Beware False Friends

No, I’m not referring to that guy you’ve known since Jr. High that only calls when he needs something (though, come to think of it, watch that guy). “False Friend” is a philological term that refers to a word in the language being learned that sounds similar to a word in the student’s own language. A word that sounds familiar doesn’t always carry the same meaning as its homophone (er, soundalike).

For example, the English word, carpet sounds similar to the Spanish word, carpeta (file folder), but the words do not have the same meaning.

The word bad, in German, means bath or spa. (And, incidentally, in 1980s America actually means good.)

The French love when Americans use the word journée when they mean voyage, but then French are known for their sense of humor when it comes to language.

Of course, the concept doesn’t only apply to language. When people of one culture see something that seems familiar in another culture, it’s easy for them to assume they know what’s being done and why. Two people shouting in each others’ faces on the street corner? In Italy that’s long-lost friends happy to see one another. Men walking down the street arm in arm? Not necessarily homosexuals. Ear-to-ear grin? In Asia, it could mean someone’s embarrassed.

Outside your home culture, people don’t see Jesus in you because you don’t smoke, drink, or use foul language. Idol worship doesn’t always involve statues and incense. Animism doesn’t always express itself in grass skirts dancing around a fire.  It turns out that paganism can look a lot like Christianity (and vice versa). Evil doesn’t always wear black.

In order to incarnate the gospel in a culture, you’ve got to do your homework. Cultural exegesis and immersion are key to understanding the bridges and barriers to the gospel. To the question “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus gave various answers.

In post-Christian America, all mission is cross cultural. The culture of your city is not yours. Beware of False Friends; your assumptions will ruin your potential to communicate the gospel in a way that actually communicates the good news. Online relationships may not be “real” relationships where you come from, but they’re the most influential for millions of people around the world. Don’t let the rhetoric of the narrative offend you into isolation. When fighting to define words, concepts, or institutions, choose your battles carefully lest you start to see the people you’re supposed to love as your enemy. Start every conversation with a question.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.