If learning the language is so important, then why do some missionaries never learn it?
There are a couple of ministry crutches that oftentimes keep missionaries from learning the language of their field.
Those missionaries that don’t master the language typically do their ministry on the field in one of two ways. The first is to use an interpreter. This is commonly seen among missionaries that focus primarily on preaching and teaching. The second way is to communicate directly with the people in English. This second way is most prevalent among those that are “tent-making” missionaries, that is, those that teach English, operate a business, or hold some other job to minister to the “felt needs” of the people of their field.
The problem with these two approaches is that they both set up barriers between the missionary and the people. Using an interpreter almost invariably means that customs, idioms, and mannerisms that the missionary holds to will be lost on the people (if not the interpreter himself!), and the missionary, in turn, doesn’t understand local customs and culture.
The problem with speaking to the people in English is that in most cases the English of the people on the field is severely limited in both vocabulary and comprehension. Imagine someone sharing the gospel with you in Spanish and you having only completed Spanish 2 in high school. You’re not going to be able to fully grasp what is being said, not because the content of the gospel itself is unintelligible, but because your working knowledge of the language is limited.
Learning to speak the language, however, opens up many more doors to share the gospel. While previously being limited by the interpreter’s or the hearer’s English comprehension, the missionary that speaks the language is only limited by his own mastery of the local language.
On top of that, he can communicate more effectively because in the process of learning the language he has also picked up on much of the culture of the people. He now knows how they think and why they think it and can foresee objections that they may have to the gospel that he previously was blind to.
In conclusion, missionaries should learn to speak the language of the people. This is a principle is actually found even in the pages of Scripture. When the greatest missionary of all time won the second greatest missionary of all time to the Lord, He spoke his first language. Don’t believe me? In my next post, we’ll take a look at a well-known conversion story in the book of Acts. Stay tuned.