The Labor and Benefits of Language Learning

Our family has lived in Japan now for 6 months. After spending our first month adjusting and getting our house and life set up, for the past several months I’ve been ensconced in Japanese language school, studying what has been rated the most difficult language in the world for English speakers to learn. By God’s grace I have completed more than one graduate degree in the past, and this is now the seventh foreign language I’ve studied, and I must say that I have never worked this hard before. Both the language itself and the pace of the program I’m enrolled in are very difficult, which can at times feel overwhelming and discouraging. Progress often feels like it moves at a snail’s pace. Nevertheless, we press on because we believe that this is where God has called us to serve.

As we’ve found ourselves amidst this new culture and struggled to understand the language, I’ve begun reflecting more directly on why we need to learn Japanese. Why go through all this effort to become proficient in a language with three alphabets and whose syntax is as far away from English as the east is from the west? Interpreters are available; shouldn’t we just “get right down to ministry”?

The obvious answer is that language acquisition makes life easier. Learning your host nation’s language means you don’t have to rely on others to go to the doctor or read forms from your children’s school. And of course, knowing the language enables one to engage in ministry more directly and effectively. But beyond these reasons, I can think of at least four less obvious and less frequently discussed benefits to the labor of language learning.

1. Language learning is humbling

Missionaries can sometimes enter the mission field with the mindset that they are there to give and teach, while nationals are there to receive and learn. Although it is true that missionaries are vessels of gospel proclamation for those who have not heard (Rom 10:14-15), when not appropriately balanced this mindset can create a subtle superiority complex that is dangerous and unhelpful. Beginning one’s missionary career as a language learner fosters humility, since we are placed in the position of a student. We are here to learn first, and out of that humbled position we will be better suited, both personally and professionally, to serve as a vessel for the gospel message we seek to communicate.

2. Language learning teaches us patience

In our digital age we often don’t have to wait for anything. Services like Amazon, Wikipedia, and Google Translate provide instant products and information that we have learned to expect in a matter of seconds. This immediate access to anything and everything has had a side effect, though: we are now very weak in the area of patience. We want what we want and we want it now, and this has occasionally crept its way into our view of missions. We want to serve; we want to teach; we want to be useful; but focused time on language study often means that we must wait for these things. Although ministry is obviously a very good thing, if we pursue it impatiently we are not pursuing it in line with the Spirit’s fruit in our lives (Gal 5:22). Language learning provides a healthy and useful opportunity for us to develop patience, to wait, and to grow as we seek to acclimate to our new country. This fruit of the Spirit, in turn, will yield greater results in the long run as we seek to serve and minister.

3. Language learning demonstrates a servant heart toward those whom we seek to minister

This is the other side of the coin from number 1. Not only does language acquisition cultivate humility within us internally, it demonstrates externally to our host people that we are willing to learn from and about them. We are willing to serve them by learning their language, their culture, what they value, what they fear, and what they hope for. We don’t expect them to communicate to us in our language; we make every effort to learn theirs and thereby place their needs above our own. This is significant, since gospel ministry is not simply data transfer; communicating a message to a recipient. It is conveying the hope of the gospel to real people, and inasmuch as we move toward and serve those people in real, tangible ways, we will highlight the servant-hearted nature of the Savior whom we proclaim. Learning their heart language is a significant way to do this.

4. Language learning embodies the gospel to which we witness

At the bottom line, this is the most important reason to engage in the labor of language learning: it is a reflection of the gospel which we seek to proclaim. In order to redeem us, God came to us, adapted himself to us in the incarnation, served us on the cross, and spoke to us in words that we can understand. The labor of language learning pictures this truth insofar as we come to a foreign place, adapt ourselves to it, serve the people there, and speak to them in words that they can understand. For the missionary, then, language learning is an extension and embodiment of the gospel itself. May those of us who serve overseas make every effort to maximize this opportunity for Jesus’ glory.

Learning to put doubt where it belongs

trashIn my last post I mentioned that we were at 50% of our monthly budget, and I reflected on some of the things I’ve learned during the first half of support raising. The first thing I listed there was how unbelieving I have been that our budget will be met.

Today, only four weeks later, I am blown away that we are now (unofficially) at 68%! We have had several people register pledges this past month, and we received a particularly sizable pledge today that has left me absolutely awestruck at God’s providence.

As I sit here, grateful that God’s faithfulness and provision is not contingent upon my feeble faith, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:28b-33).

Applying this to myself, I should not be anxious, saying, “Where will our support come from? How is this ever going to happen?” Rather, I need to learn to put my doubt in God’s  provision right where it belongs–in the trash!

And so we continue to press forward, by God’s grace and in his strength, to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Join me in giving thanks to God and praying that he will continue to astound us by his great providence.

Halfway There!… And What I’ve Learned Along the Way

50-yard-lineAs of this week we are (unofficially) at 50% of the monthly partnerships that we need in order to serve in Japan! A big THANK YOU to those who have discerned God’s leading and have pledged to partner with us. We are so grateful for your generosity and your desire to invest in the spread of Jesus’ kingdom. It’s been encouraging to see God provide His people with resources and then move in their hearts to give those resources away for the glory of His name. Praise God!

We also continue to covet your prayers that God would reveal the right timing for those who have a desire to partner in this work but haven’t had a chance to pledge yet (which you can do HERE 🙂 ), as well as for future opportunities and appointments – that the Lord would raise up the resources we need to be fully funded.

In addition to this brief progress update, I thought I’d take a few minutes and share five things I’ve learned as we’ve voyaged through this first half of our support raising journey. There is more that could be said, of course, but these five things are some of the most prominent that come to mind as I reflect upon this process so far.

1. I am full of unbelief.

To be honest, I can’t see where the second half of our budget is going to come from. In my heart I have deep struggles believing that it will actually come in, and this often causes me to feel helpless and discouraged. I’ve come to realize that I find it easier to talk about trusting God to provide than actually trusting Him to provide. This season of gathering support partners has forced me realize that this well of unbelief has always been there in my heart, lurking below the surface, only now a spotlight has shone on it and brought it to light. Consequently, this season has been not only one of raising funds but also learning (read: struggling) to grow in faith.

2. I have a deep-seated love of control.

In line with revealing my unbelief, this first half of support raising has also exposed the white-knuckle control grip that I prefer to have on my circumstances. Simply put, I am currently not in control of my own timeline, and I have been surprised at what a struggle this has been for me. It’s not that I don’t like this season of life or am dying to get out of town–after all, we love living near family, we love our church, and we have great friends and community here–it’s that I am more clearly aware than ever that I am not in control of the success or failure of this venture that we are on. I am completely at the mercy of God’s provision and other people’s participation. Of course, at other times of life I have certainly not been in control of my circumstances the way I thought I’ve been–it was just harder to see this truth behind the veneer of self-control that I had erected. But now this veneer has been torn down and the cold hard truth has become evident: I am not in control, and it’s hard for me to accept.

3. I am very prideful.

This past year has been the first time in 20 years that I have not been employed somewhere “earning” an income. Ever since I started as a busboy at The Hamburger Factory at age 16 I have had a job, with only  a couple of brief “between job” stages. Now, technically I am an employee of Mission to the World, and technically I am working full-time gathering a support team for our service in Japan, but it doesn’t feel like I’m employed anywhere, and that has picked at my pride. Apparently I have been drawing much of my self-worth from my ability to excel at things that generate a living for myself, but now I am not doing that. During this stage I am dependent upon God and others, or perhaps better said, during this stage it has become more clear than before that I am dependent upon God and others, and this has been a challenge to my prideful thinking that I provide for myself.

4. I am often paralyzed by fear.

I am not fearful of speaking in front of large groups about our work in Japan and I don’t mind meeting one-on-one with folks and inviting them to invest in this gospel work–I actually quite enjoy these things. But what I am afraid of is failure. I have a fear that we will fail at this task (as if it were up to us anyways!), and I fear what people will think when we do. And too often I let this fear have a stranglehold on my joy and debilitate me. Now, at other times in life I’m sure that I have struggled with fear, though those times of struggle were clouded by my pride in my ability and perceived sense of control of my circumstances. In this venture, however, I have been forced to face my fear and realize that it is a byproduct of the struggles I mentioned above: my lack of faith, my lack of control, and my unrelenting pride.

5. The gospel is for people just like me.

Although the first four of these realizations are a bit negative, they have the effect of throwing my need of the gospel into sharp relief. Of course, I’ve known before this year that the gospel is for people like me, but given my new-found sparring sessions with unbelief, lack of control, pride, and fear, I’ve come to realize all the more how much I need the gospel. Because Jesus is in control and has promised to build His church, we need not fear and can have confidence that He will accomplish His work in and through us. Although my tendency is to try and operate out of my strength and ability, Jesus tells us that His “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This is a hard pill for me to swallow, to be honest, but it’s one that I need.

As my wife says to me, going through struggles such as these will help us realize, when God chooses to provide the resources we need to go, that He alone is worthy of all thanks and praise – that He alone has accomplished this work, not us. Our prayer is that this truth will characterize the second half of our journey to Japan.

MN

Does Missions Stop When a Group Has Been Reached?

I recently read an article on The Gospel Coalition website by David Sills entitled, “Missions Doesn’t Stop When a Group Has Been Reached.” Sills begins by noting the standard definition of unreached peoples as “those ethnolinguistic people groups whose population is less than 2 percent evangelical, or those groups without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help.” As the title of the article suggests, he goes on to argue that the work of missions is not completed once a people group crosses the threshold from being “unreached” to “reached.”

Sills contends that since Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that He has commanded (Matt 28:19-20), the work of missions involves not simply converting unbelievers but discipling them. He gives the examples of Haiti, where a majority of people claim to be Christian yet still practice voodoo, and Rwanda of 1994, where 90% of the people were baptized as Christians when the worst genocide of the modern era occurred. The implication is that although these people groups are considered “reached,” there is obviously more work to be done.

Sills then states,

“We have unintentionally created the erroneous perception that missions equals reaching the unreached. If one’s efforts consist of flipping on light switches and then hurrying to the next darkened room, that is not the Great Commission; it’s only half of what we have been commanded to do. Jesus said we are to teach them to observe all that he has commanded.”

What he means by “flipping on light switches” is preaching the gospel and converting people. So here he is saying that we cannot be satisfied with converting a people group, not discipling them, and then moving on to the next people group. Missions must involve not simply conversion but discipleship. He closes by saying,

“Lost people of the world must hear the gospel to be saved. That is true whether they are in an unreached people group or not. Lost people in reached people groups are still lost, and everyone who dies in a lost condition will go to hell for eternity. Their only hope is to hear the gospel and repent. The task of missions is not simply to reach the unreached, allowing every missionary to define what that means for himself; it is reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.”

Response

Several elements of this article seem problematic to me on both missiological and biblical grounds. Below I will focus on only two: imprecise terminology and removal of biblical-missiological strategy.

Imprecise Terminology

Sills seems to use “unreached” and “reached” terminology somewhat imprecisely. As mentioned above, he provides the standard and widely accepted definition for unreached people groups at the beginning of the article. According to Sills, this definition understands an “unreached” people group to be one “without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help” (typically measured numerically as 2% or less evangelical).

One thing Sills does not do at this point is define what “the work” is that cannot be carried on by such a people group without outside help. However, a well worn understanding of “the work” that unreached peoples cannot carry on is indigenous church planting. The 1982 Lausanne Unreached Peoples meeting defined a people group as “the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” Since church ministry includes both outreach and discipleship–both evangelism and edification–it follows that unreached peoples are those who cannot effectively convert and disciple their own without foreign assistance.

For this reason it seems to be a bit of a straw man to claim that an “unreached people group” focus in missions is like running through dark rooms, flipping on light switches, and calling the work complete. Rightly understood, an unreached people group focus is not against but inclusive of the ministries of discipleship and training. Since effective church planting cannot occur without such discipleship and training, a people group should not be considered reached until it has been so equipped.

If people groups claim to be Christian yet are steeped in voodoo or engaging in genocide,  rather than classifying them as reached and then claiming that missions is not finished there,perhaps we should reevaluate whether or not they are truly in a position for an indigenous church planting movement to be successful. If they are not, then they should not be considered reached. The issue of importance would be how we classify people groups, not how we define missions.

Removal of Biblical-Missiological Strategy

In his closing paragraph Sills notes that people are lost in unreached and reached people groups alike, reminds us that unbelievers in both of these categories will go to hell if they don’t hear the gospel and repent, and asserts that the task of missions is “reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.” This statement, however, removes the guideposts for a biblically informed global strategy for world evangelization. If one were to accept Sills’ argument here–if “missions” is simply reaching “the lost” indiscriminate of where they are and teaching them to obey Jesus–why would anyone choose to cross cultures into unreached territory where such ministry is more difficult and even dangerous?

In addition to lacking support from broader biblical-theological concerns regarding God’s design for his kingship to be recognized and submitted to all across creation, such a definition of missions does not do justice to the Great Commission itself, from which it claims to derive. Jesus commanded his followers not simply to “reach the lost and teach them” but to make disciples of all nations (= ethne), baptize them, and teach them. Given this all-encompassing people group focus in Jesus’ command, it is simply unwise for us not to distinguish between people groups that can evangelize and disciple their own through indigenous church planting movements and people groups that cannot.

Definitions of missions that seek to restrict it to reaching unreached people groups are not opposed to engaging in holistic discipleship but are wisely attempting to preserve the Scripture’s preoccupation with people from every tribe and tongue submitting themselves to the Lamb who has been slain. In distinguishing unreached and reached peoples we are not claiming that no further ministry is needed in the latter; we are simply identifying those tribes and tongues where Jesus’ kingdom will not spread unless cross-cultural gospel workers go there.

Conclusion

To conclude, I believe it is not biblically warranted to lump all people groups into the same missiological category. I would argue that missions does indeed stop when a people group has been reached, but this does not mean that ministry stops. It is important to distinguish “missions” as an internationally expansionistic enterprise from other areas of gospel ministry. If we fail to do so, we will cease to be strategic toward reaching and teaching all nations, as Jesus has commanded us.

Five Ways to Support Missionaries When Your Budget is Maxed Out

empty-piggybank-290x340Missionaries have to raise support (at least most of us do!). As I connect with folks, share about the work that God is doing in Japan, and invite them to participate through prayer and financial support, sometimes the answer comes back, “We believe the work you’re doing is great, and we’d love to support you, but we just don’t have any money right now.” This answer can come from individuals and churches alike. And this is fine. When missionaries head out to raise support, we go knowing that not everyone will be able to participate.

However, if you do find yourself in the position of wanting to support missionaries yet not having the resources to do so financially, I’d like to suggest a few ways that you can support and encourage them without having to donate money.

(1) Still agree to meet with them.

It may seem surprising, but we missionaries still want to meet with you and share about God’s work in our country even if you can’t partner financially with us. You’re not wasting our time. The goal of support raising is not to get people to empty their wallets but to build relationships and share about God’s work in another part of the world. Yes, ultimately we do need funds to go, but by agreeing to meet with us you’re saying, “What you’re doing is important enough for me to take time to hear about it.” This is an encouragement to us.

(2) Commit to pray for them.

When we say we’re looking for “prayer and financial supporters,” that “prayer” part is not a pious appendage that we slyly affix to our request for funds in order to make it sound spiritual. We actually do want, need, value, and appreciate people who will commit to interceding for us in prayer. If you are able to commit to doing this, please let us know! This is a very real and much needed way that you can participate in the missionary endeavor.

(3) Invite them to share and/or preach in your church.

Not every missionary is a preacher, but every missionary can share about their calling in a church context. Ask your pastor or elders if your missionary friend can share during your Sunday school hour or worship service. If the missionary is a preacher, ask if he can preach in your service. You can serve as a bridge between missionaries and your church leadership, facilitating opportunities for them to share with people that they might not otherwise be able to.

(4) Invite them to share with your small group.

If you’re in a small group, arrange for your missionary friend to come and share with the group. This is another great opportunity for you facilitate meetings that might not otherwise happen. And if your small group feels so led, you can “adopt” the missionary and regularly pray for them and send encouragements such as birthday cards or care packages to them once they’re on the field. Such acts of support are a huge boost of encouragement for missionaries living abroad, even if financial partnership is not involved.

(5) Host a “missions dessert” in your home.

This is a particularly creative way to support itinerating missionaries if your personal finances are maxed. Invite people from your church to come to your home for dessert and coffee and to hear from a missionary. This is yet another way to serve as a facilitator, use the gift of hospitality, and provide an environment for the missionary to share about God’s work in their country. Be sure to inform invitees that there is no pressure to give – by simply showing up at the dessert they fulfill number (1) above. However, in such situations you never know whose heart God may move to participate financially as well.

Summary

The above five suggestions certainly don’t exhaust the opportunities that exist to support missionaries when your budget is maxed, but they are a start. Of course, if you are able to support a missionary financially, that is another very necessary element for them to get to the field — and one that we certainly encourage and appreciate! But don’t let lack of finances keep you from the privilege of participating in God’s global work. He has given you gifts and resources that you can use to assist the spread of the gospel across the earth for His glory.

Radical: A Review

RadicalI’ve just finished reading David Platt’s book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Platt often speaks at the big evangelical conferences, and I had heard a lot about this book and read some responses, both positive and negative, so I was curious to read it for myself. Here I offer a brief review of the book, noting its positive contributions as well as some areas of disagreement.

Positives

First off, Platt writes in a very winsome and engaging style. He is clear and easy to read, and more importantly, he comes off as a very passionate yet humble person who views himself as still learning to live out what he is preaching. This humility provides an important tone for the book, since he also doesn’t pull any punches in his analysis of American evangelical priorities.

Second, I think his diagnosis of the priorities of the American church is very insightful and needed. He argues that American Christians have by-and-large exchanged the radical commitment to the growth of Jesus’ church advocated in the New Testament for a tame, decaffeinated version of Christianity. This alternate Christianity is essentially content to consume the gospel for one’s own spiritual health while prioritizing the pursuit of success, comfort, and security — a Christian version of the so-called “American dream.”

Third, several of his practical suggestions for how Christians can “take back their faith from the American dream” are as excellent as they are simple. He challenges the reader to take a year and commit to the “Radical Experiment,” which involves (1) praying for the entire world (using a tool like Operation World); (2) reading through the entire Word; (3) sacrificing money for a specific (gospel oriented) purpose; (4) spending time in another context; and (5) committing to living in a multiplying community (i.e., a vibrant church). Through this, one leaves the book not simply with a theoretical critique of American evangelicalism, but with practical, tangible ways to respond.

Areas of Disagreement

Although I think this is a good book and would recommend that folks read it, I do register a couple of fairly substantial disagreements with it.

First, throughout the book, the bulk of Platt’s argumentation for why Christians should be concerned about taking the gospel to the nations is fundamentally man-centered. That is, he grounds his appeals for global missions over and over again in how there are billions of people who have never heard the gospel, and if they don’t hear it and believe, they’ll end up in a Christless eternity. While I heartily affirm that we should have compassion for the lost, I would argue that this is a penultimate rationale for missions and evangelism. The ultimate rationale for missions should be a God-centered concern that Jesus be honored and submitted to as King of kings over every inch of His creation, for His glory. Missions and evangelism should ultimately be driven by theocentric rather than anthropocentric concerns, though of course the latter should not be absent.

Now, that said, my sense is that Platt would endorse this concept. Early on in the book he touches on the prominence of God’s glory for the church’s life and mission. However, the majority of his actual argumentation throughout the book focuses on the salvation of the lost, rather than the glory of God, as the driving force behind the church’s need to get radical. A clearer articulation of how God is increasingly glorified as His church spreads to every tribe and tongue would have strengthened his argument.

Second, Platt argues that to obey the Great Commission, every Christian should be “going” and making disciples of the nations. This interpretation finds its way into number (4) of his Radical Experiment: spend time in another context. Although I agree that it is helpful for people to leave their own situations and broaden their global horizons through things like short-term mission trips, Platt seems to suggest that the intent of the Great Commission is simply for every Christian to go and make disciples somewhere else indiscriminately.

The problems with this are that (1) it doesn’t distinguish well between Christians’ different gifts and callings, and (2) it is not strategic toward reaching every nation.

(1) Personally, I’m not convinced that Jesus intended for every Christian to cross cultures with the gospel. Since Jesus gave the Great Commission to the apostolic company, I would argue that it is addressed to the church as a whole. This means that it is not every individual Christian’s responsibility to “go and make disciples,” but rather the church’s responsibility to do so. Since the church is one body that comprises many parts (1 Cor 12:14-30), and since God gifts the different parts of the body differently (Eph 4:11-12), it seems better to conclude that some parts of the body will cross cultures with the gospel and some will send them (i.e., pray for and fund them). Some will minister primarily through preaching and others primarily through service. Some will be better equipped to minister through encouragement and others through sacrificial giving.

What we need is not for each individual to “go” as if the body were made solely of feet, but rather to discern how one fits into the body and operate accordingly so that the body as a whole is equipped to carry out its mission in a coordinated fashion. This may mean becoming an evangelist, but it may not (note that Paul says that God gifted “some to be evangelists” [Eph 4:11]!). This removes the guilt factor for those who don’t feel called to “go” elsewhere and enables them to embrace their calling as part of the missional body that is the church.

(2) Platt seems to suggest that as long as people are going somewhere else, that is Great Commission action. However, the fact that Jesus says to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19) should tell us that simply going somewhere else indiscriminately is not going to cut it after a while (especially after 2,000 years!). The church needs to assess the global landscape and see which nations have not been discipled and be diligent to extend the gospel into those areas. When I read Platt, I get the feeling that we could end up with people traveling this way and that, yet without a strategy toward reaching an all-encompassing global goal for the spread of the gospel.

Now, again, to Platt’s credit, he advocates for missions to unreached peoples both in his writing and in his speaking. But in this book I didn’t get a clear sense that the church should strategically advance into places “where Christ is not known” (Rom 15:20). More attention to a global strategy for world evangelization would help readers see that missions is concerned with taking the gospel to all nations as opposed to simply going indiscriminately to other nations.

Summary

In sum, this is a very well written book with a pastoral tone that deserves to be read and thoughtfully considered. Although I personally disagree with some of his approach, Platt has done the church a great service by identifying a significant issue and offering thought-provoking suggestions for how Christians should respond to it.