One part of the “job” of becoming a missionary is that, by definition, you will cross cultural, ethnic, and/or linguistic barriers to spread the gospel. While there is certainly much excitement and blessing that can come with such crossing of cultures, most missionaries will tell you that there are also some detriments.
I mentioned in a previous post that I have missed the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) in my time overseas. In this post I would like to highlight another difficulty that is regularly felt by missionaries, namely, the lack of worship in one’s “heart language.” Knowing this struggle ahead of time will help prepare those who plan to serve overseas, and, as I mentioned in my introductory post, it will help churches know how to serve the missionaries they send out.
Missionaries use the term “heart language” to describe the language in which an individual thinks, emotes, reasons, and makes his or her most intimate and personal decisions. Most people groups around the world are multi-lingual. As a matter of fact, in our experience, virtually the only people group we regularly observe to be virtually mono-lingual is Americans. In Africa, it is not uncommon to meet individuals who are not simply bi- or tri-lingual, but who can actually speak four, five, or sometimes up to seven or eight languages! And yet, in every scenario, it is relatively easy to determine which language is the true “heart language.”
What language does the person revert to when dealing with matters of utmost importance and intense emotion? Because of the nature of the work we do spreading the gospel, it is important to try and learn that heart language and minister to individuals in it when and where possible. After all, when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, He did not inspire mono-lingual sermons with separate interpreters but instead every person in the crowd said, “we hear them declaring the magnificent acts of God in our own tongues” (Acts 2:11).
So, while I do believe this makes for good missiology in ministry to Africans, one thing it does not naturally provide for is ministry to us as American missionaries. Virtually all of the churches that surround us here in Zimbabwe conduct their worship services in a language called Shona (some parts of the country utilize a second language, Ndebele, and a few worship in English). And while any visiting American can tell you the facets of Shona-worship from which the American church could stand to benefit (e.g. joyous clapping/dancing, genuine fellowship and welcome, meaningful worship with few means, etc.), there is another sense in which the Americans in the room will always lag behind in worship. For the same principle which explains the need for Africans to worship in their “heart language” applies to all humans, including Americans.
A Refreshing Experience
While my wife and I have studied and developed competency to live and work in the local language, we cannot deny the feeling that comes over us when, for instance, we get to travel to a regional meeting with other missionaries where a church group has come from America to lead us all in worship in English. Singing songs that we recognize (and even ones we don’t but whose words we can easily learn), walking through a liturgy or service that is more similar to our upbringing/traditions, hearing the word preached in our native language without an interpreter, having the balm of God’s Word applied to our own cultural mindsets and scenarios rather than only to the context in which we serve—these are the very reasons we are commanded not to forsake meeting together (Heb 10:25). And yet because of the cross-cultural work we do, we often miss out on many aspects of this fellowship.
Of course, we recognize there are innumerable blessings in worshipping alongside people from other cultural backgrounds and languages. We obviously understand and are motivated by the reality that Christ’s kingdom will be made up of those from every nation, tribe, people, and language and that our eternal worship will not only be in English. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that during this time of sojourning in which we still “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor 13:22), we are more edified when we worship God in our own heart language. And we deeply miss this.