Communicating God's Word Cross-Culturally
When we think about communicating God’s Word cross-culturally one of the first things that comes to mind is the importance of learning language. But it is so much more than that! It’s learning ministry language. The ability to communicate the grand narrative of redemption throughout scripture. The ability to communicate the gospel in the local language as the Word of God impacts the hearts of the lost and draws people to repentance, salvation, and obedience in following Christ.
Just this morning I received a note from a colleague – he and his family have just started the second year on the field after an unexpectedly lengthy time away due to Covid and other logistical complications. Concerned he’d have to start all over again in the language, I know you’ll rejoice with me in hearing this report that came to me and a group of guys who pray for and counsel him:
Hey guys! Started going through a simple gospel passage yesterday with my language teacher. 1 Cor 15:3-4. We read through it slowly, discussed new vocab, and he said it back to me in the local dialect. Today we listened to this recording together many times.
Literally hours later we all got this update:
Hey guys! Just spent an hour drinking tea and telling stories with my neighbor. I got to share 1 Cor 15:3-5 with him. I told it to him, and explained that good works doesn’t cut it, then called him to belief. He happily said he agrees with it, but it was clear he really didn’t understand the implications. But it was the first time he’s heard the message as far as I know. He also on his own with no prompting asked for audio scriptures that he could listen to on his own since he can’t read. This felt so routine and laid back, but actually is monumental and really exciting. Thank God for making this happen! Lift him up!
The reason I wanted to take time to share this is to spur each other on. This is how we should be learning language. This is how we should become proficient and fluent in the redemptive content, the scripture content, in the languages of those around us to who need to hear the gospel. Friends, this is who we are called to be and how we are called to live!
Most of us can have conversations in our new languages. Regularly. Everyday. Even for new learners, this is a foreseeable goal. But how many of us have daily regular gospel conversations? You see, if you can have a basic conversation in the language, then you can have a gospel conversation in the language! You need to learn the redemptive content, and you need to work it into your regular daily conversations, on purpose.
As you work toward the ability to communicate the grand narrative of God’s redemption throughout scripture, start with learning to tell some simple familiar narratives. Vibrant gospel passages like 1 Cor 15:3-5, stories from the book of Mark, or Acts, or redemptive narratives we find throughout scripture. And build on that. Everyday.
And don’t stop. Even when you reach your minimum expected language level, keep learning. Chances are the minimum level is just enough to make you think you are communicating more than you really are or understanding people’s responses more than you really do. But, if you keep learning – if you dig into the word of God in your new language every day, pray in the language even in your personal prayer time, and then take what God has shown you in his word and through prayer and deliberately work through that with new believers, discipling them, and learning right along with them, your ministry language will grow by leaps and bounds. And you will find yourself communicating the gospel and understanding responses more deeply and broadly that ever before.
Several years ago, I found myself swamped with meetings, travel, and emails and had to make a change. My language had flatlined and my local ministry was largely fruitless. I found that to keep growing in my ministry language I had to set aside specific time each day to work on it by myself and then invest time working through it with key local people God brought into my life. A deliberate choice – and I did this with a few other colleagues, each of us in our own contexts – to set aside a few hours every day to continue growing in ministry language, passage by passage, prayer by prayer, conversation by conversation.
Be encouraged. Just as Paul describes his stewardship in Colossians 1:25-27, to make the word of God fully known, this mystery revealed to the saints, proclaimed to the Gentiles, Christ in you, the hope of glory, he describes the path of working out this stewardship in the last two verses of the chapter. Colossians 1:28-29 says, “Him we proclaim! Admonishing and teaching everyone so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy which so powerfully works within me.”
Press on in your language learning for the sake of the gospel. Every day. Don’t stop. Give yourself fully to the work of making the word of God fully known to your precious lost neighbors as you evangelize them, and to your local brothers and sisters as you disciple them.