Relational Discipleship and Cultural Context

Tanisha Merrell - North Rock Hill Church - Rock Hill, SC

Have you ever been somewhere severely unlike where you live? I have traveled a lot over the years – across the globe and within the United States. It’s been a gift to be able to travel and experience all sorts of people, languages, cultures, and FOOD. One thing I’ve learned is that everywhere I go, it’s obvious each place has a different culture and language – yes, even within the United States! Places where we seemingly speak the same language, words can mean something different according to the culture built in that place and can cause all sorts of confusion and problems.

This week, my friend, JB, shared about his enthusiasm and calling to reach the Fulani people in West and Central Africa. He shared some history and background to this people group, about their culture and language, and their devotion to Islam. “To be Fulani is to be Muslim.” What struck me most were his thoughts about language and culture, and how they must work together when you’re entering a new country or region. I quickly realized these same principles can be applied to the relationships we have where we are. We cannot understand one’s culture or context without learning their language, and vice versa. Each feed into the other, and takes time, effort, and lots of energy to learn and apply.

In the Fulfulde language, to say “I love you” requires me to understand how the Fulani interpret the words, not how I translate into English. If I use “Mi yidi ma,” which technically means “I love you” in English, someone from the Fulani won’t understand what I’m saying – it’s the wrong use of words and interpretation according to their culture. But if I say “Mi hinna hoore maada,” this is most accurate to communicate “I love you” properly and clearly to them. In my English language, this means “I greet your head.” Wait – what?? That doesn’t make sense to me! But why don’t they just let me speak it the way I know how, when it’s still in their language? I’m still honoring their language, aren’t I? Technically, no. This does not communicate the love and care that I am trying to show them, and proves I am unwilling to move towards them to learn it their way.

As I sat in the room, listening to my friend speak his heart about his ministry with the Fulani, and how he had to learn this hard lesson of how we often expect others to simply accept our efforts, and come fully our way to understand one another, it occurred to me…Jesus did this for us and was a perfect example of showing love by coming towards us and meeting us where we are. He left the perfection of heaven, living in perfect union with the Father and Holy Spirit, and came down to meet us in our limited, sinful state. He could’ve stayed where He was, expecting us to heed the strict laws that were given in order to dwell in His presence – making sacrifices and constantly working to live perfectly.

Instead, He came to us, dwelling among His creation as fully human. He moved towards us, showing His compassion and love, and ultimate plan to redeem us back to a relationship with Him. He lived among our earthly culture – working as a carpenter, speaking to everyone no matter their skin color, background, vocation, place in society, flavor of sin, etc. — to get to know us, and allowing us to know Him relationally. He put aside His comfort and perfection of heaven in order to live, feel and be tempted with what we experience daily here on earth, all the while teaching us how to do it, as well. Teaching us how to move towards people, putting aside our own comfort and familiarity, and learning about others and what makes them feel seen, heard, and loved. He spoke in parables, using common language and cultural interpretations, so people understood His message, and saw His love shine through His words.

At some point, He asks us to simply move towards Him in belief, allow Him to change us, and then asks us to join Him on mission to bring His message of hope and love to the world around us. How can we do this if we are unwilling to learn how others speak, what is acceptable to their native culture, how they feel loved and known, maybe even try to understand how they might hear the Gospel best? This doesn’t only apply to traveling across the world, but even in our own local community and churches. Expecting others to understand our intentions and motivations, our personal language or use of Christian-ese, doesn’t show the most compassion to meeting them where they are. Has someone been hurt by the Church? Simply show curiosity and listening through sincere questions and hearing their honest thoughts – not trying to “fix” their understanding but loving well through listening. Has someone never heard the Gospel presented explicitly? Use simple language they can easily relate to – we have some big words in the Christian world, and some that are not easily translated or understood. This all comes through relationship – learning about others, caring about where they are spiritually, meeting them in their own language and context.

I hope one day you get to travel to another country – eat the food, breathe the different smells, experience the landscape and foreign culture, all different from your own. It’s life-changing, and will grow you spiritually, as you see how God is moving across the world. Until then, you can also live out this appreciation for cultural context right where you live – get to know someone different than you, learn about their life and experiences, walk through life with them, point them to Jesus, and watch Him transform them to a knowing, active relationship with Himself.


Tanisha Merrell
North Rock Hill Church
Rock Hill, SC