The trouble with career missionaries is that it takes so long to get them started. There’s training to be done, financial support to be raised, and languages to be studied. All told, you’re talking about an investment of several years (in most cases) before these families get to hammering away at the task for which they’ve been sent. This has led some (theorists and practitioners alike) to suppose that’s what’s really needed in missions today is to hot-wire the sending process so as to whittle down this time. Language school is one of the first amputations.
This battle with time is a little strange to me, for at least two reasons. First, if you want to grow a large orchard, the best use of your time is not to dream up ways to make trees grow faster, but to plant more trees. Yes, missionaries take a long time to make. So let’s start sending more! Far too much of modern missiology is crowds with clipboards standing around a poor sapling and wondering how to prod it into fruitfulness.
Second, there is little to be gained by sending recruits into battle before they are properly equipped. Boots on the ground are wonderful, but Tom’s Shoes on the ground? Not so much. There is no sense in trimming a missionary’s preparation time if we are in the process significantly reducing the effectiveness of his thirty or so years of ministry on the field. Cutting language school is, I am convinced, just such an operation.
Very often it is the missionary himself who decides to opt out of language learning. For those who haven’t experienced it, let me assure you that language acquisition is a brutal ordeal (and that’s coming from someone who actually enjoys it). There will always be an excuse to stop before you are ready. How is a missionary to persevere? We need to be reminded that this work is valuable and that we are glorifying God thereby. Here’s seven of the great values (well, two for now) of language acquisition that may help you plug away through this grueling work…
1. Language learning undoes some specific effects of sin
Language learning has been a necessity since Babel. Mankind’s concerted rebellion against God led to his confounding of their languages. If sinful men join together, it is to join together for greater sin. So for their own good, God disallows this unity. Man’s action justified a devastating airstrike from God. Instead He graciously takes out their communications and disbands their alliance against him. Babel tells us that mankind can’t be trusted with the blessings of peace and unity.
Isn’t it amazing then that the sign of the coming of the Spirit in Acts is a miraculous ability to transcend all language barriers? Pentecost is the anti-Babel. In the new era, mankind is not only reconciled to God, they are reconciled to each other. The new humanity that Christ inaugurates is united not for rebellion against God, but for His worship.
That’s where our language learning comes in. We study tense and mood and case because we are agents of the Great Peace. By the Spirit’s empowering, we can be trusted to cross the boundaries of Babel to expand the new humanity, gathering into one all the splinters of culture and language.
2. Your ability to preach is tethered to your language ability
All missionaries ought to be convinced of the power of the proclaimed Word of God. In fact, it should be the only thing that gives them confidence to go as missionaries in the first place. Missionaries with such a confidence can find language school maddening. They did not move to the other side of the world to sit in a classroom and drill pronunciation! They came to preach the message!
Those of us in this category need to be reminded constantly that you will never be much of a preacher here unless you learn to speak the language well. This is not to say that the Spirit cannot use caveman-style preaching. It is only to say that He usually uses it to put people to sleep.
God has ordained that the Gospel be spread by words – in fact, by speaking in most cases. So as we love the Gospel, may we learn the value of words. How will we explain the Gospel’s categories? How will we answer the unbeliever’s contentions? How will we appeal to the heart and conscience of our hearer? With the words that we learn in language school. If you believe it is the Gospel that changes men, then you should work all the more diligently at the language. By now, I have preached and taught far more in Chinese than in English (several times over). Such a vision of a lifetime’s worth of proclamation ministry will make a molehill out of the struggles of language study.