Why Missionaries Must Learn Language

Without rigorous study and patient acquisition of the local language, missionaries can’t be confident they’re accurately communicating Jesus’ gospel.

I listened as a new missionary voiced her frustration with language study.

She didn’t like her leaders insisting that she apply herself fully to learning Arabic before pursuing more ministry opportunities. “It feels like all that matters,” she tearfully explained, “is how many hours I study.”

While many native English speakers can master French or Spanish in under two years, Arabic takes far longer. Before she came halfway around the world, this missionary didn’t anticipate how difficult language learning would be. She’d come to tell people about Jesus. She hadn’t left home to worry over Arabic pronunciation and grammatical structures.

But what she didn’t realize is that without rigorous study and patient acquisition of the local language, missionaries can’t be confident they’re accurately communicating Jesus’s gospel.

Expectations for Learning Language

New missionaries arriving on the field—and the churches that send them—tend to have little understanding of how language acquisition works. Most assume they’ll reach language mastery within a year or two simply by living overseas.

The truth is, by year two, many of today’s missionaries are only proficient enough to stumble through conversations. Then they plateau. They  never  acquire the ability to participate in fast-paced discussions between native speakers where speech is personal, emotional, and nuanced. In other words, most missionaries never acquire the ability to participate in—or even understand—the  spiritual conversations  around them.

This isn’t the way it used to be. Ann and Adoniram Judson spent 12 hours a day studying Burmese. Adoniram lamented the increase in short-term missionaries who only stayed a few years and weren’t of much use due to their lack of language ability. Hudson Taylor  advised newcomers  to study “six or eight hours a day . . . till you can preach fluently and intelligibly.” He expected single missionaries to not marry until they’d mastered Mandarin.

Without rigorous study and patient acquisition of the local language, missionaries can’t be confident they’re accurately communicating Jesus’s gospel.

Contrast these historical examples with popular approaches today. David Garrison, in  his prominent book  on missions, describes intense language study before active ministry as the “third deadly sin” of church planting.

While many missions leaders still give lip service to the importance of language acquisition, they often teach ways around it. They suggest that new missionaries who are able to tell a few stories about Jesus in broken speech will be sufficient—if the Spirit breathes on their words—to lead people to Christ. Genuine devotion to language mastery is seen as unproductive, even as a self-centered hobby that sucks missionaries’ time away from team activities and ministry. In some cases, these missionaries are given an ultimatum: withdraw from full-time language study or leave the field.

Why has modern missions thinking strayed so far from its roots? Largely, the answer is found in our society’s shortened attention span. We’re hardwired to crave quick results. Today’s most widely followed missions strategies focus intently on rapid multiplication. Their ideal is to see new churches plant other churches (which will, in turn, plant other churches) every six months. In such a model, plodding missionaries who slowly acquire language and carefully teach God’s Word can’t move fast enough. So missionaries are told to get out of the way.

Appropriate Means

The message many missionaries hear today is: “God doesn’t need your fluency to build his church. God doesn’t need your clear teaching. God will help new believers to teach and disciple each other.”

Indeed, God doesn’t need our fluency or clarity to build his church. But if we’re going to abandon all ministry activities that God doesn’t need, why send missionaries at all? When William Carey first suggested sending missionaries overseas, an older pastor reportedly rebuked him, “When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without your help or mine either!” Certainly, God can work apart from or in spite of his people’s inactivity. But embracing ministry strategies because God can bless them is a poor idea. Instead, we should ask, how is God  usually  pleased to work?

What we find in Scripture—and what Carey argued—is that God prefers to work through human means. Therefore, New Testament missionaries and evangelists emphasized clear communication. Paul asked for prayer “that I may make [the gospel]  clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3–4). He spent time “explaining” (Acts 17:3) the gospel carefully in person and articulated theological truths in his letters. Luke compiled an “orderly account” of Christ’s life that would be compelling to his readers (Luke 1:3). Philip clarified for the eunuch what Isaiah’s prophecy meant (Acts 8:30–35). Priscilla and Aquila “explained to [Apollos] the way of God more accurately,” clarifying what he didn’t understand (Acts 18:26).

Today’s missionaries, more than ever, must recover the importance of clear communication.

Why was it so important for them to communicate clearly? They understood their role as  ambassadors—as representatives with an authoritative word from the King. The nations could only meet the King’s terms of peace if they understood and accepted his message. Thus, the early disciples tried to teach in a way that would persuade others (Acts 17:2–4). They understood that their listeners were genuinely deceived (2 Cor. 4:4), seized in their minds and hearts with false ideas. And they knew God is pleased to work through clear, persuasive human speech to open people’s eyes.

Need for Clarity

Our own life experience testifies to the importance of clear communication. None of us in a moment of crisis would seek out a counselor who couldn’t clearly understand us or communicate about the difficulties we’re describing. And most of us have benefited enormously from reading books and hearing sermons in which people clearly explained realities we hadn’t understood previously.

Today’s missionaries, more than ever, must recover the importance of clear communication. Hours of language study may seem unnecessary, unspiritual, and only delaying more important work. But like anything done well, language acquisition is an offering to God. This “merely human” aspect of missionary work matters.

It’s through these nose-to-grindstone months and years of labor that God has willed for missionaries to learn to preach his Word with authority and clarity. And if they don’t give in to the pressure to cut corners, missionaries will one day have the reward of knowing that those who respond positively have truly heard and accepted Christ’s message, not a confused, misinterpreted version of it.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Gospel Coalition on February 24, 2022. Used with permission.

Dive Deeper

Listen to Matt Rhodes’ interview on The Missions Podcast where he discusses his book, No Shortcuts to Success, and other important aspects of missionary preparation.