The Incarnation, God’s Model for Cross-Cultural Communication

by Charles Kraft


A major problem for today’s Christians who seek to communicate the gospel in terms of the culture of the society to which they go is that of the role they should assume. To the unreflective, perhaps, this will not appear to be a problem, since he or she may assume that it will suffice for them to fit into the assigned role of “Christian.”  Perhaps , however, they would not be so unconcerned if they understood how adversely the simple assumption of such a role can affect the message they seek to communicate.

In many places people see very little difference between the role of “missionary” and that of “colonial government administrator” or that of “western businessman,” or even that of “foreign tourist,” since there often seems to be so little basic difference between the major attitudes, activities and concerns of the one and those of the other.  True, the missionary talks about religion, while the others are more concerned with government or business or simply sightseeing.  But beyond this there often seems to be very little to disturb the impression of sameness so convincingly evoked by the similarities in housing, clothing, traveling modes, linguistic ability (or, often, inability), concern for schools, hospitals and other institutional innovations from western culture and the like.  Nor, often, is a distinction between “missionary” and “colonialist” or its modern synonym “imperialist” evident enough to the nationals to lead them to exonerate missionaries from the accusation that they are in league with the colonialists in their imperialistic designs.  Indeed, “spiritual imperialist” is one of the more recent epithets felt by many to be appropriate as an alternative designation of the missionary.

A further confusion frequently arises in the minds of the peoples of mission lands with regard to the appropriate prestige to assign to the role “missionary.”  It was my experience that the Nigerians among whom I worked assigned such a high prestige to the missionary role that we were virtually regarded as fitting into the “God” category rather than into the “human being” category……..

This type of stereotyping is perhaps the most disturbing thing about simply being assigned to a role such as missionary, since it allows the people to whom we go to understand us and our presence in their midst wholly in terms of whatever their stereotype of a missionary might be.  That is, we become in their eyes well nigh absolutely predictable, isolated from effective contact with them and depersonalized.  In the case of the Nigerian situation referred to above (which is not at all uncommon, especially in rural areas, the world over), this meant that missionaries were not expected to operate by the same rules that human beings operate by.  They were not considered to be restricted by the same limitations that human beings are restricted by nor could they be approached in a manner appropriate to human beings.  That is, at each of these points (and many others) the analogy in their minds as they sought to think about or interrelated with missionaries was not to be a human to human analogy but a human to God analogy.  In other parts of the world, and especially in urban areas, the specifics of the stereotype may vary but the people will often generate a similarly well-defined set of predictabilities resulting in a similarly isolating and depersonalizing definition of the position and activities of the missionary.


That is a situation similar to that which God faced in his relationships with the Jewish people over the years.  In spite of his association with them and his constant working in human affairs both within and outside of the Jewish nation, he had come to be regarded as predictable, isolated from meaningful interpersonal contact with all but a very few human beings, and more or less depersonalized.  But then “in the fullness of time” God did something about the situation.

In Jesus, the stereotyped God broke out of the stereotype. Though he was God and had every right to remain God; though he was above humanity and powerful and majestic and worshipable, and had every right to remain that way; though he had every right to accept the stereotype, to remain within it accepting the assigned status, the prescribed role, the assured respect that the stereotype provided for him, Jesus turned his back on all of this, refusing any longer to cling to his rights as God.  He laid aside both his rightful position and power and became a human being for the purpose of coming to live among us (see Phil. 2:6-7 and Jn. 1:14).  He broke out of the stereotype so that we could actually see, hear and touch him as he dwelt, not above or apart from us, but truly among us.

To many people of that day (and this) God was regarded as very impressive.  His power, majesty and “otherness” made quite an impression on people.  You might say that God had developed a very good reputation and lots of respect, but few of his creatures knew him well.  He had many admirers but few friends.  Much of what he said and did was subject to the same kind of suspicion with which we regard the words and deeds of the very rich or the very powerful—especially if their wealth of power has been inherited rather than earned.

“How could the Kennedys or the Rockefellers understand what I have to go through?” we ask, “since they have always had the wealth and/or the power ot insulate themselves from these things.  They could never understand my desires, my wants, my needs,” we assume, “since they, without a struggle, were already in possession of the things that I am working so hard to attain.”

And so, just as we suspect that such people don’t really understand us, likewise humans had come to feel that God, being so far “out of it” with respect to the problems and difficulties of the human scene, could not possibly understand “human beingness” is really like.  Those who questioned God’s ability to really understand were likely also to question whether he really cared.  And if he didn’t really care about us, why should we care about living up to what was called “God’s standard?”

So humans assigned to God a status and a role (or non-role in relation to human beings).  We fitted God into a stereotype that effectively insulated us from active concern about God or our relationship with God—a stereotype that kept God securely at arm’s length and allowed us to go about our business with little or no concern about God.  This was often as true of the professional religionists of that day (as it is of ours) as it was of the majority of the rest of the people.

But then God in Jesus broke out of that assigned status and role, rejecting the stereotype to which he had a right, and he incarnated himself.  He became a real human being among us—a learner, a sharer, a participant in the affairs of men—no longer simply God above us.  Nor did he then merely content himself to do God-type things near us.  He spent approximately thirty-three years truly among us—seen, heard, touched, living as a human being among human beings and perceived by those around him as a human being.  He learned, therefore, as the book of Hebrews contends, how to sympathize with human beings by allowing himself to be subjected to the temptations and sufferings of human beings (see Heb. 2:10, 17, 18; 4:15; 5:8, and elsewhere).

“Preposterous!” said the religious leaders of that day, “You can’t expect us to believe a thing like that!”  For they had studied the Scriptures and were sure they knew exactly how the Messiah would come.  He would, they seemed to expect, be above ordinary men, he would associate with religious, good people, he would assume political power, he would demand that people follow him, and so forth.

“Mere mythology,” say the religious experts of our own day, who find in the incarnation but another attempt on the part of human beings to deify ourselves.  Jesus, an amazing man, yes, but incarnate God?  Certainly not, they say.

And, we must admit, it was a rather incredible thing to do. What a terrible risk Jesus took in thus making himself vulnerable, able to be talked back to, able to be criticized by humans, able to be tempted.  But in this process of rejecting the assigned status he had a right to retain, he put himself in the position to win (rather than demand—as he had a right to) our respect, to earn (rather than to simply assume) our admiration and allegiance on the basis of what he did.  He became a man among us.  And in the process, we discovered that God is ever more impressive than our doctrine had told us he is. This discovery was doubly meaningful because it was based not simply on knowledge about God, but on experience with him.


But how does all of this apply to us as missionaries?  We attempt to cross cultural barriers, to enter into the frame of reference of other peoples for the sake of confronting them with the message of Christ.  But how do we go about it?  And when we carry out our calling, what is their response?  Do we simply allow them to fit us into their stereotype of what a missionary should be, whatever that stereotype may be, and, if that stereotype is a bad one, end up with zero communications?

How would the people we work with fill in the following blanks?  “The missionary acts like ___”?  In many situations the predictable filler of that blank would be something like “colonial government administrator,” or “foreign businessman,” or, in the area of Nigeria where I worked, the statement might well be predicted as, “The missionary acts like God!”

As mentioned above, many people of mission lands may well feel that there are more reasons than the missionary’s attitude to identify him or her with God.  The stereotype would seem to them to fit very well for a variety of reasons as they evaluate the situation from within their frame of reference—a frame of reference into which the missionary may not have penetrated if, indeed, she or he is even aware of it.  From the nationals’ point of view there may well be a whole series of further predictable statements as well, such as: “The missionary lords it over us,” “The missionary shouts at us,” “The missionary lives separate from us,” “The missionary only makes real friends of people with western schooling.”  These are statements of expectation as well as of prediction, since they simply define for the people various aspects of the way in which they expect the missionary to act.  But by this very fact the communication value of the acts and words that allow such statements to stand as accurate descriptions is close to zero—unless, of course, it is the desire of the missionary to communicate this kind of information.


But suppose someone says something like this about a missionary: “This missionary acts like a real human being!” What a lot of information that kind of a statement often carries—because the person of a mission land who makes that kind of statement is defining “real human being” in terms of whatever is appropriate to that concept from within his or her cultural frame of reference.  Now, the missionary who is interpreted as acting like God by the national may very well have been conforming to her or his own definition of what it is to act like a real human being.  But what from within the missionary’s frame fo reference looks like humanness may to the national look like “Godness.  Thus, if to the national the missionary looks human, there has been a major breakthrough involving the establishing of a beachhead within the national’s frame of reference.  There has been a breaking of the stereotype by overcoming the predictability barrier, making possible life-changing discovery on the part of the national.

The elements involved in establishing “humanness” within someone else’s cultural frame of reference will vary from the quite trivial to the quite all-encompassing.  A missionary who, for example, never betrays the slightest doubt about anything (especially about things that the national may assume are absolutely unknowable) may well be interpreted as acting like God—that is, our very certainty may prove detrimental to us at times.  Note that the Apostle Paul chooses to be weak to the weak in order to win them (1 Cor. 9:19-22).  Furthermore, a missionary who never has or admits to a health problem, or a security problem, or a moral (including thoughts) problem, or who never admits to nationals that he has made a mistake, may well appear to them to fit more properly in the supernatural category than in the human being category.  On another level, I once had a Nigerian say to me, “Why, we never knew how you missionaries go to the bathroom—or even that you  go to the bathroom!”  In this regard it was a very positive factor in the understanding of a certain number of the young people in our area when, at a camp, I bathed with them.

One very important feature in the attempts of several missionaries that I know of to establish themselves as real human beings within another cultural frame of reference has been their willingness to participate with nationals in their recreational activities.  IN our part of the world this meant participating in a variety of play activities performed to the beat of the drum and commonly referred to (though to some extent misleadingly) as dancing.  When the people could make statements like, “The missionary dances with us,” they found it very difficult to maintain their stereotype of the missionary as God.  Many of these people weren’t quite sure what the missionary was paid to do, but they were reasonably sure that whatever it was, it wasn’t to dance!  The amount of information conveyed, therefore, when this strange person does an unexpected thing like participating with them at play is extremely high.  When the missionary acts differently than their stereotype calls for her or him to act, the people are forced either to regard him or her as an exception to their stereotype, or to modify or abandon the stereotype.  If the missionary’s activity consistently contradicts the stereotype in the direction of their definition of humanness (there are other directions in which such reinterpretation could go as well), the kind of human-to-human basis for communication that the incarnation employs is established.


To summarize thus far, God had a choice of roles in his approach to us.  He could have remained as God in heaven, or even come to earth as God, and retained the respect and prestige that is his right as God.  He would have confined to have admirers but not friends.  The risks would have been far fewer, but the real impact very low because the predictability would have been so high.  But God chose not to go that route, choosing rather to become a human being within the frame of reference of human beings, so that, in spite of the tremendous risk involved, he might earn the respect of and, therefore, the right to be listened to by human beings.  Likewise we as missionaries may choose to remain as gods above or as gods in the midst of the people we work among.  Or we may seek to follow God’s example and establish a beachhead within the frame of reference of the people to whom God has called us—a beachhead of “human beingness” according to their definition.

Soon after a young missionary had taken charge of a mission station in Africa he was sitting, chating with the son of the local chief on the porch of the mission home.  After some time the chief’s son looked up at the missionary and asked, “How long have we been here?”  The missionary calculated the time and said, “About three quarters of an hour.”  The chief’s son then asked, “Do you know how long I would have been here if your predecessor were still here?”  The missionary (lying) answered, “No.”  “Five minutes,” the chief’s son replied.  “Your predecessor would have come to the door when I called and asked me, ‘What do you want?’  I would have stated my business, gotten my answer, and been off again in about five minutes!  Just look,” he continued, “here we’ve been sitting here for three quarters of an hour and I didn’t even notice that the time was passing!”

The previous missionary had only made one major blunder.  He had acted in a way perfectly intelligible from within his cultural framework.  He had stepped outside to meet the chief’s son, he had undoubtedly extended to the African a few common greetings, and then he had gotten right to the point so as not to waste too much time by asking very politely but directly what the man wanted.  The African, however, was interpreting all of these things from within his own frame of reference—a frame of reference that regards a direct question such as “What do you want?” no matter how politely asked in that context, as an extreme breach of etiquette, about equivalent to a punch in the mouth.  In the African’s society, it is the prerogative of the one who comes to state his business in his own good time, and a matter of common courtesy for the person visited to wait until his visitor gets ready to bring up the matter that brought him.  However, the chief’s son had come to expect such breaches of etiquette on the part of missionaries, and this expectation had become a part of his stereotype of missionaries  It was not the actions of the earlier missionary that startled him, it was the fact that the newcomer was willing to sit and chat with him and never to ask what brought him—from his point of view, that the second missionary treated him like a human being—that caused him to sit up and take notice.  That which he, in terms of his frame of reference, could definite as courtesy was in this situation the unpredictable and led to a new discovery on the part of this chief’s son.

A university student once came to a professor’s office to as some minor question about a course she was taking from him.  He invited her to sit down and they began to talk about various things.  This went on for some time, then she seemed to lose track of the conversation for a moment.  Finally she broke in with something like, “Gee, you don’t act like a professor!  You know,” she continued “since I’ve come to this university no professor has ever spent more than ten minutes with me.  And nobody has ever shown the interest in me that you’ve been showing.”  A poor lost student had finally found someone among the gods of that situation who had broken the stereotype and, at least for that hour or so, had begun to related to her in terms of her definition of humanness.

Straight out of Bible college, a young man I know accepted a call to a small New England church.  Soon after assuming that pastorate he also took a job in a factory.  His deacons called him on the carpet for this, admitting that they weren’t paying the highest salary in the world but insisting that they expected him to devote all of his time to the work of the church.  “Oh,” he replied, “it’s not for the sake of the money that I took the job in the factory.  In fact,” he continued, “the church is welcome to whatever I earn.  It’s just that to this point I’ve spent all my time in school, yet I’m expected to minister to people who spend from 9 to 5 every day in the factory.  If I’m going to minister effectively to these people, I’ve got to find out what it’s like to be in their shoes.”

This is one of the most constructive approaches to the ministry I’ve ever seen.  Though the pastor and his people were members of the same culture, he was able to recognize that in major ways they were operating within different frames of reference—he within an academic frame of reference, they within a quite different framework strongly influenced by their involvement in factory work.  In this and other ways he was able to break through the stereotype that the church people had of a pastor, and to increase dramatically the effectiveness both of his preaching and of his overall relationship with the people.

Each of these illustrations points to the effectiveness for communication of putting oneself within the hearer’s frame of reference, just as Jesus did.  Jesus not only came, he became.  He not only traversed the infinite distance between heaven and earth to get close to us, he also covered those last couple of feet that separate person from person, to identify with us in the human condition in which we were immersed.

I asked a missionary one time if he didn’t feel a bit guilty about having fixed up his house so nicely.  He had not only made the house comfortable by American standards, but had added a touch of luxury to it here and there.  “No,” he replied, “the Nigerians expect us to live this way.”  He was absolutely right.  But the communication value of his living condition, since his actions were completely predictable, was zero.  Another missionary locked up his comfortable mission home for a few weeks and moved his family and a few necessities seven miles out into the African bush to live in an African compound.  He hadn’t been there very long when his African host asked, “What in the world have you come for?  Why,” he continued, “if I had a home like yours, I wouldn’t even poke my nose outside the door, much less come way out here to live.” This missionary had put himself within the African’s frame of reference.  By acting so unpredictably he succeeded in eliciting some very interesting questions and comments on the part of his host.  One day the African came to him and said, “I know why you don’t like our food.  We don’t like yours either!”  The practice had been for each to offer the other a portion of their food whenever it was mealtime.  This sharing had resulted in quite a significant discovery on the part of the African to whom, up to this point, the missionary had been not only distant, isolated, and unknown, but also a source of envy.

The African, for example, may well have envied him his food as well as his home.  But when the missionary began to operate within the African’s frame of reference, a new kind of understanding of the missionary and everything about him began to break through.  This experience was doubly good, for the same sort of insight concerning what it is like to be inside the skin of an African was breaking through to the missionary as well—thus enabling him to communicate more effectively from within the African’s frame of reference.  IN another, similar experiment in living in an African village, the missionary was told, “We want to follow your God, not that of the (other) missionaries!”

God became a human being—so much we.  God broke through the isolating stereotype—so must we.  Those close to Jesus discovered that this one who had invited them to get close to him, who had earned their respect and undying admiration and yet had called them “friends,” could actually have demanded all of this.  Even though he was God, it was as a full fledged man, from within the human frame of reference, that he demonstrated it.  So must we demonstrate God’s message from within the human frame of reference—in hopes that the result of our ministry can be the same kidn of amazed yet transforming response that John records as the result of Jesus’ ministry when he says (paraphrasing 1 John 1:1-3):

This man came along, an impressive teacher, and I and several others became his students.  For three years we lived together.  We walked together, talked together, ate together, slept together.  We both listened to his teaching and watched closely how he lived. And what an impression he made on us!  For as we lived together we began to realize that this was no ordinary man—that when he spoke of God as his Father he spoke from firsthand experience…for this man living among us was God himself!  This man whom we called “Teacher,” to whom we listened, which whom we lived—we discovered that he is the God who created the universe, but who chose to come in human form to live with us, his creatures, to demonstrate what he is like to us in a way that we could not misunderstand.  And this discovery has so impressed us that we’ll never be the same again!