The role of language learning in cross-cultural church planting

[This post is part of our Global Goers series … check it out!]

“No matter how many years you study, you will never learn Arabic well.” That was the “friendly encouragement” an Arab acquaintance gave me years ago.

“Well, umm, OK, I’ll try!” I responded.

No matter your propensity to learn another language, it is hard work. Nobody just “picks up” language without some blood, sweat, or tears.
Frankly, I often encounter cross-cultural missionaries who seem to be quite content with the fact that they live among their host people. They do hope for more, but they are content with merely existing and trying to be a good example. But merely being an example, without intentional Spirit-empowered speech, will never lead to making disciples and planting churches. Otherwise, Jesus would have made many disciples in his first 30 years before he launched his ministry. So we must consider our task to be more than merely living and working a job among the unreached. Indeed, our task is making disciples, and that necessarily requires living and speaking.

Tweet this: Somewhere between being sent and preaching is language learning. @vergenetwork #GreatCommission

In Romans 10:14-15, the apostle Paul explains the role of speaking/“preaching” in God’s redemptive work among the nations:

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!’

Obviously, language learning is not the topic at hand in Romans 10. But the text says those who are sent actually preach the gospel, and, as a result, people “hear” and believe in Christ. Somewhere between being sent and preaching is language learning.

Preaching is an oral activity. It requires speaking actual words. We may exhibit the gospel with our actions, but we call people to repentance with our words. In Romans 10:14-15, “hearing” means both “to hear someone else speak” and to “understand what they are saying.” So the preachers and the hearers must speak the same language. Here, the ruins from the tower of Babel block the way of communication. For the peoples of the earth speak tens of thousands of languages. To get around Babel’s ruins, there are two options.

The first option is for the hearers to learn the language of the preacher. That has been, in fact, an essential piece to the strategy of the church throughout history. The assumption was that if they teach the host peoples to speak the language of the church or the language of church missionaries through the building of schools, then the people will understand the gospel and, naturally, be saved.

While that approach did bear some fruit, the fruit was limited both in volume and in duration. The burden of learning was on the hearers — the host peoples. This meant that those who excelled in language learning had a greater opportunity to know God and his Word, as they had greater access to the Bible, the missionaries, and to their resources.

Some of the earliest Bibles in local languages, such as Arabic, tended to be in highly technical and parochial language — difficult to understand for common people. A strategy based on the hearer learning the language of the preacher is easier for the preacher, but it is massively disadvantageous for the spread of the gospel.

The other option is for the preacher to learn the language of the hearers. Initially, the preacher-hearer dynamic is reversed: the preacher must be a listener, not a speaker. Through active listening, the preacher labors to understand the nuances of the host culture, the host language, and the host worldview. This makes the job of the preacher harder and can even change the way the preacher sees the world. But the potential fruits of the preacher’s listening and learning are exponential.

Once the gospel is communicated effectively in a host language, the power of the preacher both increases and diminishes. It increases in their ability to articulate the truths of the gospel effectively to their hearers. But their power to control disciple making and the development of the church decreases, for God’s word and truth are unleashed from the controls of language. With every new word the preacher learns and declares in the host language, God’s hammer strikes the ruins of Babel, until one day those ruins are like gravel scattered at the gates of the New Jerusalem.

When the preacher learns the language of the hearer, he also follows in the humble path of the Lord Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth learned the local dialect of Aramaic, just like every other Palestinian child at the time. He also learned the local way of life. The godhead knew that for the Son to save His people, He must go to His people and become “like” them (Heb. 2:17). This learning of a way of life, including the language, was part of His humiliation (Phil. 2:8). Though Jesus knew the darkness of Palestinian life and culture in his time, He honored that “host culture” by living in it as a part of it.

Tweet this: With every new word the preacher learns, God’s hammer strikes the ruins of Babel. @vergenations #GreatCommission

In Romans 10, the apostle Paul argues that the message of the gospel is for all humanity. No culture is more entitled to this good news than others. When we learn the languages of our host peoples, we exhibit the universality of the gospel. “God in Christ” is not a Western idea. It is not an idea at all, in fact. It is, simply, good news for all. Language learning is not only an outward exhibition, but it is also an inward challenge of belief. Faith that Christ is for all peoples for all time re-energizes the weary mind that has “had enough” of language study.

Very practically, if you struggle focusing in your language study, or keeping an active mind in conversation in your host language, remember that the gospel is for them, in every way that it is for you. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:12-13).

Language learning is one of the most strategic investments we can make in our ministry to our host peoples. Some of you may object that you “get along fine in English” among your host people. But that is short sighted, for at least three reasons.

First, you simply will not grasp the fundamental theological questions and objections of your host people — as they will most likely be different from your own — without understanding their language. Second, research has shown that the gospel endures longer over generations in people groups that have the gospel in their own language. Third, and inevitably, your relationships will be limited to only those who speak good English. And all the while, it could be that the person ready to believe in Jesus simply doesn’t speak English well — and they could very well be your neighbor.

Tweet this: Learning language is one of the most strategic investments we can make in our ministry to our host peoples.@vergenetwork #GreatCommission

Language learning is an act of love for our host people. If we love them, then we will desire that they be saved (e.g., Rom. 10:1). But all too often, we pray and plead with the Lord for the salvation of our host peoples, and yet struggle to do the very thing (learn their language) that would best enable us to tell our host people that this salvation is available to them in Christ. If you pray for more love for your host people, why not invest more time in learning their language? For language builds apathy and understanding, both of which are like fast-burning kindling for the fire of love.

The languages the remaining unreached people speak are most often very difficult for native English speakers. So, perhaps, our job is harder today than a few hundred years ago. Be that as it may, the greater the disparity between our native and learned language, the greater the opportunity to display the love of a God who humbled Himself to become like us. Every word we learn may be the critical word of persuasion to Christ for our host peoples. Each new word is a new tool to magnify God to our host people.

So the next time you struggle hearing a difficult sound, or saying a difficult word, or understanding a difficult grammar rule, remember that no language is adequate to explain the glory of God. It will take God’s people an eternity, employing all the languages of all the peoples, to sufficiently praise an infinitely glorious God.

If God is going to be eternally magnified in His glorious fulfillment of all of His promises, then He must ransom a people for Himself from every tribe, tongue and people. And for His elect people to be ransomed, they must “call on the name of the Lord [Jesus]” (Rom. 10:13). To “call on the name of the Lord [Jesus],” they must hear and understand the “word of Christ” (Ro. 10:17). And for them to “hear,” they must have someone tell them/“preach” (Rom. 10:14) in the language they understand.

If there are no followers of Jesus, or very few, who speak the language they understand, the church must send some to learn that language. To learn that language means the sent ones must dedicate themselves to studying and practicing the language. And that dedication requires daily discipline, intentionality, and perseverance.

Photo Credit: John-Mark Kuznietsov [CC0] via unsplash.com