‘Jesus Is One of My Favorite Gods’: the Importance of Language

Missionaries who cut corners on culture and language learning run the risk of sparking syncretism.

Paul Borthwick wrote1 of being registered for a conference in New Delhi, India, by a clerk who had her desk covered in pictures of Jesus. Upon asking her if she was a follower of Jesus, the title of this article—“Jesus is one of my favorite gods”—was her reply.

Of course, to someone who understands the uniqueness of the Lord Jesus, such a statement is either grossly inaccurate, heresy, or oxymoronic. If Jesus is who Scripture says he is (see Colossians 1:15-19), then he is not sharing the place of Creator and Sustainer of the universe with anyone. He who said “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:19) is not one of many deities. To comprehend who Jesus is is to become aware that he has no rivals. John 14:6 precludes any competition for the role of Advocate of all mankind.

To embrace Christ is to understand what C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Lewis was absolutely correct. A proper presentation of the work of Christ and an individual bowing before the truth of who Jesus is changes all things.

So why is such syncretism so common today? Why have surface mannerisms such as prayer, singing, attending, and doing good works become a substitute for many who can’t actually articulate what the work of Christ on the cross accomplished for them?

I was reminded of this the other night after I completed teaching a class on missions. One participant came up to me and then, being truly puzzled, stated, “Why did it take so long for you to make the gospel clear to the Iteri people? Last week, an individual who worked in such-and-such a country became fluent, shared Christ, discipled folks, and left behind a healthy church all in less than three years!”2

Such conversations are awkward at best. It surely is no one’s desire to embarrass another brother, but sadly, such questionable stories and timeframes have been spread so far and wide that few today will ask the basic questions that such a story begs.

The Long, Hard Work of Language and Culture Acquisition

The Foreign Service Institute puts the particular language this missionary referred to in category 4 (out of 5) of language-learning difficulty. I remember the 40-plus-hour-weeks that we put into learning the Iteri language and culture for over thirty months, spread over three-and-a-half years. Remember that sickness, visitors, life, house, airstrip building and maintenance, traveling for visas, and running a business (since, for many today that the only way to remain in a given country) all are realities during language learning years. I think back to the many missionaries I worked with in my thirteen years in Papua New Guinea where I was a culture and language acquisition consultant.

Rarely will I make a sweeping statement as I will now, but no one is learning a language, making the gospel clear to those speakers, discipling those folks to maturity, and planting a church in less than three years. So, something is fishy in the above story. Paul Washer and many others who have worked overseas agree with me on this.

Speaking Like Toddlers

The Achilles’ heel of missions today (and this is virtually unknown by supporters and churches) is that most missionaries are not adult-level speakers of the language in which they are ministering. Too often, we sound like children, and our message isn’t taken seriously. Our message is muddled by our confusing syntax and is “lifeless” due to our limited vocabulary. It is stiff and repetitive because missionaries cannot make adjustments on the fly, due to their inability to clearly hear and handle feedback.

The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) scale is a useful tool for measuring proficiency in foreign languages. Anyone can access these resources, and any church can ask its missionaries to take an over-the-phone OPI (Oral Proficiency Indicator) test to see how capable its gospel workers are. Keep in mind, this is only testing a person’s knowledge of the language and leaves aside the equally critical component of knowing and testing their knowledge of the receptor culture. This tool only addresses “primary languages.” When missionaries move into secondary languages—in order to reach the people groups who need to be reached—there is not an OPI process to facilitate a legitimate evaluation. But, taking an OPI in a primary language can help a sending church know if its missionary is taking fluency seriously.

Paul’s Advantage, Our Challenge

We are not the Apostle Paul, who journeyed throughout a world which was conquered by the Romans and over which the Pax Romana had been established for 60-70 years prior to Paul’s ministry. The world in which Paul ministered was culturally very proximate to the one in which he was raised. Paul never stopped his ministry of preaching, discipling, and planting churches to learn a language. The Greek and Aramaic languages (and possibly some Latin) Paul knew beforehand enabled him to converse in all the locations to which he traveled.

Even in Acts 14:11-13, where a local language Paul did not know made for some brief confusion, Paul did not “dumb down” his speech or look for an interpreter or “man of peace.” His reply in verses 15-18, of which no doubt we have only a part, is such that Paul later needed to return Lystra to strengthen those disciples and appoint elders (vv. 21-23). Even then, was Paul’s work there done? No. He would later revisit that church in Lystra and from that very town a disciple named Timothy would join him.

All this to say that for modern cross-cultural missionaries to move to countries like China, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Kuwait, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, or India and assume Paul’s timeframes is grossly misguided. Linguistic barriers do not come down quickly or easily. Other worldly cultural hurdles take a similar type of serious pursuit to understand, and that pursuit takes time and prodigious study.

No Shortcuts to the Heart

I find it helpful to ask such missionary “storytellers” what type of system they used to learn the culture of the people among whom they worked. I remember asking one missions teacher, after he gave a spellbinding presentation at my home church in San Diego, how he learned the culture of the people? His quick reply (which I’m sure silenced many other questioners) was, “The same way Jesus did—I hung out with the people.” I stopped probing when his discomfort became obvious. Unfortunately, that “method” is pretty shallow and does not begin to account for the reality that most of us experienced growing up in an American home. I was raised in California with a mom and dad and two sisters who taught me the school system of California before I ever set foot in kindergarten. My dad taught me about the Navy, American values, holding down a job, baseball, football, and the evils of taxes before I was seven years old. No amount of casual “hanging out” by an adult American will get him inside the culture in three years.

There is a difference between speaking to the “skin” of a person and speaking in such a way that his mannerisms and actions may possibly change. To speak to the core of a man, where he makes decisions that change the focus of his life, and to see strongholds of the enemy torn down, we must speak to the heart level of a person. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

We must be taken seriously, in all ways. To talk like a child is not always a bad thing. Before the advent of Google Maps, I often stopped and asked directions, sometimes even of children if I felt they could help. I don’t mind an eight-year-old telling me a story about his day in school, his favorite sports hero, or about his part in the Christmas play. But I’m not talking philosophy, baring my soul, or re-examining my life values based on the words of an eight-year-old.

Shortcuts, such as relying on a person of peace to become our gospel go-between, inevitably ensure that a novice, at times even an unsaved person, is in charge of communicating the gospel. It is no wonder that “Jesus is one of my favorite gods” is easily understood by many Hindus and Buddhists, or “Jesus was a wonderful teacher” by millions of Muslims.

Are those who are hearing a muddled gospel actually embracing the Jesus of Scripture who saves?

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Radius Report on May 3, 2019. For a differing perspective, see this article.

1. Western Christians in Global Missions, Paul Borthwick, pg. 71.

2. I’ve actually heard this individual present his overseas experience, and politeness didn’t allow for me to question some basic elements of the story. Sadly, this is very common as folks listen to “exciting” missionary stories.

Brad Buser

Brad Buser is the founder of Radius International. He and his wife Beth planted a church among the Iterri people in Papua New Guinea. Now he is a sought-after speaker for Perspectives classes around the nation, and the instructor of Church Planting at Radius.