The Good News of Christ is by far the most important message that one human can give to another. Thank God for anyone who makes a great sacrifice and goes to a foreign country to preach the Gospel! Upon arrival, the missionary makes a critical choice: whether he will struggle to learn the language now and preach later, or whether he will begin preaching now through an interpreter and learn the language later—maybe. Surely a message is more clearly understood and better received if delivered directly in the heart language than one that is delivered through an interpreter. That should settle the issue. However, some may argue that quickness is better than clarity and expedience is preferable to effectiveness. I will declare emphatically that time and effort invested first in language and culture acquisition is a minor sacrifice when compared to the value of a clear message. Also, the effectiveness of the words delivered from the mouth of the missionary to the ear of the recipient without the middleman trumps any reason the missionary may give for relying on an interpreter.
Does your pastor speak to you through an interpreter, or does he speak English? How long would you attend a church where the pastor could not teach, preach, and converse in your tongue? Is there anything that makes an American more deserving of this blessing than someone on the mission field? And suppose you and your wife were having marital problems and needed counseling. Would it be okay if an interpreter relayed your problems to the pastor, and then his advice came back to you through this middleman?
How many friends do you have that cannot speak your language? Shouldn’t the missionary be a friend to his people? Shouldn’t he build strong, personal relationships with them, gain their confidence as a friend, and then win them to Christ? The missionary who cannot speak the language will not be pestered by people coming to his house asking questions or just hanging out, but this avoidance is not good. Communication should occur in the parlor as well as in the pulpit. The missionary who uses an interpreter to say, “I love you,” may be implying an unwanted message. The people may think, “Then why don’t you learn our language?” We often hear it said about immigrants in our country, legal or otherwise, “If they are going to be here, they need to learn English!” Salsa for the goose is salsa for the gander!
If an interpreted message is acceptable, perhaps the missionary could simply email his sermons to the interpreter on the field each week. A missionary may not be required at all; a pastor could do this. Thousands of dollars could be saved by not sending an American to live on the foreign field. For a little extra, the interpreter might agree to go door to door in the place of the missionary and witness to the lost.
A missionary to Mexico felt that he was too old to learn Spanish, so he hired an interpreter. After some time, he discovered that the man in the middle was of the Church of Christ religion. He was turning the message of salvation by grace into one of works and water! The brother decided to learn Spanish! This is not an isolated case; many good messages are lost in the translation.
If the message goes out in our words, it is also going out in our American way of thinking. American thinking may not translate well. Even if much of the message is understood, the people are not as likely to relate to it because it is still a foreign message.
In the early 90s, when the Iron Curtain came down, an American missionary to Mexico decided to move to Poland. He spoke perfect Spanish, but that was of no help in Europe. Upon arrival, some fellow missionaries told him, “Peter, we have a guy here who knows English. He can interpret for you, and you can get right to work.” Peter said, “No way, José. I won’t preach until I can preach in Polish!” Within six or seven months of diligent language study, he began preaching in Polish without an interpreter.
Suppose it took longer, maybe a year or two, before a missionary could preach in a new language. Is that too big a sacrifice to make for Jesus and for the people he loves? It is predictable that if he begins with an interpreter, he will never wean himself away. Many have said, “I will just use an interpreter for a little while so I can start winning the lost, and then later I will learn the language.” That is like a young person saying, “I won’t smoke cigarettes forever, just for a little while.” Once you start using cigarettes or interpreters, it is hard to stop.
Real communication involves not only a message going out, but also feedback to the speaker. When your children played church, you probably heard some bad doctrine. The little preacher may have said, “You need to be good so you can go to heaven when you die!” (I hope you know that is bad doctrine.) You got this feedback because you understood your children’s language! Children will have some error in their thinking, and hearing the error shows where more teaching is needed. So, during family devotions, you teach again the truth of salvation by grace. The missionary that does not learn the local language does not get feedback. People may be talking about his teaching, but the discussions are always in their language. Therefore, the missionary is unaware of any misunderstanding and cannot correct it.
Related to this lack of feedback is the very common problem of syncretism. This is a mixing of pagan beliefs with Christianity, resulting in a religion with a Christian façade but little change in core beliefs. A person may do Christian things like attend church services, carry a Bible, recite prayers, etc. without having a real conversion.
What is the advantage of a missionary leaning on an interpreter instead of learning a language? He does begin to preach more quickly, and he may avoid the embarrassment of bilingual bloopers. But there is always a middleman between the missionary and his people. Wouldn’t everyone be better off without him? Let’s cut out the middleman!