Missiologists such as the late Dr. Tom Brewster make a distinction between students and learners. The words are synonymous to most, but we at BBTI stress the difference. A student enrolls in a school and is dependent on a teacher. A learner takes responsibility for his own learning and finds ways to get the information he needs. A learner mindset is quite an asset in mission work.
From kindergarten through college, we are students. We sit in a classroom and a teacher directs us. He tells us what is expected of us. He approves or disapproves our progress and gives us a passing or failing grade. This system works well in most areas of life. But it has disadvantages and limitations, especially in the work of missions. It is not bad to be a student. Students usually work hard and should be commended. A learner usually begins as a student but can be taught to be a learner. A learner can go further linguistically, culturally, and geographically.
A missionary with a burden for a certain indian group with an unwritten language once told me, “They are uneducated and cannot teach me their language.” He is a student with the mindset of a student. He did not evangelize this group, but rather moved to a different field. A learner would never say what this brother said, especially a learner equipped with good linguistic and culture learning tools.
A student is limited to languages where there are language schools or teachers. He needs books and someone to explain the language. There are nearly 7,100 languages spoken today. Dr. Brewster estimated that 5,000 of these do not have language schools. (I would guess the number to be even higher.) Jesus commands us to teach all these groups, not simply those with language schools. Thus far, with student mindsets, we have not reached them. Unless we somehow convert our students into learners, there is little hope that we ever will. We know what a student is; we have plenty of them. Learners are rare and not well known.
The learner begins with a certain mindset. He may use a school or teacher, but he sees the language as his responsibility, not the teacher’s. He has the mindset of an adventurer, an explorer, or a pioneer. He is not afraid to leave the safety of the well-traveled missionary path, even when criticized for it. He risks being criticized for trying new methods when he sees that the traditional ones are not producing the results he desires. He may even borrow methods from others outside of our camp. (That is what George Anderson did when he spent two years learning from a non-denominational, new-evangelical group so that he could begin BBTI, a school for Baptist missionaries.) The learner is not a rebel, but he may be branded as one. The learner is more concerned about the message and the recipients of it than about those who are sending him. He chooses his methods accordingly. He should seek to communicate his mindset and explain his methods to those who send him, but he risks being misunderstood.
Both student and learner want to obey the Great Commission and teach all nations (people groups), but they face a great obstacle: the group may not understand the trade language or may have a very limited understanding of it. The student who studied the trade language in a school says, “I will speak to them in the trade language. Maybe they will understand.” (They probably won’t.) He may say, “I will use an interpreter.” (A risky practice!) And, sadly, he may give up and say, “I’m going to the city where people will understand and respond!”
The missionary with a learner’s mindset will look at the same group and say, “I can learn this language. My mouth and tongue are made just like theirs. I can make these sounds, too.” He knows that the trade language is ineffective. It would cause syncretism, the blending of Christian and pagan beliefs. He reasons, “If I don’t understand the language, I won’t know what people are saying about my message; I won’t get feedback.”
When the student sees a word with the letter (symbol) ‘t,’ he pronounces the sound with an English ‘t.’ That’s all he knows to do. It might work. The people might understand (and they might not). But even if they do understand, he will probably say the word with an accent. The learner, on the other hand, ignores the symbol. He listens to the sound, and he sees, like a deaf person reading lips, the sound. He does not say, “That is a ‘t.’ Rather he asks, “What kind of a ‘t’ is it?” Using his tool (skill) of phonetics, he asks: “Is it an alveolar, a dentalized, a palatalized, or a retroflexed ‘t’? Is it aspirated or unaspirated, is it fortis or lenis, and finally, is it released or unreleased? Using this tool of phonetics, he knows exactly what the native speaker does to produce a sound, and he can reproduce it. He learns new speech habits and speaks without a distracting accent.
A learner also approaches culture differently than a student. A student doesn’t consider what people already believe; he simply proclaims what the Bible says. He naively thinks his truth will drive out false beliefs, but it won’t if it is not explained and illustrated in terms the people understand. When a student hears a false belief, he is quick to tell people they are wrong; they may outwardly change. The learner, however, with his tool of cultural anthropology, digs deep into all areas of culture, especially the worldview. He learns what the people believe and why. When a false belief surfaces, he says, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” He asks questions and when he gets answers, he asks more questions. Now he knows how the people think. His teaching uses cultural comparisons and contrasts, is understood by the people, and is more likely to produce an inward change.
A learner understands that in order to produce a strong church, there must be a Bible in the heart language of the people. He may take years to translate it. The learner way is slow, but it works! Wouldn’t it be better to send learners, rather than students, to the mission field?