I remember the very first full day I was in my new host country. My family and I had arrived late the night before, so we were literally oblivious to our surroundings when we were ushered across the threshold of the apartment we rented. The next morning blurry-eyed with jet lag I put on my shoes and walked outside to attempt to buy some milk. People were outside doing the exercises, taxi cabs were racing down the street, and a sense of excitement welled up inside me. My wife and I had been talking and praying about this for years and we were finally here.
As I contemplated the new surroundings I came across a pet owner with his small canine companion. I observed that the owner would give his dog some sort of command and his little friend would obediently perform the necessary results. Then it hit me, this dog knows more local language than I do. I realized in an instant the daunting task before us and the mountain that we were about to climb of learning language & culture.
Some people may say, “Oh, you don’t need to learn the language. You can just use a translator.” or “You can just start an English corner and find the best speakers and share with them.” While these comments are well intended, I don’t believe this is God’s intention. Here are four reasons why we believe language and culture fluency is vital.
First, God calls us to preach.
Romans 10:14-15 says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’”
Preaching in itself is an oral activity and requires the use of words. Therefore, in order for someone to “call on him” requires cross-cultural field workers to make the effort to learn the language of their host country and, in many cases, the language of the people group who live within that country that God calls you to. In between being sent and preaching is the aspect of language learning that must take place, so that the message of the Gospel is clear to the hearers.
Second, it shows the message has value.
If someone came to my door in the Midwest and said they had an important message to tell me, but they couldn’t communicate it, that would signify to me a lack of value or need for me to know and understand it. However, if that same individual spoke the way I did, I would definitely give him a listening ear.
Third, it helps to build relationships.
I remember the very first language session with one of my language helpers. He was the brother of an acquaintance we knew. He showed up at my door and the very first words out of his mouth were, “I am playing volleyball tonight. Do you want to come watch.” Inside myself I was like, “No, I don’t want to watch you play volleyball. I needed you to help me with the language.” However, I grabbed my coat and we were out the door.
I stood in the locker room as his intramural team prepared, when a small dispute between teammates arose. They were debating if I was really a foreigner. In my limited ability, I said I was. Of course, they were still skeptical until I produced my passport to prove it. That was the beginning of our friendship with my language helper.
I look back at what happened and realize that language & culture learning in the absence of building relationships makes no sense. God calls us to make disciples. The process of making a disciple does not start with studying the Bible right away, but starts from the very first meeting. Just look at the disciples of Jesus. Were they saved the moment that Christ called them to follow Him or was it a process of communicating His message in a language that they understood and in stories that they could relate to, in words that they could call their own? Learning language and building relationships go hand in hand.
Fourth, Christ himself spoke the language of the day.
In order to save His people, God knew that He must go to them and become as they were. He lived the cultural way of life, he spoke the local dialect, and was among people everyday. He communicated them in terms and parables that made sense. He humbled himself to become “like” them (Heb. 2:17). Shouldn’t a message bearer in today’s world follow Christ’s example and do the same? We believe they should.
As we think of Revelation 5 and reflect on how all tribes, tongues, and nations gather around the throne of Christ, we need to embed in our framework that, in order to see that happen, field-workers must be sent. Once they are sent, they begin the process of learning the language and culture with daily dedication, intentionality, and perseverance until they are fluent. Then, with that skill set accomplished, the preaching of Christ’s message can begin.
For Further Study See the following: