By Dick Brogden
There is no long-term, incarnational, healthy, vibrant, wise, balanced, deep, heart-level mission without language and culture proficiency. It is possible to minister in a trade language; it is permissible to speak through a translator; and there is even limited good when we bumble along with a few phrases, big smiles, lots of pantomime, and loving acts. But nothing replaces language and cultural proficiency in planting the church where the church does not exist.
Language and cultural proficiency is akin to the baptism of the Holy Spirit: You can get along without it, but there is no down side to having it and growing in it.
With that understanding, let me elucidate a few ways the lack of linguistic and cultural proficiency (which are inexorably linked) undermines fruitful mission and longevity.
When you are not linguistically and culturally proficient:
1. You don’t understand informal conversations so you begin to avoid them. Alternatively, you have the same limpid and limited conversations over and over again until the level of awkwardness drives you to avoid that person altogether.
2. You default to using translators. Translation takes more time, loses clarity, and limits effectiveness. You sense or know this, and it becomes a weight that holds you back. Zubeir Pasha reveals a more sinister consequence when speaking of Charles Gordon of Khartoum: “He did not speak the language well, and was therefore liable to be both deceived and distrusted.”
3. Others who are less prepared theologically or are less mature or are of suspect character are given place, position, or opportunity because they can communicate well at heart levels. This frustrates and disillusions you so you look for areas in a country (or among a people) to whom you can minister. Invariably this can lead away from the frontier, from those who have never heard the gospel and to the Christian or expatriate community. This shift is not problematic because ministry among the saved and the international is invalid; it is problematic because it is so stinking hard to stay focused on the unreached which was your original call. It is not necessarily the Lord leading you to lose the focused call—it is your language limitation and that is tragic.
4. You can’t go deep in friendship with local believers, and the rotating nature of the missionary work force destabilizes you. You look forward to the stability of one location – as you are unable to find it (at deep levels) in your field of service. You start casting an eye back to your home country, where you can minister fully and relate freely in your native language.
5. In public settings you don’t get the joke or feel the falseness of pretending you do. You squirm when others are praised for their language ability (not that you are jealous of their proficiency or hard work necessarily —you’re just ashamed at your shortfall). You dread being exposed as insufficient. You miss a key concept or word at a critical time. You can’t minister efficiently or deeply and that is a rising tension. Again, you circle back to the thought of ministering in your home context where you can go deep with people and all your gifts can be released.
6. Your friends become expats. Over time a little voice in your heads says: “Why put up with all the hassles, stresses, and complications of living overseas when I am not doing pioneer work? I go to the international church; my kids attend the international school; we swim at the international club; and we order food from the international restaurants. I could do all this back home with half the worries. We might as well go home. After all there are Muslims in my city, and I can reach them in my native language.”
7. Ineffective, halting, broken language ministry is shameful to you—embarrassing even. Over time the “ethical you” cannot hold up under your own poor stewardship. You know you are being supported at great sacrificial cost to minister effectively. Your own disappointment and your own ethics will lead you to resign missionary appointment and go home. Frankly, it tends to be the un-ethical ineffective, pleased with the many benefits of overseas living, who linger on in missions—the poor stewards of the sending church’s trust.
8. You pull inward under the pressures of language learning and cultural assimilation. Because of insecurity, shame, fear of being judged or compared to others, you put up walls of defensiveness and excuse. This has the unfortunate progression over time of being less open to accountability, followed by direction and then correction. There is a deep humility that must accompany language learning. We must willingly lay down our own defensiveness so that we can still learn, still hear, and still adsorb. Internal tensions become walls against growing in language. And there is NO ONE that can take down those walls but ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit. Plain old pride is a major reason people don’t learn language well. It masks many other things and plays itself out in various ways. But pride is the root of many a struggle in missions. Jesus, help us all.
Limitations in language and cultural proficiency limit fruitfulness and undermine longevity. Let this be a positive incentive to learn language and culture, not an appeal to give in and go home. I list the above because they have been struggles in my own heart.
My longing for the new generation of missionaries in Live Dead is that we all press through to linguistic and cultural fluency. Language is not learned by the smart, but the stubborn.
Lord, help us! Give us the grit and grace to learn language and culture well, that we might plant the church among unreached peoples through teams to the glory of God.
My disclaimer: I aim my concerns at those called to plant the church among unreached peoples in teams or to work directly with national churches and indigenous leaders. They do not apply with the same stringency to those called to work in international churches.