In fact, to date they have no Gospel recording and there are no Christians among the entire group. They are completely unreached with the Gospel. Their culture, dress, etc. is entirely different from the Lisu. But, no one has recognized they need the Gospel in their own language, since they are classified as "Lisu."

Let me give another example. A group of Chinese evangelists went to the Ge people (70,000 people). They referred to them as Miao, which is what they are called by the government. The Ge people became angry and the evangelists were driven out of the village. The evangelists reported that the Ge people were closed to the Gospel and impossible to reach.

Another group of evangelists went there and told them, "We know you are the Ge people and you are different from the Miao. God loves the Ge people and he knows you are different from the Miao." As a result, many Ge people were open to listening to the message of the Gospel and became Christians. Calling them by the name they use for themselves and acknowledging how they were distinct from other groups made all the difference in their openness to the Gospel. This understanding of their identity can be incorporated into recordings, too.

In Guangzhou, there are two "Miao" groups who are largely Christians. A few miles away lives another "Miao" group which is totally different in language, culture, dress, etc. They are totally unreached. Without a missionary coming to them or a recording in their language, they are likely to remain totally unreached and ignored because, after all, they are "Miao" and should not the other "Miao" Christians be able to reach them? Not without the "Miao" Christians learning a new language and culture! Some tribal groups have been classified as "Han" by the government, even though their culture, dress, religion is tribal! When the tribal group is angry at the government's treatment of their people group, how responsive will they be to hearing the Gospel in the Han language "Mandarin Chinese?"

So how does this relate to Gospel Recordings? First of all making a Miao recording and distributing it everywhere would be useless as it would likely only be understood in one area and to all the rest of the people it would be a recording in a foreign language and culture to which they could not relate. It is very important to do research and find out where exactly the recording can be used and include that with the paperwork, otherwise the recording may never be used or may be distributed in an area that can not understand the recording. When identifying the language recorded, care must be taken as the group may at first tell you the name they are called by the government.

I had wondered about some of the groups in Thailand. For example, some people groups called Lahu have many Christians, others are totally unreached. The reason for that is they are not the same group! They may have an entirely different language, culture, dress and religion.

I think it is also important to consider that there may be smaller distinct tribal groups -- called Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Yi, etc. -- which need to hear the Gospel in their own language based on their own culture and way of communication. This is the strength of Gospel Recordings -- that they can be adapted to each dialect, culture, religion, and style of communication.

Even the Hmong in Thailand (which are sometimes classified as Miao) have two distinct groups. When the "Jesus" film was made, the character Jesus spoke one dialect and the other characters another dialect! What this means is that if the film is shown in most groups, they will only understand part of it.

Of course, it is expensive and time consuming to make two films, but it is feasible to make different Gospel Recordings! Imagine trying to use this one film in China to reach 50-60 different language groups! Most will understand absolutely nothing except what they can pick up from the pictures, and they may even misinterpret the actions of the actors.

I had previously realized there were different dialects among the Lahu, Lisu, Ahka, etc., but I didn't realize that there might be completely distinct people groups that governments call by the same name for the simplicity of not dealing with hundreds of people groups.

Some of our recordings have a name that does not clarify which of the many people groups under that general classification "MIAO: White" for example, they meant to reach.

I believe we have about 56 languages intended for Vietnam. There are more than 200 distinct groups with at least 150 in North Vietnam. I suspect some of our recordings are being distributed to people that cannot understand them because the people are all classified as the same by the Vietnamese government or Chinese government, etc. Having as accurate and detailed information as possible on the GRN language database can help in this area.

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