Why Loving Your Neighbor Means Learning Their Language

When reaching unreached people groups, learning the local language is crucial for loving God and loving others.

Two men were considering the cost of becoming Christians in their country.

Each of them knew that conversion could mean the loss of family, career, and freedom.

Each of them had heard the gospel from a different missionary. The first man had met with the missionary he knew, but the missionary only knew enough of the local language to explain how to escape God’s judgment. That first man went away confused and unsure if he considered Jesus to be worthy of the cost required to follow him.

The second man met with the missionary he knew, and that missionary knew his language well. This second missionary used nuanced words, phrases, and intonation to explain God’s perfect character, his presence with those who face persecution, and the promises available to those who persevere.

Which of these two missionaries became “all things to all people”?

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul clarifies his own approach to contextualization. He is working to remove barriers that would prevent his listeners from hearing and understanding the glory of God and the gospel of hope. He writes in verses 19-23:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

For missionaries, this passage is generally used to inform decisions about clothing, hairstyle, food choices, and the like. These are the tangible efforts of missionaries to become visually or culturally more like the people that they intend to reach. Our application generally revolves around determining which characteristics of the host culture a missionary should adopt in order to avoid being so abnormal that no one will listen to us. This is a noble effort, but I would argue that these applications are secondary. It is worth noting that Paul already had the linguistic skill to dialogue with educated elites in Corinth. Thanks to the Hellenization accomplished by Alexander the Great, much of the eastern Mediterranean region spoke Greek as a common language. And due to his education as a Pharisee, Paul would have been fluent in Aramaic and Hebrew, the languages of first-century Jews in Israel. Therefore, when Paul says that he becomes “all things to all people,” it is already understood that he is fluent and skilled in the languages of those whose culture he is adapting to.

Paul had mastered the language of his listeners long before he altered his lifestyle.

The point for a missionary is simple. Paul had mastered the language of his listeners long before he altered his lifestyle.

For missionaries from North America, language is the first and most foundational step of cultural adaptation. We have moved to far-away places to take a message to people who don’t have access to it. The most important way we do that is by learning the words and structures needed to convey that message.

We must remember that once we are capable of sharing the good news, individuals from unreached people groups are usually being asked to make the largest and most costly decision of their lives. Having been presented with the God of the Scriptures and the way of salvation, they face a choice. They may continue rebelling against God or follow Christ. They may keep their family relationships by holding to their current religion, or they may be disowned for trusting Christ. They may continue to have a job that feeds their children, or they may lose it. They may remain free, or they may be imprisoned. The cost for many unreached people groups is simply so high that their first encounters with Christ are filled with fear. Doesn’t a situation like this merit the compassionate action of learning their language well enough to relate to the depth of struggle and burden they are going through? A memorized gospel presentation simply isn’t sufficient to become “all things” to people like this. Loving these neighbors will demand more of us.

Through the Open Initiative, our family has been sent to reach an unreached people group in a major global city. In a city like this, there are many people who speak English as a second, third, or fourth language. As we press ahead in language learning, here are some of the central convictions drawn from texts like 1 Corinthians 9 which motivate us to persevere in the difficult task of language study, even if there are people here that we could share with in English.

  • We believe that it is fundamentally unloving toward God and neighbor to present an unclear explanation of God’s character and of the gospel. We pray that our love for God and neighbor would drive us to make the gospel plain to our hearers. Even if they speak enough English to understand most of what we are saying, they are unlikely to truly hear our message deeply without hearing it in the language that their mother spoke to them.
  • God is too holy (separate, distinct from anything experientially “knowable”) to be described with amateur language. If we find God to be aptly described by simplistic language, we are not only at odds with the biblical authors but also presenting a god other than the God who actually is. God’s very nature demands that we master the local language in order to remove as much barrier as possible from our hearer’s ability to grasp him.
  • Even if we have developed enough language ability to present the gospel, we must evaluate if we have learned enough to help a new believer navigate the cost of obedience to that gospel. Teaching people to obey everything that is commanded of them (Matthew 28:20) requires the ability to parse motives, scenarios, and verbs carefully.
  • New Christians, like little children, mimic the message before they formulate their own verbiage around it. It is the missionary’s job to give a message in the predominate language of a people group that is clear and compelling enough to be worthy of mimicry.
  • God is not monolingual. He is pleased to receive the prayers and praises of Christians from every tongue. If we are to convey the character of a God like this, is it not fitting to convey that message in the language in which our hearers will think and pray? If they never listen to biblical truths in their heart language, how will they think and pray biblical thoughts and prayers?

If you are reading this from the mission field, burdened by competing time commitments and responsibilities, I want to give you some advice. Love God. Love your neighbor. Prioritize your family. Learn your language well. All of the other work tasks are secondary until you master the language. May the God of all strength work through you to master this language. May he give you the joy of an unhindered tongue.

For those considering a career of pursuing an unreached people group somewhere, consider this cost. When you dream of your life of service to the Lord, dream of long hours and hard labor at language study. Dream of complete linguistic fluency. Dream of making the gospel plain to your hearers. May you be “all things to all people,” that by any means you might win some.

You Can Help Reach the Unreached With the Gospel

We at ABWE believe that God is raising up a new generation to go to some of the farthest frontiers of missions. Recognizing that time is short, and eternity matters, we’ve launched the Open Initiative to send 7 teams to unreached people groups in the next 7 years. Explore how you can join us through prayer, sending, supporting, or going.