While in the Kuman Tribe of Papua New Guinea, I had lots of time to reflect on missions and the Christian life. Here’s a look back at some of my thoughts during this year:
Does the heart language really matter that much?
I ask myself that question a lot when I walk around our village in the mornings.
Mornings are rough because I’m a night person. I need 3-4 cups of coffee in my system before I can think at a 10am level. But it’s 7:30am, and I have to try…I’ve been rehearsing this moment for the last twenty-minutes, so I should be ready to just let it fly. I want to be more like John Piper here, and less like the King in the King’s Speech — if you know what I’m saying.
“What are you doing?” Someone says, anticipating a response in their most precious Kuman language.
But it’s the morning.
“Ah, wait. I came inside because I want to teach you language.”
“Uh. No. That’s not right. I want to…”
That’s pretty much what it’s like everyday as I stumble through a language that New Tribes Papua New Guinea considers to be “Medium-Hard.” Thankfully, by mid-morning, I’m not really speaking cave-man anymore, but every single interaction is exhausting. Sometimes, if I’m not careful, I’ll find myself avoiding large groups of people standing around because I know they’ll put me on the spot.
Wait, did they just ask me a question? I think I heard the “ay” ending. Maybe I just thought I heard it. Did they tell me what they are doing? Darn, I wasn’t listening because I was talking to myself. Should I just tell them what I’m doing? Uh oh, they’re waiting for me to respond.
Does teaching in the heart language really make that much of a difference? Yes. For a few reasons.
1. Language and culture are connected.
You’ve heard the saying, “That guy’s a machine.” It’s a compliment. That guy works, and gets his work done in a timely manner. If you used that around here, you’d get a ton of weird looks — it just wouldn’t communicate. You would have to understand a tad about American industry and mechanics to really know what that was suppose to mean, and many here don’t.
How about this: “Looks like you’re pulling the feathers off of a bird this morning.” Did that communicate anything to you? Do you feel deeply affected and brought to action by this statement? Nope. You don’t, because you don’t understand the Kuman culture, and this is nonsense to you. Are you suppose to be offended or happy?
How would you know that this meant someone was eating sugar cane unless you knew the culture?
2. Understanding culture allows you to reach the heart of the hearers.
I remember a few years back when Brad Buser, a New Tribes Missionary, spoke at a youth conference I went to. He made a statement that was so clear and gut-wrenching that I can still recall where I was sitting when I heard it.
“God shouldn’t be on the top of your list. He should be your list.”
Whoa. This hit me right between the eyes and started the long process of God breaking me, to the point that I was ready to leave everything behind and pursue “My New List.” But why did this communicate something so clear to me?
It was first the Holy Spirit, second the use of the English language, and third the use of a picture that had huge meaning to a High Schooler trying to get his life in order. I had a laundry list of things I wanted to do with my life, but God was just a piece of it, rather than the whole thing. “Seek first the Kingdom…” I was using God as a good luck charm, rather than seeing Jesus as Lord and Savior.
But to a Kuman, who doesn’t really have lists, and doesn’t really struggle with seeing spirituality (though in various forms) as important in everyday life, this would be meaningless. Brad not only knew my language, but also my culture. That’s why it completely shattered my “me-first” worldview.
3. Knowing the language and culture safeguards your people from the horrible effects of paternalism.
The Church belongs to Jesus, not to Western missionaries. Unfortunately, many Christians are communicating that church, when done the right way, looks just like a morning service in Chicago. Church needs to be done the “right way,” and the American’s are doing it…in English.
Especially in poor countries where the Class Gap is so enormous, the more money you have, the more powerful you are. When you get a chance to rub shoulders with a “rich,” “powerful” individual, who “knows how to do church right so God will bless you with more of the green stuff,” you gotta’ do it. You need to go.
Rather than the church being about the worship of Jesus and the Word of God, it becomes a cult that worships the Westerner. Paternalism has set in when the church listens to the missionary just because he’s a missionary, rather than for the truth that’s being taught.
It’s humbling to leave your first language and speak like a toddler, but by demonstrating that the Gospel crosses cultural lines, we desire to show that the focus is on Jesus and His power, and not our own English prowess.
We don’t want to be listened to simply because we’re a “rich Westerner.” We want to be listened to because the message of the Gospel is so important — and that involves relationships, being a humble learner, and a listener. The Gospel is relevant to a Kuman, an Indonesian, a Russian, and whoever, because every tribe, tongue, and nation has a sin problem, and all who put their faith in God’s perfect sacrifice of His Son for forgiveness will one day fill the Kingdom of God. The Gospel is so powerful that it brings the evil of every culture to the cross, and makes the beauty of every culture infinitely more beautiful. Our job as missionaries isn’t to destroy the culture. That’s what paternalism does.
Our job is to speak the truth of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection into every aspect of the culture as clearly as possible. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to change.