Summary: Understanding your audience is important! But while it is EASY to see this in MISSIONS, we fail to apply this to evangelism!
Let me share a fictitious story about two missionaries and their approach to missions. These two missionary couples are not real. Their stories however are very real and reflect a variety of common missionary situations.
To add simplicity (and a small degree of good-heartedness) to our story, let’s talk about the make-believe Umpa Lumpa Tribe of South America (no offense intended to you Willie Wonka fans!)
The Umpa Lumpa is an un-evangelized tribe in South America. They have never heard the Gospel, and follow primitive pagan rituals. They have no knowledge of the Bible. In this tribe, deception was the highest virtue. They worship many gods. Their livelihood is very basic. They live in grass huts with thatched roofs. They have no doctors, nurses or hospitals and few have every seen the world outside of their own village and its surroundings.
JOE and WENDY are good church members who heard about this tribe and are burdened to reach them with the gospel. They ravel to Umpa Lumpa Land and live with the Umpa Lumpa people. They begin by meeting people and sharing “the four spiritual laws,” just like they did when they evangelized in the USA. They build a small church with expensive wood boards brought in from the big city, even though every other Umpa Lumpa building is a hut with a thatched roof. The church looks out of place in Umpa Lumpa land, however, it looks just like a small version of their church back in America!
Church services are held every Sunday at 11, rain or shine. Joe and Wendy are very proud of their hymnbooks, even though the Umpa Lumpan’s have never seen a book before. A donor from the US was very generous to provide these hymn books, and very insistent that they be used to help the new church. Joe and Wendy teach the Umpa Lumpans how to sing the same songs that they sang in their church in America, in English, of course. However, they get discouraged because no one comes to church. They return to the USA before the end of their first term.
In contrast, let’s consider Jerry and Linda, another missionary couple with the same burden to reach the Umpa Lumpa people. Jerry and Linda spend a great deal of time studying the culture, language and history of Umpa Lumpa. They don’t build a church at first. Instead, they invest their energies in spending time visiting people in their homes, working with them in their fields, and learning how they live their lives. Since the Umpa Lumpan’s do not have a concept of God as creator, Jerry and Linda tell the story of creation, sin, Adam and Eve, and the Old Testament sacrifices. They take time to explain metaphors that the Umpa Lumpan’s do not understand, like a Lamb (there are no sheep in Umpa Lumpa land), and sin being “whiter than snow.” After 3 years of getting to know the people, a few Umpa Lumpan’s trust in Christ. Jerry and Linda continue to teach the new disciples, and they begin to share with other friends. They build a church, but it looks pretty much like other buildings in their village. They sing songs of worship, but they sound similar to the music that the Umpa Lumpan’s sing, and of course, they are sung in their language, not in English. Into their second term as missionaries, Jerry and Linda are excited to see an Umpa Lumpa congregation, led by Umpa Lumpa disciples, sharing the gospel with in their village and the other nearby villages.