Overcoming Communication Barriers and Boundaries in Sharing the Gospel

We should never ignore the empowering of the Holy Spirit in overcoming communication barriers and boundaries in order to share the gospel with people from various languages, cultures and social backgrounds. The tower of Babel may signal the beginning of such obstacles as a result of humanity’s selfishness. God’s response as creator resulted in confusing human languages and scattering people abroad. Later, however, we see God turning the tables through the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, thus enabling the disciples to communicate the gospel across a multitude of languages and cultural barriers that resulted in many being saved.

As we consider how best to deal with various hindrances in sharing the gospel, we need to acknowledge that there will most certainly be numerous challenges ahead. J.O. Terry, who served as a missionary in the Asia Pacific region for thirty-two years, has listed more than twenty difficulties that exist as we seek to evangelize and disciple the world’s peoples. A key element in many of them is in-depth study on the worldviews of our projected audiences. This will often help to identify the stumbling blocks to the gospel that may exist within different audience segments. The good news is that whatever the barrier may be, the Word of God becomes the bridge to communicate the message through the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

To keep us focused, this article will concentrate on using media to overcome communication barriers and boundaries. While we consider the term “barriers,” our focus will be on people whose worldview is shaped within a specific culture that creates a number of impediments to them understanding the gospel. When we consider the term “boundaries,” our focus will be human-made regulations within the socio-political regime that prevent the spreading of the gospel to people.

The Nepalese people consider Jesus
as only one among the variety of
other gods that they believe in.

Nepal Case Study
As a useful example, we will consider the country of Nepal, which was declared officially secular in May 2006. Prior to that, Nepal was recognized as a Hindu nation that did not permit any open evangelization or broadcasting of the gospel on any local stations. Greatly influenced by Hindu fundamentalists from India, Nepal had set strict boundaries that prevented the spreading of the gospel to its population.

I met a Nepalese radio program producer, who prepared a five-year systematic Bible teaching series in the Nepali language. He said that the barriers to communicating the gospel in Nepal have been enormous. Technologically, the only broadcasting outlet available was to broadcast by short-wave from great distances, as local FM stations were not allowed to broadcast Christian programs. While creating the content for the broadcasts, he considered the worldview of the Nepalese people regarding Christianity. According to the producer, the Nepalese people consider Jesus as only one among the variety of other gods that they believe in and are open to “adding him to the list.” There is also a widespread view that Christianity is a Western religion, and people who follow it are more likely to be people from a lower caste.

The key bridge to overcome the Nepalese worldview was to teach the Bible chronologically, setting the foundation of God as the creator and using that to explain the origin of sin, the condition of humans as sinners and the consequences of sin. From there, the series progressed to teaching salvation through one man, Jesus Christ, and the destiny of humanity, leading to eternity. The producer considered non-believers to be his primary target audience; therefore, he shaped the programs’ content by addressing the Nepalese worldview in every lesson that he produced. He does acknowledge that a radio program by itself should not be seen as the only bridge to reaching the Nepali people for Christ. In addition to broadcasting, he shared how they took a holistic approach in order to overcome the trials his team was facing. His Nepal media team has six field staff, whose primary responsibility is to establish relationships in the community, with the goal of leading to church plants.

Despite significant restrictions, their field staff visit as many homes as possible, promoting the radio programming and requesting people to listen. They feel that the radio programs become an effective bridge to Nepali households as the field workers express their desire to return and seek the listeners’ opinions on what they have heard. The friendships established in this way eventually allow the field worker to invite listeners to a common place for a seekers’ meeting, where they share the gospel. Based on the outcome, they look for listeners who are willing to open their homes for Bible study. The goal of these studies is to start more in-depth teaching of basic biblical truths, leading people to conversion and baptism.

Once that takes place, they gather new believers together for worship. The use of this process has led to the planting of six churches in Nepal that have more than four hundred members. While the six field workers engage in relationship development for spiritual purposes, their wives engage in community development by teaching Nepali women various life skills (literacy, cottage industry, etc.), which also serves as another bridge to sharing the gospel.

As well-thought through as such an operation model is, it is hard to anticipate the real cost of such relational ministry and when the barriers may move from theoretical or philosophical to highly personal. According to one Nepal media team member:

“I used to go to [a certain location] to meet listeners in that area… Most of the people who live there are Buddhists. I went there for three weeks and managed to establish contact with a few people and they started to listen to radio programs. Some listeners could not understand what they heard in the programs, so they wanted me to come and share with them from the Bible.

One evening I went to their place to conduct a meeting, where twelve people came together and we were discussing about the Bible and Jesus. At that time, two strong young men came into the house and caught my hair, and asked me why I was preaching foreign religion in the place of Buddha, and that other religions were not allowed. They left the place, but after few minutes another two people came in and without saying anything, I was badly beaten and warned to leave the village or I would be killed. I came back home very discouraged.

My wife reminded me of our purpose there; she encouraged me to consider the Christ who sacrificed his life for me, and asked if we could not endure some pain for the Lord. She reminded me of how even Jesus’ disciples suffered persecution and endured for the glory of the Lord. We prayed for a week, asking the Lord to open doors at the same place.

Then I went to that same place to meet the village chief and told him that I have not come to preach a foreign religion, but about the creator God. He is everyone’s God, and that is why they should follow the Lord. Eventually, two families came to know the Lord; we then started a Bible study group and eventually a small church was formed. Many are coming and God is working.”

We have used this Nepal case study to illustrate how to deal with the some of the barriers and boundaries we may face. However, we need to acknowledge that we have only scratched the surface. Through these experiences, we may draw some practical lessons to develop a communication model that may help to overcome future communication challenges in gospel media ministry. In our analyses, we should also bear in mind the fact that suffering is inevitable if we desire to share the gospel.

Media Communication Model to Overcome Barriers and Boundaries

  1. The fundamental goal for media ministries is to seek Spirit-led, gifted Bible teachers and evangelists to fill the roles of content creators and content transformers. They may be trained and equipped for media ministry.
  2. The key to effective communication through media involves two key functions: content creation and content transformation (as illustrated below). These functions collaborate to gather and share meaningful communication from scripture. 

Content creators need an intimate understanding of the worldview of their audience. This will help to identify potential hindrances to understanding the message and developing bridges through appropriate pre-dialog questions. The goal is to lead a listener through the appropriate Bible story that will address these sticking points, and to conclude with appropriate questions in the post-dialog that will ensure a listener’s worldview has been challenged by the truth from God’s word.

Content transformers should continuously communicate with content creators sharing information about the worldview of the audience and about the effectiveness of current media content. This should be an on-going process. Further, content transformers should be prepared to walk as Christ walked, possibly going through suffering as they take the risk of building relationships and sharing the gospel with listeners.

Content transformers may fill several types of roles:

  1. Media strategists monitor media laws and regulatory frameworks to inform content creators and field evangelists on content guidelines in local media. They should also conduct on-going media usage research and keep updated on the latest media technology to advise appropriate media platform strategies. The choice of appropriate media should be regularly re-evaluated in order to remain technologically relevant to the audience.
  2. Field evangelists are the front-line ministers in the process, reinforcing understanding of program content, digging deeper into a listener’s understanding of the message and reporting back to content creators on effective ways of dealing with listeners’ needs.
  3. Content distributors are the vital conduit through which content is brought from creator to consumer. They are often the technological face of the process, interacting with outlet owners or gatekeepers or obtaining appropriate media devices to supply listeners.

The basic challenges for content creators and transformers are to:

  1. Develop their knowledge base on the worldview profile of their target audience and
  2. Establish real-time communication flow to share information between creators, transformers and their audience.

Process evaluation is an absolute necessity in determining the spiritual return on investment requested by so many who generously fund the efforts we are privileged to take part in. However, caution should be exercised in this.

Are there measurable outcomes we can use in declaring what the Lord has done though our efforts? Our analytical mind may think of statistics, and probably look for listener responses that affirm salvation or a significant life change as a result of a radio program. The Nepal media team member mentioned above is an excellent example of a process that is not specifically quantifiable, but shows the positive effect of faithful, multi-generational ministry. His father came to know the Lord through Christian radio programs, and eventually he came to know the Lord as well. Today, he desires to serve the Lord through radio ministry to reach as many people as possible for Christ.

In a long view, this is a good example of lasting fruit. But if this is typical of ministry in this setting, how does it fit into our need to report results? We should take care that the sense of urgency we feel about measuring short-term outcomes does not cloud the importance of a consistent, long-term relevant presentation of the gospel and the fruit that it will bear, even beyond our own participation.

Content creators and transformers must be open to be change agents actively listening to their audience, discovering their worldview and understanding socio-political trends and audience media usage. They should not fear to test new strategies for effective communication. Developing a willingness to take risks and to be innovators of new media approaches will be crucial for overcoming barriers and boundaries to the gospel in the years ahead.

As a final reminder, we should not forget that in spite of our best efforts at planning and carrying out our designs, the results are God’s doing. The entire team must constantly seek the Lord’s guidance and the Holy Spirit’s empowering. We must depend on God and God alone to effectively communicate biblical content through us.

Andrew Sundar is a communications specialist. He currently serves as director of the Media Resources Group—Asia for Trans World Radio and is based in Singapore.