Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions.
This is episode 78 of Missions on Point. I'm beginning a six part series of Missiology You Need To Know. This is a very significant series and you do need to know this. Okay, you're asking, "Who needs to know?" Well, the missionary needs to know this before they even go to the field, but anyone having to do with missions in the church needs to know this so that you have the right kind of lens on to evaluate what's going on in the missionary's life and ministry, with regard to missiology on the field. If you are a friend or family member of a missionary, you probably need to know this too so that you can understand what's going on in their minds and in the direction of their work on the field. Certainly, if you're a donor you need to know this, because it makes a difference in how they conduct ministry on the field, and it may be different than what your expectations or presuppositions are. So Missiology You Need To Know is, missiology you need to know.
At the front end. Let's talk about what is missiology. It's not a standard term we use in everyday English, even within the church. If you look up the definition of missiology, you'll see that it includes things like the study of the meaning of the church's mission or the theological study of the mission of the church. It can have a larger sense of scientific and academic study of missions and the missionary methods and history. One definition even calls it the science of cross-cultural communication of the Christian faith. Most people take it to be practical theology, where there's an intersection of the church and missions. I like that one. It's easy to get caught up in the science and academics of missiology, meaning anthropology, and sociology, and demographics, and linguistics, statistics, history and traditions that intersect with, and have an effect on, the progress of missions of the church. But in this series, we're going to focus on some very practical principles that are the foundation of missiology for good biblical missions.
The first thing you need to know about missiology is the first priority is culture and language. This principle is extremely important for the missionary, the church and the agency to understand. It has a lot of practical ramifications in the missionary's life, particularly in their first years on the field. The first priority of the missionary is to learn the language and the culture. Missionaries and agencies make a lot of excuses for not having to learn the language well or to only spend a certain amount of time in the language, which then limits people that are not gifted in language acquisition with regard to their language proficiency. Think about it. Your missionary is trying to communicate the gospel, trying to communicate intangible truths, so just having enough language to get directions on the street isn't enough.
Language learning is challenging. It's especially difficult for Americans who are used to living in a monolingual society. Language learning is exhausting. The mental and emotional energy to learn the nuances of a new language, the grammar, the structure, the pronunciation, are enormous challenges for people who are not used to doing that. Language learning is a social skill, not strictly an academic skill. If someone could just learn it in a classroom and take the test, that would be fine, but in real life, people don't always talk that way or use the same vocabulary that's in the book. So the missionary must have interaction with local native speakers.
Let me tell you one problem that American speakers often have in learning a language, and that is we often try to substitute our American language sounds, from whatever region we are from in the United States, and try to apply them to the foreign language, rather than learning the actual sounds of the foreign language in the way a native speaker uses it. The only way you get that is by listening a lot to native speakers and interacting with them directly, in order to be corrected and figure out how to speak it the way they speak it.
It is incredibly embarrassing for me to listen to a missionary speaking a foreign language using American phonemes instead of the sounds of the native language, and know that all of the native listeners are cringing inside to hear this person speak with a Texas accent or a Boston accent, the language that they love. Hearing this missionary, even if they get the vocabulary and structure correctly, murder their language. It means that the earnest language learner must spend a couple of hours every day specifically going out and listening to and interacting with the local people in their language as much as possible.
Now, it seems like that's a simple idea and a great principle and concept, but you would be surprised at how many missionaries and agencies try to shortcut that process and force people into a packaged program of six or nine or 12 months and then expect them to be doing ministry in the local language, which is virtually impossible, even for a language that is very close to our Latin language roots.
Then you overlay on top of that learning the culture, which is related to, but different than, learning the language because the culture throws at you all kinds of implications and idioms and references to things from history and childhood that the missionary did not grow up with. So they are at a loss when someone comes out with a phrase or a vocabulary that they've never heard before, unless they vigorously pursue it and find out from a native speaker what that thing really means.
You've probably experienced something like this yourself when a foreign speaker is speaking to you in English and somehow they use a word or a turn of a phrase in a completely different way than you expected because they're using their frame of reference of their own language. Or you say some kind of an idiom, or a phrase, or a reference, or a special term that they've never heard before and they are lost in the dust because they don't have a way to understand it without someone explaining it to them.
When you add the layers of culture and traditions and cultural practices in the mix, then it gets a lot more complicated because foreign speakers or foreigners entering into the culture as an adult don't have a frame of reference for all of the social cues, the special greetings and leave takings and all of the things of respect that are expected in the foreign language. Some of the practical implications of this priority are that the newly arrived missionary must not engage in ministry, using the language at least, until they have a certain level of proficiency in it.
Which means that they may be studying the language for a longer time than you might expect to have that level of proficiency to be able to communicate the intangible truths of the Bible and of the gospel. So right away you need to understand that that's okay. You should not be pushing your missionary to have a certain kind of statistics of people that they've talked to, or presented the gospel to, or had gospel portions, or Bible portions, or tracks handed out, or participated in evangelistic things until they're actually able to converse at a level of proficiency that is understandable to the native speaker.
They should not be using translators, they should not have English materials for those who happen to be English speakers in their foreign context. If they're living and working and a cross-cultural context, if their target audience for the gospel and for spiritual teaching is that foreign language, they need to be living and speaking in that foreign language and culture. Those things take time. Imagine trying to settle in in a foreign culture and environment, learn how to take care of your house and do the shopping, and do education for your children, and just manage life and transportation and everything else in this foreign context, and spending 35 to 40 hours a week of intense language exposure, training, practice, language learning and culture learning. I would venture to say that very, very few Americans have ever experienced the intensity and the pressure of that kind of focus on language learning before they arrived on the field. It's a new thing and they need a lot of grace and support and encouragement during that process.
It is also a humiliating process. If the missionary does not become like a child and get used to being corrected so many times in the way they speak, because they're speaking like a child, they're learning for the first time no matter how many tools they had before they arrived on the field, actually doing it is a humbling experience. They're going to use the wrong pronunciation. They're going to use the wrong words. They're going to fail to be able to read the language properly. They're going to make mistakes, and if they don't learn to laugh at themselves and enjoy the moment, then they're going to have a really hard time. If they're not making enough mistakes with the language, they're not trying hard enough. It just takes time and a lot of bumps and bruises, linguistically, to be able to refine their pronunciation, their understanding, their vocabulary, the right use within the culture, in order to be able to communicate properly the things that the Lord wants them to communicate for the long haul.
Another aspect is the language learner is never really done. No matter how many years the missionary has been on the field, there will always be little nuances of things or a new use of a vocabulary word that takes them by surprise, and they have to humble themselves even then to ask about it, to learn about it, to figure out how is this used? It could be as simple as a different region using the word in a different way, so they have to adjust as they move from one place to another, even within the same language group.
So you may ask, "How many years does it take?" Well, if an American is going to a Latin-based language, say somewhere in Western Europe, maybe one year of intense study is enough to get them going. However, the other extreme is languages that have a completely different alphabet and maybe they're read right to left or top to bottom, and those kinds of languages have significant differences even in tonality, as well as in different types of vocabulary for different types of environments or levels of respect. There's a lot more in the package than simply pronunciation and vocabulary. It is not unusual for language learning in those kinds of languages to take at least two years, maybe three years of focused priority study in order for them to achieve the proficiency that they need to actually do ministry in the language.
Here's something to keep in mind: language learning is doing the work of missions. It's not just a necessary evil or a hurdle. It is actually part of it. The reward for language learning has much fruit in the entire life and faithfulness and effectiveness of the missionary. It is just as much a part of the work of ministry as sharing the gospel with an unbeliever. Another notable thing to mention here is that the wife needs to have language learning also. There may need to be accommodations or adjustments for the wife to focus on language and culture learning, and not just the husband. Think of it, the wife is handicapped if she's not also able to proficiently speak the language even for the day-to-day things that she may do around the home.
If she is hindered by not having that kind of language proficiency, she's going to feel like she's in a cave. She's enclosed in a bubble of language and culture that she can't get out of or penetrate. How can she make good local friends unless she has been given the time and the priority of language and culture learning that enable her to get around as a normal person would in that local culture? Her friendships and her relationships with other families is just as important as the man's ability to, perhaps, stand up in front of a group and bring some Bible message.
The first principle of missiology you need to know is this. The first priority of a new missionary on the field is culture and language learning. 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 preferably consider supporting this ministry? Now to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.
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