If you have read much popular literature about contemporary missions, then you have likely encountered a recent trend in missionary strategy called Disciple Making Movements (DMM). One of the key impulses in DMM strategies is to get people reading Scripture in local groups as quickly as possible. The first thing that DMM advocates urge missionaries to do is to find what they call a Person of Peace who can vouch for them in the community.
These Persons of Peace can serve not only as social connectors, but also as linguistic interpreters. So, if a French missionary moves into Morocco to reach the Berber community, they might prayerfully seek out a Person of Peace who speaks French and Berber. This saves the missionary precious time by allowing them to begin ministering before they have learned the language for themselves. Using the Person of Peace as a social connector and as a translator, they can get right to work among the Berber people without having to wait for language acquisition.
For some, this translator-centered transmission strategy serves as the long-term discipleship strategy. As the Person of Peace and the missionary gather people to study the Bible, they send those gatherings out to pass the lesson on to their friends and neighbors. The missionary, then, stands at the head of the cascading generations of those who are learning the discipleship lessons translated for them while actively passing them on to others.
The task of discipling sin-stained people in a sin-complicated world is one that requires nuance, precision, and intimacy.
With the promise of quick results and the exponential multiplication of trainees, DMM strategies have enchanted many missionaries who are weary of the long, plodding labor that has characterized previous approaches to missions. Despite the understandable intrigue of a quick-fix for missions efforts, this article pleads for the rejection of these approaches, offering three reasons that we must be committed to language learning and disciple-making in the language of the heart.
Nuance versus Naivete
Communicating in any language involves a complicated combination of words, grammar, syntax, and idiom. Each particular language will differ from the next in how these linguistic structures function to communicate meaning. The work of translating for communication requires more than a dictionary; translation work is inherently interpretive.
Strategies that center on missionaries who do not have a deep knowledge of the local language reduce the communication process to a simplistic hope that a message can be encoded in another language by a translator without loss of meaning and with no opportunity for the missionary to assess the translation.
This is doubly important in many DMM approaches that encourage the Persons of Peace to be the primary translators prior to their own conversion. A missionary who has no access to the local language is left to blindly trust that their theology and teaching is being accurately represented and communicated to an unbelieving audience by an unbelieving translator.
The task of discipling sin-stained people in a sin-complicated world is one that requires nuance, precision, and intimacy. Can a missionary be confident that the translator has correctly nuanced her explanation of how John can describe the Word as being God but also being with God? Or when the newly widowed young believer is weeping, can the missionary be sure that his words of comfort are delivered with the intended care?
Because she is naive to the nuances of local idioms, the missionary is helpless to assess the message for accuracy, clarity, or tone. If the missionary does not know the local language, it is difficult to see how these essential aspects of disciple-making can be accomplished faithfully.
Transferable versus Tethered
A second reason that missionaries must disciple in the local language is that it is implicitly transferrable. If a missionary teaches a Bible study or counsels a grieving widow through a translator, the truth and comfort spoken in an unknown tongue is inextricably foreign. It does not communicate that this message, teaching, or pastoral word is something for the local context.
Ultimately, the work of learning a language affords a missionary the chance to see the gospel transcend linguistic barriers and tear down cultural divides.
A translated message is tethered to the foreigner because it is communicated in the missionary’s language for everyone to hear but not understand. A translator may convey the meaning of the words—perhaps even accurately and well—but the implicit message is that these are foreign ideas that are native neither to my tongue nor to my community. If the message is perceived to be tied to the missionary, it may reinforce the idea that the missionary is necessary for ministry and inhibit the growth of local theologians, pastors, and ministers.
Indigenous versus Imported
Finally, when a missionary is able to teach and train in the local language, it removes a significant barrier to the natural reception of the ideas. Using the language that people use in their homes to speak of their hopes, dreams, and daily lives demonstrates this language to be capable of communicating the great truths of the Scriptures.
It also builds confidence that this message belongs among this people and can be passed along without requiring a foreign spokesperson. Not only can it be passed along, but it can be applied in fresh ways that are appropriate within this context. By discipling people in the language that they speak, the missionary communicates that their language is capable of doing theology, answering their questions, and ministering to their needs.
This affords the local community the freedom to expect that the gospel will have something to say to their needs, worries, fears, hopes, dreams, and people. As these people read Scripture in their language, dialogue over its application, and embody it in their daily lives, the gospel will speak to and through this culture and its language to tell of the saving beauty of Jesus and the global community of faith it creates.
Ultimately, the work of learning a foreign language affords a missionary the chance to see the gospel transcend linguistic barriers and tear down cultural divides. What a wonderful demonstration of God’s willingness to be known among the nations and to be worshipped by every tongue of the earth!
Matthew Bennett and his wife, Emily, served with the IMB for almost seven years. He holds a PhD in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.