For many years my wife, Ulli, and I served in a ministry context where little emphasis was placed on grasping the worldview and cultural understanding of the people we were trying to reach with the Gospel. We knew that we were missing a big piece of the puzzle, but did not know what it was.
Then, through some fascinating God-ordained circumstances, we ended up taking the full training course with Ethnos360 in Missouri (then called New Tribes Mission). We were 53 and 49 years old at the time and sitting in classrooms with young people, most of them half our age. We were so glad they had opened up this training to us, even though we worked with a different mission.
How we wished we had received this training at the beginning of our missionary experience! We had been working with a Siouxian tribe at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta prior to taking this training. Upon returning home we were eager to put into practice the things we had learned.
On our Reserve lives a man, Bill (name changed), who considers me his father. Having only seen his biological father once in his life, he adopted me as a father-figure. I had witnessed to Bill about Christ many times, but to no avail. He was stuck in his traditional beliefs.
While we were away at training, an interesting turn of events took place. Bill got interested in studying the Bible. Before I left I had given him a Bible in simple English. There was a problem, though. Having dropped out of school in grade three, he was illiterate. However, Bill started to practice sounding out the words as best he could. With endurance he taught himself to read.
Upon our arrival home he asked me to teach him the Bible. That was an answer to prayer! With my newfound comprehension of how important an understanding of a person’s worldview is before being taught, I said this to Bill: “I am prepared to be your teacher, but only under one condition. You need to agree to be my teacher, as well.” (I actually wanted to defer my teaching him till later, but he would have none of that.)
As we started with Genesis 1:1, it became quite apparent how necessary it was that he would teach me as I taught him. As we talked about the Creator, I asked Bill, “In your tribe, what do people say about the Creator? Can you teach me?”
“That is easy,” he replied. “There is the Great Spirit who started up creation, but the actual creator is a Woman Spirit. She does all the real creating.”
I just about fell off my chair. I had worked with and preached in this tribe for 18 years before we left for our training. I had spoken much about the Creator, never realizing that I was missing the mark every time I did so. I was saying the right words, while they were still hearing a wrong message.
It is my desire that no one ever will make these colossal mistakes we had made simply because we did not have the proper training – training that focuses on listening, understanding, and then drawing the right conclusion before we start to teach.