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  • Writer's picturePreston Fidler

Seven Principles for Effective Ministry Language Learning

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

About a year ago Lonna Dickerson introduced a few coaches and me to these seven principles for effective language learning. I’d like to consider how they apply to learning ministry language.

First, we need to take responsibility for our language learning, and that includes learning ministry language. Surprisingly, the place to start is not necessarily in learning our first few words of spiritual vocabulary. Arguably the place, rather the practice with which to start is: simply sharing the gospel.

Don’t misunderstand me. As significant as learning how to share the gospel in your new language is, what I'm talking about here is simply the habit or practice of sharing the gospel, right now, in whatever language you can. In other words, do we currently practice gospel fluency? Chances are, if we do, then this "fire" (Jeremiah 20:9) will create the spark we need to learn to share the gospel in our new language, starting with the basics. This is the starting point for taking responsibility in our ministry language learning. Sadly, many of us do not regularly share the gospel with our lost neighbors, and therefore we risk lacking the drive that gets us on the path to effective and fruitful ministry language learning.

Second, we need to manage our emotions. Perhaps the most “intangible” of these seven principles, managing our emotions in my mind is probably the most foundational, because this is where we grapple with our core identity and motivation. Many times, we feel the obligation to learn ministry language because this is what we are called to do. We might even feel guilty. We may ask ourselves over and over, “Can I share the gospel yet? Is my language good enough?” I’d like to bring us back to a prior question that I think will help us to manage our emotions, and perhaps even our motivation, to learn spiritual language:

Do we delight in the gospel? Do we delight in God’s word and in prayer, and find joy in this more in our new language? This has more to do with who we are, and less about what we do. Chances are, if we delight in the gospel, we will delight in sharing the gospel. Does our love for our lost neighbors exceed our fear (or laziness) to walk across the apartment hallway and knock on their door, or bring Jesus up in a conversation with them, or risk making mistakes when we pray for them, or even risk ridicule or rejection? Do we joyfully anticipate gospel conversations with our neighbors, both in the overflow of what God is doing in our lives, and as he leads us into theirs?

My colleague Richard had a great life motto that calibrated his emotions as he pursued ever-challenging ministry language learning: Just tell me the gospel again and again. If we can sustain a vibrant reminder of who we are in Christ in our new language and culture, then we will be encouraged to walk in the joy of the Lord and this will sustain us as we learn ministry language, during those emotionally challenging seasons.

Third, do we know the outcomes of what we are learning and practicing? In other words, as we learn ministry language, do we practice WYDIGYG, or “What you do is what you get, ” as we consider the results of our learning practices? Are we purposeful in our language activities because we anticipate the outcomes?

Meg trains language learners in cross-cultural evangelism. I watched Meg struggle to help learners memorize 150 gospel sentences. The outcomes were disappointing. In fact, many learners felt discouraged with such a huge memorization project that yielded virtually no meaningful results. That’s when Meg’s decided to create the Good News Skeleton. The Good News Skeleton was short, simple, elegant, and usable. The results were remarkable! Meg’s story is worth repeating:

I got this idea to just have a skeleton. It's sixteen sentences. What I found is that I didn't give people the handout. First, we learn it in English. Then, in the local language. And we do it a little different each time. We don't have to say these magic memorized sentences. We can learn to tell the Good News from our hearts, from what we already know.

The point is, we can and should begin sharing the basics of the simple, familiar gospel story early on. Then, as we learn more language, we can begin to slowly add descriptions and explanations. Practicing the Good News Skeleton has been incredibly motivating for me and so many other learners. Quite simply, we are motivated to learn more language – words, phrases, and stories – so we can share more of the gospel.

Notice, the skeleton ends with a question, an invitation. One of the best ways to practice this, then, is to simply ask it and see what kind of response we get. We can practice this with a native speaker language partner who can respond to what we are asking, at our level, to allow us to practice getting into the conversation. At first, this may be hard for us. But the more we practice in this kind of role-play environment, the more we will learn how to converse the gospel with people in our new language. We can start with the skeleton and a very simple conversation. As we practice it, we can slowly add a bit more to the role-play. Progressive role plays like this start with simple content and tasks, and slowly but certainly build on those content and tasks. This is a great way to get what we want out of the things we do for our ministry language practice.

Fourth, communicate! This is our main goal. There just is no substitute for the time and effort we invest just sit down and talk with people, and use the ministry language we are learning, every day, all the time, over and over again.

There are many forms of communication: speeches, formal teaching settings, reading, writing. But what I want to especially focus on is conversational speech. Conversations are the context of so much of our ministry language learning and practice. This is where we learn to share and converse the gospel. This also represents the vast majority of discipleship contexts that are so relational in so many of our settings.

Communication of this nature means hours and hours of spending time with people. It means listening and telling stories. This is where we learn to bring the gospel into these conversations. This takes time with people. LOTS of time and investment. Lots of conversations. Over may topics. Topics that naturally, clearly, and fluently lead to the gospel.

Some of you have seen the wordless tract my wife created and uses for getting into gospel conversations. (You can find it in my books and articles). It "tells" the story of a little child. Just about everyone in our part of the world identifies with this story in some way. This was Jenn's motivation for creating it. It truly has become a conversation starter and bridge to many fruitful gospel conversations.

We need lots and lots of real-life communication. This develops our conversational fluency on lots of topics - to fluently converse these topics, fluently transition to other topics, to fluently take turns, and to fluently bring redemptive content into those conversations in natural, clear, and accurate ways. This means hours and hours of listening to people, and learning how to respond with compassion, sympathy, and wisdom.

This is also when we no longer have to think about how we should say something, and we get to concentrate on what we want to say!

Fifth, learn a little, use it a lot! In a recent Tip of the Tongue post Lauren Vitrano-Wilson made this the “theme of 2021”. Great idea! In her words, Lauren describes what so often happens to us, and learning ministry language is no exception to this risk:

I met with a language learner once who said she just didn’t feel like she was making any progress. So, I went with her to her class one day to see what her lessons were like. Well! No wonder she wasn’t making much progress! Her teacher was exposing her to FORTY new words an hour and then the next day, she’d get forty more! I told her there was NO way for anyone to internalize that many words a day, let alone an hour. What she really needed was to learn a little, use it a lot.

Lauren goes on to say this.

Think through what YOU need to learn how to say it so it is applicable to your life. If what you are learning is truly useful, then finding lots and lots of opportunities to practice in real situations will be easier.

Please hear this: reviewing and practicing the same material does indeed help you make progress in the language. Meanwhile, plowing through dozens of new vocabulary words without truly learning many of them, is not actually progress. The more you use words, the more easily the words will come to you. Fluency is one form of progress.

Learn a little, use it a lot in a wide variety of contexts with many different people. Try to work your new words into your conversations whenever possible.

I totally agree! There is just no substitute for this kind of meaningful, deliberate practice! Learn a little, use it a lot!

So how does this apply to learning ministry language? In so many ways! This is a transferable principle for everything we learn! As we work through simple redemptive content – the good news skeleton, a simple familiar gospel story, our testimony, a prayer, a psalm – we need to learn this content and then use it as much as we can in multiple contexts, so it begins to stick! I love the way Richard applies this to his learning:

Learn to communicate the Good News at every step of language learning through gospel-centered relationships and gospel language content. You need to learn gospel content, but you also have to use that content in order for it to stick. It takes deliberate practice. Build fluency as you learn ever more challenging gospel language pieces and share that gospel language with others who give you helpful feedback. Seek to improve as you learn from them how to do better. Rinse and repeat that cycle. Again, and again.

Learn a little, use it a lot. Make it stick. Rinse and repeat. (Just like Richard said :)

Sixth and seven, sequence! Both content (sixth) and tasks (seventh)! I confess, sequencing evaded me for a while. I just wasn’t sure how it worked, or the value of it. Then I saw some very bright learners struggle through not knowing what to do next. They tried to do complex things before they were ready. And they failed, over and over again, and nearly gave up.

I want to personally thank Lonna for introducing me and my coaches to this chart and particularly to this principle at that virtual meeting we hosted almost a year ago. This initiated some conversations that really opened my eyes to see the need for good sequencing in the learning process.

I was talking with Amy, one of our coaches, about a very bright learner who had struggled for several years. I just couldn’t determine the need. Once we saw the need for sequencing, it became clear what was lacking in this learner’s program of study.

Amy put together a plan to incorporate a step-by-step approach to learning both content and tasks. And that included learning ministry language. We started with a Ministry Outcomes Chart we often use to provide basic examples of what people should be able to do in ministry in the language at different ACTFL levels.

However, the problem with this chart for learners who need specific sequencing of content and tasks is that it’s just too general. There are no sublevels, no specific content, and really no specific tasks that a learner could take and really build on with confidence.

So, Amy took this chart and developed what I believe is a great example of ministry language sequencing. She created content and tasks in the form of “can do” statements that learners could understand and do. She simply calls it, What can I do in Church?

While somewhat specific to our context, “What can I do in church?” can easily be adapted and has been so useful in providing learners a roadmap for effectively learning ministry language. In her intro, Amy thoughtfully identifies the anxiety so many of us feel when we participate in ministry contexts in our new language, feeling like we have to do it ALL. The good news is, we don’t!

Learners often experience anxiety related to participation in local church. For some reason they feel like they need to be able to "do" everything at church that they did in their home language and location, even if those things are above their language level. I thought it could be helpful for them to see a list of proficiency-based activities that they could reasonably expect to be able to do at each level and sub-level of ACTFL proficiency in church. This takes the pressure off of them from doing things they aren't ready to do yet, as well as maybe push some of them who aren't really engaging as much as they could, considering their current language level.

“What can I do in church?” has become part of a meaningful roadmap to level-specific content and tasks that provide handles for coaching and learning in a positive and enthusiastic real-life ministry language learning environment. As learners learn, they begin to do ministry. The more ministry language they learn, the more ministry they can do!

Sequencing. Content and tasks. I think I get it now.

In summary, these seven principles while great for effective learning, also provide a great roadmap for learning ministry language!

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