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.

Toward a Theology of Supporting Missionaries

Since I’ve been engaged in the work of “raising support,” as it is commonly called, I thought it would be appropriate to offer a brief “theology of supporting missionaries.” The intent of this post is to encourage those of you who participate in missions through financial support, whether you do so in partnership with us or with others.

“Supporting Missionaries”: A Misnomer?

Now that I’ve introduced this post this way, I want to offer a slight critique of this common nomenclature that we use: “supporting missionaries.” To start off, I understand why we describe this act in this way. Missionaries are the ones who go to the mission field, and the people who provide the funds that enable them to go are “supporting” them. It makes sense.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think this terminology is misleading. To say that the folks who stay home and sacrificially provide funds are “supporting missionaries” seems subtly to imply two things: (1) that they are not directly participating in the work of missions themselves, and (2) that the money they donate is being given to the missionary.

Support Raising Figure 1-page-001As you can see in the illustration above, on this understanding the conceptual line of giving goes straight from the supporter to the missionary, and there is no direct line from the supporter to God’s work on the mission field. It is only the missionary ministering God’s word in the foreign land who is viewed as directly involved in God’s work on that mission field.

When the missionary/supporter relationship is conceived this way, missionaries can often feel self-conscious asking people to give funds because it feels like they’re asking potential supporters to give to them. This incorrect understanding can also lead to the false view that supporters are somehow second-class citizens when it comes to the missionary endeavor, since they are allegedly not directly involved in the mission work. But all of these are mistaken conclusions.

The Biblical Model: Offerings Made to the Lord

In Numbers 18, God told Aaron that he and his sons, along with the Levites, were responsible for caring for and serving in the tabernacle (vv. 5-6). He went on to tell Aaron,

I myself have put you in charge of the offerings presented to me; all the holy offerings the Israelites give me I give to you and your sons as your portion, your perpetual share” (v. 8).

That is, the people were to give offerings to the Lord, which He then redirected and designated for the temple servants as their livelihood. Repeatedly throughout the chapter God reiterates this emphasis that the gifts brought by the people were given to Him yet used for the temple servants (vv. 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 21, 24, 26).

Significantly, Paul uses this OT concept to ground his teaching that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from doing so:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Cor 9:13-14).

Based on the OT precedent, the implication here is that church members who give funds toward missions are giving offerings to the Lord. These funds are used to provide for those who preach the gospel vocationally–the NT equivalent of the priests and Levites–but conceptually they are offerings given to God himself.

A Better Description: “Partnering with Missionaries”

Based on this biblical model, it seems that a better way to understand the missionary/supporter relationship is that of a partnership.

Support Raising Figure 2-page-001Viewed this way, both missionary and supporter are directly participating in God’s work on the mission field; one participates by going and the other by giving. The supporter is not giving his money to the missionary but bringing an offering to God, and therefore the conceptual line of giving here goes straight from the supporter to God’s work. Similarly, when “raising support,” the missionary need not feel awkward about asking people to give because they are not asking the potential supporter to give to them but rather presenting them with an opportunity to worship God and participate in His mission.

This makes the missionary and the supporter partners in the missions endeavor. Rather than the missionary being a player in the game and the supporter being a fan cheering on the sideline, both are standing side-by-side on the playing field. They play different positions, to be sure, but they necessarily complement one another, and no points are scored without both playing their part. Neither has a higher calling, and neither is second-class.

Of course, the funds offered by the supporter are functionally used to provide for the needs of the missionary, but by keeping these distinctions in mind we see that the ministry of “partnering with missionaries” is first and foremost an act of worship entailing offerings to God and therefore direct participation in what God is doing on the mission field.

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.