Courtesy photo of Chris Horn (far right) with his family and staff of Timothy Lutheran Sem­inary in Papua New Guinea

“Five ducks are sitting on a pier, and one of the ducks jumps off into the water. How many ducks are left?”

For Christian mis­sionary Tim Bran­nagan, the correct answer isn’t “four.”

“An Ethopian would say zero, because if one of the ducks jumped off, the rest would follow,” Bran­nagan said.

Bran­nagan and his wife, Nancy, shared stories from nearly 10 years spent abroad in Ethiopia as Christian mis­sion­aries. They found that spreading the gospel hinges on embracing the country’s cul­tural nar­rative to form rela­tion­ships.  

Moving to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, with Nancy and their three young children in 1995, Bran­nagan  men­tored Ethiopian pastors as the aca­demic dean at Tale Hewot Sem­inary.

Bran­nagan dis­covered that the Western classroom edu­ca­tional model failed to res­onate with his stu­dents and instead found that his most effective teaching moments came through sto­ry­telling and dis­cus­sions over tea.

Bran­nagan and his family moved back to Hillsdale, Michigan, where his two children grad­uated from Hillsdale College in 2007 and 2010 respec­tively, but his mission work con­tinues: He now shares a story-centric approach to spreading the gospel as the Director of Story-centric Strategies for Evan­gelical Free Church of America, a national church orga­ni­zation with nearly 550 inter­na­tional mis­sion­aries. Research demon­strates that more than 80 percent of the world prefers to learn through nar­rative, Bran­nagan said.

He illus­trated the nar­rative approach by telling the story of a public official in Nigeria who was running for reelection and accused of laun­dering public funds to his family and friends by an  opposing can­didate. Responding to the accu­sation, the public official said, “You’re right. I keep the money for myself, friends, and clan, and now I’m ready to serve you. If you elect this other can­didate, he’ll do the same thing I did.”

Bran­nagan said that the people re-elected the current official.

“In Africa there is a strong group men­tality that pre­dom­i­nates indi­vidual justice. By dis­playing the injustice of nepotism within the context of a story, there is a greater chance that the student’s response is, “I don’t want to be that person. How can I be sure that I won’t turn out that way?’” Bran­nagan said.

Although they landed in dif­ferent con­ti­nents than Bran­nagan, two current Hillsdale stu­dents also expe­ri­enced the impor­tance of under­standing the cul­tural nar­rative to build rela­tion­ships and spread the gospel.

The son of a Lutheran Church-Mis­souri Synod pastor, senior Christopher Horn moved to Papua New Guinea in 2012 where his father served as an admin­is­trator at a Lutheran sem­inary for two years.

By observing his father step into a lead­ership role as a pastor at the local Lutheran sem­inary, Horn saw the chal­lenges for the mis­sionary in a culture based on mutual favors.

“It’s the ability to balance under­standing in the impor­tance of rela­tion­ships and how crucial they are to get any­thing done, but also pri­or­i­tizing fidelity to the gospel message,” Horn said.  

Horn spent six months becoming fluent in the Papua New Guinean dialect, Tok Pisin, and as a high school senior, strived to fulfill his vocation as a son and student. He said he tried to help in whatever ways he could, car­pentry projects, remod­eling the sem­inary workshop and a kitchen, and painting one of the mis­sionary homes.

“When you’re there for years at a time, it’s more about living together, eating together, and going to church together. It’s not about the projects that you write home about in your mis­sions reports — that’s short term mis­sions — long-term mis­sions is about being with each other rela­tionally,” Horn said.

Horn met senior John James before coming to Hillsdale through high school Lutheran retreats. James spent five months in India and then three months in Sri Lanka imme­di­ately prior to his freshman year.

Also a son of a Lutheran pastor serving at a sem­inary abroad, James found an avenue to build rela­tion­ships through music. A cellist and man­dolin player, James would accompany his father’s con­gre­gation alongside his brother who played the violin and banjo.

“The best part of my expe­rience was seeing the catholicity of Chris­tianity and wor­shipping with the com­munion of saints overseas. I also found that Indian people are super friendly,” James said.

One day James found himself sitting in the back of a car with one such friendly Indian while driving to a distant church with his father.

Finding that James was well-learned in Lutheran hymns, the Indian sang a series of hymns as a game to see how many James knew.

“When he found that I rec­og­nized one of their foreign hymns, he just kept singing at me,” James said.  

Like Horn, James expe­ri­enced the tension of building rela­tion­ships without com­pro­mising the gospel message to adapt to the par­ticular culture.

“I was con­stantly trying to soak in the culture and mark dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­ities,” James said. “The liturgy res­onated with us and the Chris­tians there in a very natural way. It is not a Western thing to return con­stantly to God’s promises in his word and sacra­ments.”