As a ministry that equips cross-cultural workers to plant churches among unreached people groups, Radius International teaches on a variety of topics: business for missions, literacy, teamwork, marks of a New Testament cross-cultural church, and a host of others. But the two topics that intentionally get the most time are a “theology of suffering” and “the necessity of language and culture fluency.” It’s this latter topic I want to address, particularly since so few Christians seem to realize how important it is for the spread of the gospel.
The course I help lead on culture and language acquisition is designed to teach the students how to eventually learn what is known as a gateway/national language (the language spoken by ….) and then a minority language that is spoken by a specific unreached people group. We use local Mexican Spanish (or Haitian Creole, if they already know Spanish) as the proving ground, as students are forced to learn the language and culture from those who speak Mexican Spanish in the nearby community. So what does this course involve?
The students are all given language evaluations at the end of each semester, timesheet breakdowns are evaluated weekly, accents (not a typical North American missionary strength) are given strict scrutiny, and the fourteen major areas of culture are learned to the point of being automatic. Why all this effort to learn Mexican Spanish, a language that nearly none of them will use in their future work among non-Spanish-speaking people groups? The primary reason is that the languages they will be learning will most likely be very difficult. If they are trained well in an easy language (like Spanish), then the skills, confidence, and discipline patterns of this exercise should transfer to their future ministry contexts.
The last unreached unengaged people/language groups are the last ones for good reason. They tend to exist in physically demanding locations. The political situations in their countries make it hard for long-term gospel workers to live in. But maybe harder than all of these is the fact that those last people groups tend to have very difficult languages for outsiders to learn. If the gospel is ever going to penetrate these people groups, if disciples are going to be made, and if churches are going to be established in these areas, it will most likely be on the backs of teams that took the necessary time to become fluent speakers of those difficult languages. Can God use other means? Yes. But language fluency is the most viable, biblical, and historically proven method we see throughout church history.
Consider these three reasons as to why achieving adult fluency in a language is so important to the gospel messenger.
1. The gospel will be clearly communicated.
The gospel should not be a foreign message taught by foreign people. In I Corinthians 14, Paul is speaking about tongues and the necessity of understanding the meaning of tongues in order to edify the church. If the speaker is not understood, what benefit is it to the church? In making his point, he uses an analogy about languages that is helpful:
So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. (1 Corinthians 14:9–11)
Paul is making the point that, by not knowing someone’s language, you’re a foreigner to him and he’s a foreigner to you. If the messenger is a foreigner, what about the message? What about the God that the messenger is representing? If the meaning of the messenger’s words are not clearly understood, what are the local people believing in?
2. The price of learning a language and culture speaks volumes about the messenger and the message.
During my time in Papua New Guinea, it was always a treat to meet someone from the people group we worked with (Yembiyembi) that hadn’t had exposure to us for the first five years. In those early years, we learned to live the life of the Yembiyembi and to speak their language. It never got old seeing the look on someone’s face as you engaged them in their own language for the first time. The reaction was usually shock, excitement, then lots of questions.
Recently I’ve been reading about the early missionary pioneers William Cary, Adoniram Judson, John G. Paton, and Hudson Taylor and the priority that these men put on language fluency and the process of becoming fluent. Listen to the words of Hudson Taylor on the value of the language learning process:
Seeking a special baptism of power, the celebrated Cambridge Seven of athletic fame in England arrived in China in 1885 to serve with the China Inland Mission. While sailing up the Han River with J. Hudson Taylor, three of them, C. T. Studd and Cecil and Arthur Polhill, put their Chinese grammar books aside and prayed for the Pentecostal gift of Mandarin and supernatural power according to Mark 16:17. Exasperated, Taylor told his starry-eyed novices: “How many and subtle are the devices of Satan to keep the Chinese ignorant of the gospel. If I could put the Chinese language into your brains by one wave of the hand I would not do it.”
Taylor knew the value of language fluency; he worked hard to master four dialects of Chinese. Yet, if it was within his power to give the language ability to these new missionaries, he wouldn’t do it! Why? He knew the value of the journey to get fluent. The missionary is given credibility through this painful process, and the message itself may be more likely to get a hearing among the unreached.
3. The danger of syncretism is much higher when the culture and language are not understood.
Syncretism refers to the mixing of two or more beliefs, and if syncretism can be classified as a world religion, then it is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of being the dominant world religion today. Whether it’s Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or, sadly, Christianity, there is usually a component of folk religion and animism that is thriving under the surface of the publicly held belief system, unless it has been vigorously rooted out. The evil eye, day of the dead, magic, “traditional medicine,” jinn, ancestor worship, and so many other manifestations thrive just under the surface of every major world religion. Have Christians been exempted from this? Not by a long shot.
The sad truth is that many so-called “Christians” never fully understood what exactly they were embracing. Stories of this incredible God who can command the wind and the waves, heal the sick, and feed thousands were eagerly accepted. But their own understanding of the fall, sin, and the cost of being a disciple were rarely understood. Jesus was eagerly accepted as one of the deities/powers/spirits that they needed in order to have a better life; He was not seen as the one true God. Syncretism is usually a by-product of speed, and speed the by-product of pragmatism. To slow down and learn the language and culture will be the longer and more painful path. But the benefit is that you avoid a syncretized gospel, which is no gospel at all.
True adult fluency takes time, energy, and serious commitment. But if the cost of not getting fluent is a weakened gospel and questionable converts forming into questionable churches, is it worth what has been gained?
–To learn more about Radius International, go here.
Gary McGee, Shortcut to Language Preparation? Radical Evangelicals, Missions, and the Gift of Tongues, International Bulletin, of Mission Research, 2001, 118-123, from J. Hudson Taylor, cited in A. J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, Book 6 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), pp. 375-76.
Austin, China’s Millions, 249; see also 228-229, and 250-254, Appendix 3: Course of Study for Probationers