Welcome to Missions on Point, the Proprempo perspective on church and missions.
Welcome to episode 29 of Missions on Point. We're in a series on keys to effectiveness as a missionary. This is the fourth key, and I'm calling it knowing the target audience. This covers a lot of territory. If you've listened to previous episodes, you know that these keys are not something that can just be deduced from a written survey, they are observations of life. They are also perhaps useful as evaluators of a prospective missionary's ministry and philosophy, as well as an active field missionary's ministry. These keys could be used as an evaluation of observation of ministry and ministry philosophy, in a prospective missionary's life or an active missionary's life.
The essence of what I want to say about knowing the target audience has to do with language and culture proficiency. In order to preach the Gospel and proclaim Christ to unreached people groups, the missionary has to have a much greater proficiency in language than a tourist. The missionary needs to know the culture and some nuances, so that they're not defeating their own purposes with foolish talk. We're talking about intangible spiritual truths that are important to grasp, and affect their eternal destiny. We've got to get it right.
How does a missionary candidate, someone who hasn't even gone to the field, grow in language and culture proficiency? These things are challenging and take time. A missionary candidate needs to explore what they can about language learning. Perhaps take a course in linguistics. Understand how to reproduce the sounds of the language as a native, not as an American, trying to copy it with American sounds. They need even before they get to the field, to study the culture as much as possible. Read something about the history of the country, the people group. Look for anthropology papers done about those people or people near them or like them.
Take time to research who has been there, and is there any way I can interview them by a Skype or Zoom call or phone call, or meet them face-to-face and ask questions. If they're an unreached people group, no doubt there is a majority of people living in around or near them that you could study, because a lot of the cultural aspects will be adopted from one side to the other and can be learned. As much as possible learn things like social cues, non-verbal communication, dos and don'ts of simple things like hospitality and greetings. Do genders speak to each other or not? Do adults speak to children? How does that work?
Is there a different reference set of vocabulary for people that are in authority over you or a different class? It certainly should not be a surprise to the new missionary when they get to the field, how some of these things work if they could be studied ahead of time. Watch foreign films with or without subtitles that have to do with the people of that region or that area. Find out about their commerce and business and religious practices and local culture. What drives their life, what motivates them? How do they live day-to-day? Do they have a 4:30 a.m. call to prayer?
These things may seem theoretical on this side of the water, but they are very real when you get there and start living there. Similarly, for workers that are in-country, these things become paramount. Language proficiency takes a lot of time and effort. It shouldn't be assumed that just because you had Spanish in high school, therefore, you can learn a language that is quite different than a European language, and learn it in one year's time well enough to be able to explain the truths of the Bible. Normally, it's going to take more than one year.
Normally, it's going to take a lifetime of honing and sharpening language skills, vocabulary proficiency, and nuances of the language in order to be really well understood. Language skills are not something you can do on your own academically. Language skills are social skills, they require other people. Conversation requires other people. There's some things that you can do on the Internet and some great language programs that are computer-based. Ultimately, the interaction and the surprise of what someone might say is going to be a lot better than simply drills from a book or text or a program.
Among the interesting tests to find out if your language proficiency is good enough to begin to communicate more than just everyday things, is to have a telephone conversation with a native speaker in which you understand what they're saying, and they understand what you're saying. There is an interesting twist to this concept for the local church and a local church pastor. That is in seminary, they don't necessarily teach you about learning the culture of the church that you're going to. Maybe you are raised in the Midwest, and the church that you go to is in the west or in the southeast or in the northeast.
Very different cultures, very different surprises about how they think, and what drives their decision making. No matter where a pastor goes in the world, even if it's within his own nation, even though the language might not be very different from his home cultural dialect and accent, still there are cultural things that need to be discerned from the place that you're going, to have a long-term church relationship or plant a church. Learning how people think, and what motivates them in their values and decisions is very important in communicating spiritual truths. You can't find that out without spending some time with them and asking questions. It is a position of humility.
If we say that any two year old child can learn whatever language they're in the world, it may mean that the adult trying to learn a language, needs to be as humble as a child in how they learn in parroting things, in asking questions, in order to learn both language and culture together. Just as an aside, I know several families on the field in which the mother speaks English and the father speaks the local language to the children primarily. They switch off, they both can speak both languages. The point is to help their children become truly dual culture kids, and understand that both their home language, presumably English, and the language where they're living.
The missionary needs to have facility in language application. In other words, proficiency in language in all the spheres in which they have contact, their home, their neighborhood, the marketplace, the legal system, government system, whatever business they may be doing to be in country, and of course the Bible study or church religious situation. The most common impediment to actually learning the language well and studying the culture well and becoming proficient enough to explain Bible truths and proclaim the gospel clearly, is simply the rush to ministry.
The missionary comes to the field and they want to get into what they call actual ministry, as fast as they possibly can. They skip over language lessons, they put to the side and not make it a priority, whatever they're studying in language and culture so that they can get involved with something that's more like direct ministry. Their rush to ministry greatly impacts negatively, their long-term effectiveness. I've known missionaries on the field that had spent 20 years in the country and never learned the national language. That should be a crime. There's no way that supporters and board members should allow their missionary to go that long and not have the national language, continuing to use translators.
Missionaries need to understand the principle that comes from the Old Testament, that being steady at learning and developing and doing the hard stuff behind the scenes has equal reward, to being in the midst of the battle. They are deferring their personal, prideful will to be involved directly in ministry, in order to have a much bigger gain in the long term. Let me say it another way, there is no less reward, and it is no less ministry to take time to study the language and culture well, before launching in the proclamation and teaching ministry of the Word.
Woe to the mission organization or missionary team that insists that they've had enough time in language learning, even though they're not proficient, and they should just move on and get involved in ministry more directly. Like I said before, language learning is a lifelong process. You're never going to speak exactly like a native, so you're always learning. That first concentration of time, something like 40 hours a week for a year for many languages, and more than a year, two years or even more than two years for more challenging or difficult or complex language, ought to be the norm.
The church should not push people to get into ministry before they have a proficiency in language that supports it. The mission agency and team should not, and the individual missionaries should not be pushing against that goal, to fulfill their own prideful will in having more glorious newsletters perhaps. When they deeply understand that they have to learn the language well and learn the culture well, they'll make it a priority day-to-day to-day. In fact, the more they pour the coals to the priority of language and culture learning early on, the shorter that total time will be, and the quicker they'll be able to get more involved directly in ministry in the local language.
Let's not be those supporters and churches that have such a high regard and value for quick results that we cause our missionaries to fail, to adjust properly in language and culture knowing their target audience well, in order to have an effective and fruitful long-term ministry. Knowing the target audience starts well before they depart for the field, and upon arrival on the field is the highest priority for their first few years of work in the country. It continues to be a secondary priority for the rest of their lives as long as the Lord has them there.
Here's the dark side of that equation. If a missionary doesn't do that, if they intentionally go against the rules or the requirements of their team or mission agency or sending church, to skip ahead to do ministry before they have language and culture, and never give it enough priority over time to actually gain proficiency that enables their ministry, those people ought to be considered to come back home. It is that serious. If you're not going to be committed and give priority to language and culture, then just don't go to the field at all.
Hey, sorry to end on a dark note, but that's the truth, and you heard it here first. Just a heads-up, what we have coming in the keys for effectiveness as a missionary are, theological discernment, Bible knowledge, and value for indigeneity. I guarantee you it's going to rattle your cage.
Thanks for joining us today on Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. I trust that you'll find more help and resources on the website, propempo.com. Please prayerfully consider supporting this ministry. Now to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.
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