For a long time now, missionaries all over the world have labored to communicate the gospel in peoples’ heart languages. In the best of cases, missionaries have utilized not only the people’s heart language but also their heart medium—that means of communication by which they prefer to live and learn. As missionaries harness digital media today, many of them are tapping into their people’s heart medium, and in so doing, they are operating in perfect harmony with a rich legacy of fruitful missionary practice.
Heart Languages and the Printed Word
When missionary Bible translation comes up, many of us think of William Carey and his service in India during the early 1800s. As Carey called for action among his Baptist colleagues back in England, though, he often referred glowingly to the work of a much earlier laborer among Native Americans: the indefatigable Puritan, John Eliot.
"In the best of cases, missionaries have utilized not only the people’s heart language but also their heart medium—that means of communication by which they prefer to live and learn."
John Eliot was responsible for the very first publication of any Bible on American soil, and that Bible was not in English. Eliot had studied the Algonquin language for years because it was the language spoken by the Massachusetts-area peoples he was endeavoring to reach. It was in the 1650s that he began producing discipleship materials in their heart language, and in 1663 his full Algonquin Bible was published by a little printing operation near Harvard Square in Cambridge.
Eliot was bent on getting the gospel into his people’s heart language rather than trying to teach them King James’s English, and history shows that God used him mightily for it. Like too many of my own ideas, though, Eliot’s strategy had at least one serious weakness. He was having to teach the people to read because, prior to his work in the 1650s, the Algonquin language had never been written down.
Our Shift to Orality and the Heart Medium
The Pennsylvania Mennonite Mark Zook settled in among the Mouk people of Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s and dove right in learning their language. That little village would be the epicenter of a tectonic shift in world missions because Zook presented the gospel to his people in the language they had always used and in the medium through which they already used it.
Just like Algonquin, the Mouk language was purely oral. Rather than writing the Bible’s message down in Mouk and then teaching the people to read it, Mark narrated biblical truth to them through a series of carefully crafted stories. As the unfamous missionary culminated his months-long narrative with a gripping tale of Jesus’ atoning death, the laser-focused listeners cried out, “Ee taow! Ee taow!” It’s true, it’s true! Zook had tapped into both the Mouk people’s heart language and their heart medium—orality. Then and there, the missionary methodology of oral Bible storying was born.
Digital Media, A New Heart Medium
In 2001 a Harvard-trained educator named Marc Prensky observed that students in the developed world were learning differently than they ever had before. For the first time in history, communicating over digital channels seemed to be a natural skill embedded in young people’s brains, so Prensky coined a term just for them – digital natives. These students were not simply fascinated by digital media. Rather, it was the natural medium through which they had come to live and learn. It was their heart medium. Prensky’s core message was that to really teach these digital natives, educators would have to utilize digital media really well.
"The simple fact is that when many people seek answers to life’s biggest questions today, they often turn first to digital media."
In an article for Forbes Magazine in early 2020, Paul Jarman insisted, “It's critical to communicate with customers the way they already do in their everyday lives,” and the way many of them are communicating most naturally, he says, is over digital media. Just a couple years ago, Julian Baggini of The Guardian observed rather ominously, “Google, it seems, has taken on the jobs of oracle, soothsayer, sleuth, psychotherapist and priest.”
The simple fact is that when many people seek answers to life’s biggest questions today, they often turn first to digital media. It is the medium through which they express themselves and through which they learn. It is their heart medium, and the keenest minds from the education sector to the business world are intentionally strategizing to meet these people where they already are.
Of course, speaking through the receptor people’s heart medium is exactly what countless unsung missionaries have been doing since at least the 1970s, and many today are already identifying their people’s heart medium as digital. Some missionary colleagues explained to me recently that they use digital media precisely because it is the medium through which their people naturally communicate and learn. So as missionaries today utilize digital media to reach people in both their heart language and their heart medium, they are marching in lockstep with history’s sharpest mission practitioners.
Kyle Brosseau is a missionary with the International Mission Board in Prague, Czech Republic. He holds a DMin in Missions from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD in World Religions from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jkylebrosseau.