The missionary arriving at his place of service looks like an outsider, talks and acts like an outsider, and he brings an outside message. Most of this needs to change. The missionary cannot change his foreign appearance, and he dare not alter the message; but he might find better methods of delivering that message, making it seem less foreign. People are more apt to receive a message from a friend than a foreigner,—from one of their own rather than from an outsider. The task of the missionary is to teach heathen people about a God who is foreign to them. Wouldn’t it be an eternal shame if the messenger was an obstacle to the peoples’ understanding?
A Careful Assessment
During a survey trip or immediately upon arrival on the field, the missionary should make a careful assessment of the language situation. What language will best reach the heart of the people he is targeting? I spoke to a missionary on his way to the South Pacific about getting Advanced Missionary Training at BBTI. He told me, “The missionaries there get by using English.” I said, “Brother, God has not called us to get by but to communicate!” We are always tempted to choose the quick or easy rather than the best way. But our message is vital and failure is eternally deadly. And besides, it’s not about us! It’s about Jesus Christ and the people for whom He died! The new missionary must not assume that the official language of the country will reach the heart of his people group—it may not. And the trade language may not either. What do the insiders speak among themselves in this local area? That is probably the language the missionary must learn and learn very well. Perhaps he needs to learn an official language or a trade language to function in the country, but the heart language to reach the heart of his people. This insider language may be an unwritten one; and there probably will not be a language school or qualified tutors to teach it.
Once this careful assessment has been made and he decides to go the extra mile and learn that second or third language, the missionary must inform and educate his supporters back home about the time it will take. They may not understand or accept this delay. They may want quicker results. They might give his support to a more fruitful missionary. So be it. He must resist the temptation to simply get by, or to abandon the people group and work in the city using the trade language. Otherwise, the people he is called to reach will remain unreached!
A Critical Analysis
At the outset of his attempt to become an insider, the missionary must make a critical analysis of the language. Failure to analyze the sounds and reproduce them exactly as the natives speak will result in a bad accent. They may understand him, but the accent reminds them that he is an outsider. With prior training and skill in phonology (phonetics and phonemics), the goal of perfect pronunciation is possible. Phonemics will enable him to understand how the sounds change according to their environment. Without it, he will be unable to develop an efficient alphabet, the first step in writing the language. Preparation in the linguistic skills of morphology and syntax will help him to critically analyze how words and sentences are made. With proper grammar and good pronunciation, the messenger will sound very much like an insider when he delivers God’s message.
A Cultural Adaptation
Cultural adaptation is also vital to convert the outsider into an insider. The missionary must not only speak like a native, he must also think like one. The new culture will be unique and different from his, but this does not necessarily make it wrong. Yes, there will be wicked practices and beliefs that God will want to change, but the missionary won’t introduce unnecessary changes. Adapting to the culture will also help him overcome culture shock. Culture shock causes him to withdraw or reject the culture, thus making him act very foreign! We’ve heard of “going native.” This is a blind acceptance of a culture, even condoning its sinful practices. It is not what we mean by becoming an insider! An insider bonds with the people, identifying with them as much as possible (without compromising his Christian belief or walk with the Lord).
We have established that the message must not change. It cannot be weakened in any way. But it can and should be taught with native teaching methods and with cultural illustrations. Anything that will make the gospel more understandable should be considered. The preaching of the cross is foolishness to the lost, but we don’t have to make it more so by our foreign speech and thinking!
A Capable Ambassador
Where can we find this insider: this theologian, linguist, and anthropologist? He is not to be found; he must be made! If the thousands of unreached people groups stand a chance of ever knowing Christ, we must produce about fifteen thousand immediately!