There’s a lot that us missionaries can learn from jazz musicians about learning language. After all, they devote their lives to learning, repeating, interacting, improvising and expressing themselves with music and people. We sort of do the same, with language and people. And actually, our brains treat musical improvisation just like language.
Learning to naturally share our heart in a new language is a formidable task. And so is learning to improvise over a fast and complicated jazz tune. What can we learn from jazz giants who have learned to express themselves beautifully and fluently?
Charlie Parker, the legendary sax player said:
“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget about all that (stuff) and just play.”
Here’s how that applies to learning to talk to people in another language:
‘Master your instrument’
When we speak a language, our instrument is our mouth. (Along with our facial expressions and body language!) Just like a musician needs to learn the technique to get the right tones and notes out of their instrument, we need to learn how to make the different sounds a language requires, and change our mouth to get the right accent. In order to do this we train our muscles to do all kinds of little tasks.
‘Master the music’
Musicians learn which notes to play with which chords, as well as all kinds of rules/theory that comes along with that. They learn all kinds of songs, set phrases, and licks that they can pull out in different situations. This boils down to a huge amount of listening, exploring, memorizing, and practicing over a loooong time.
When we learn a language we learn (or sub-consciously absorb) all kinds of rules and patterns about how words stick together, what order they go in, and what goes with what. (aka grammar) We learn tons of vocubulary. We also learn set phrases, sentences and little patterns that other people use in speech and conversation. This too, takes a ridiculous amount of listening, exploring, memorizing, and practicing.
‘Then forget all that and just play!’
Eventually, you learn all this so well that it becomes second nature, and when you go to perform you’re not even thinking about the technique and rules anymore. That’s when you’re able to play, or speak, from the heart in a natural, unobstructed, and exciting way. This is the goal for musicians, and should be for us missionaries too. When we’re talking to somebody, we want to be fully present in the conversation, and not trying to remember some weird grammar rule.
In a foreign language it’s always a long journey to get to this point of speaking fluently without thinking. Thankfully, we can still relate to people, share good news, and be used profoundly by God even when we’re struggling with language and tripping over our words, trying to remember how to form a certain sentence. But let’s learn from these musicians and apply the same sort of serious time and effort to learn how to express ourselves (and God’s heart and word!) to the people we’re trying to reach.
Finally, here are some more thoughts on this quote from Chris Potter, another incredible sax player
So learn, learn, learn. Learn way more than you think you’re going to need in any given situation. Learn all kinds of vocabulary, grammer, sentences, and phrases. Practice them. Work on your accent. And then forget about all that and just go talk to people!
When I got to the camp I was eager to talk to give a seminar on missions to a bunch of youth at a weekend retreat. I was expecting them to be in high school, but it turned out they were actually much younger. They were just 11-12 years old. I immediately started thinking about how I might need to change my message, and I was a little disappointed they were so young. Would these kids really understand? Was this a waste of time?
But as soon as we started talking and I asked a few questions, my disappointment in the age of the group disappeared and I was really moved by their simple and beautiful desire to live for the Gospel.
This was an optional session they signed up for. They chose to come and learn about being a missionary instead of doing the ropes course, riding scooters, or a whole bunch of other fun activities. I asked them why they came here, and why they were interested in learning about the missionary life.
“I want to go help people who don’t have God.”
“I want to go tell people about God who don’t know God.”
They said it with such simplicity, and there was such a genuine concern and care for in their voices as they talked about other people in the world who don’t know Jesus. They really cared for those people they heard about far away. I started to tear up just listening to them.
Their childlike faith and simple answers seemed so different than what I would hear in similar conversations with university students or young professionals. As people get older, their thoughts get riddled with all kinds concerns, fears, goals, and plans that children simply don’t have. And as they look forward to the possibility of becoming a missionary, the road ahead looks cloudier and more confusing.
“Uhh… I’m just really trying to figure out, like, what opportunities there are with my profession, and how I can use that overseas… I mean, I really feel like I can engage more effectively that way… I dunno, maybe I’ll find a different job placement in the future? I need to save up more money now…”
It’s hard for educated, professional, grown-up people to look forward with a simple Romans 15:20-like ambition, because they’re often trying to maintain all these other expectations, desires, or responsibilities. A simple love for God and a concern for the lost can get choked out by all the grown-up desires and plans we develop. But kids don’t think like that. They just look out with one simple goal. “I need to go tell people about God.”
The kids understood the difficulties involved as well. They realized it would be hard to go far away from their families and give up things that they liked. “You might have to go somewhere where you can’t go horseback riding,” I suggested. As soon as one 11 year old girl heard this she put her hand on her chest, bowed her head, and let out a very cute “oh!” of sadness.
We can learn a lot from these kids that see things so clearly. We would do well to shed ourselves of all our sophisticated desires and plans, and look forward with their childlike simplicity and selflessness.
Jesus set a little child up as the ultimate model of a kingdom servant.
“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt 18:2-3)
If we want to follow Jesus, we need to get humble, simplify our ambitions, and live for Jesus like a kid.
In the old days, people went to the field, and were pretty much locked in for life. They took 3-month boat journeys over the seas, and sometimes took their coffin with them. Communication was sparse, and all they had in front of them was the tough hard ground to be sown. They were locked and committed, whether they liked it or not. They were pretty much forced to stay on task, even if their motivation grew cold or their family went crazy. For better or for worse, they were stuck there.
Times have changed.
These days, it’s much easier to come and go. We can easily hop in and out of countries with affordable plane tickets. Once we’re in a foreign land, we have a myriad of different connections to the world back home. We have Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype conversations. There are a million things that can pull our affections and efforts in all kinds of different directions. Every day, we face a hundred choices about whether we will focus on the things in front of us, or back home, or somewhere else.
It’s also a lot easier to give up and go home. People can be easily pulled off the field, or drawn into another area of ministry. John Christ nailed it this hilarious video.
So what keeps us on track and focused?
It takes years of dedicated time and patience to learn a language, tell the good news to hundreds of people, and make a disciple or two in a foreign culture. And this can all feel so much slower and trying than all the other things or opportunities that vie for our attention.
Awareness of the distractions, discipline, and planning does help. You might need to delete Facebook. (I did). You might need to set limits on your interactions with other foreigners. Or you might need to avoid buying mobile data for your phone. All these practical things can help, but ultimately, they’re not the solution.
I really believe that the only thing that can really keep us on track is the Holy Spirit-given desires and emotions of Jesus. And for this we need a life of prayer and honest interaction with Him.
“Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Romans 8:5)
Only knowing and interacting with him can keep us on track. Only having our hearts full of his concerns and priorities can keep us going and focused for years and years. When we actually see and hear Him, we find that his voice is louder and sweeter than all the other distractions.
Language learning takes humility because you have to pull away from lots of other things you could be doing well, and spend endless hours patiently learning and making a fool of yourself. Spirit-led evangelism takes a God-given compassion for the lost and a living friendship with the Lord. And discipleship requires a real life of obedience and trust in the Lord. All of these things are given to us by the Lord, as we relate to him.
“May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.” (2 Thessalonians 3:5)
Yes, our age is an age of massive distraction. But in all of this we have an awesome opportunity. There may not be many circumstances that force us into a kind of legalistic, white-knuckled, grin-and-bear-it-while-crushing-ourselves-and-everyone-around-us pertinacity.
In this day and age, we can only be kept on track by the real, Holy Spirit-given motivation and desires of Jesus. And that’s pretty awesome.
“It’s God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)
I recently heard a story about from a friend who met a Muslim girl with a heartbreaking story.
The other day I was coming home from a long day. I was pretty tired and I was in a hurry to get home and make dinner. I walked quickly by a gypsy lady with a tiny baby begging for money and I threw a coin into her little cup. As I hurried past she made eye contact with me and the Lord prompted me, “What about her soul, you asked me to open your eyes to those around you!”
I turned around and walked back to her. I smiled and greeted her and then asked her how long she had been begging for. She was so surprised that someone would talk with her. She told about how she had run away from home as a 15 year old and gotten married. Her husband is now in prison and she is only 19 years old and left with a small baby with complicated health problems to feed and take care of. She was so sweet and warm and sincere. “You have many difficult things in your life, do you have hope for the future?” I asked her after she had shared her story.
She replied “I am trying to put my hope in God because I know that he is the only one who can help me, but I cannot have hope because I know that I am going to Hell. I want to stop sinning but I can’t. Every day I tell myself that I will stop but I can’t. Sometimes I have to sin in order to feed my baby. Someone told me that you can only repent from a sin 3 times and then God won’t forgive you anymore. I can’t repent because I have used up all my chances by now. I know we are all sinners–even those religious people you see on the street–but we just can’t stop. For us poor people it is worse because we are desperate. How can I have hope for myself? The only hope I have is God but there is no way he can forgive me anymore.”
I was able to share with her the amazing news that Jesus loves her personally so much that he chose to sacrifice his own life and died in her place so that her sins could be wiped clean and she could receive complete forgiveness from God.
How many millions are hungry and thirstry for forgiveness yet live, struggle, and die without the chance to hear about it once?
Reaching them is simple. We just need people who know Jesus to go, learn their language, and listen to God’s voice. Who will let go of their life and go?
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:36-38)
When we head outside to share the good news, it can often seem impossible. We walk into some neighborhood, park, or shopping mall, and we can’t imagine how on earth we’re going to find anyone who will want to talk to us, let alone have a good conversation about Jesus.
Our minds quickly rack up a bunch of reasons why it won’t work today, at least not in this place. “There’s no-one out here today.” “I have no connections.” “I don’t have a good reason to be here, and people will be creeped out.” “I’m not feeling very good.” “I’d better just go home.”
But if we’re filled with a compassion and patience that comes from Jesus, we can push through all these natural feelings and persevere to see some supernatural, wonderful things.
It might take a few hours of wandering, praying, and failed attempts at chatting with strangers. Give it time. When you least expect it, one little interaction will lead to another, and you’ll find yourself somehow sitting with some lost person you just met, talking for hours about Jesus, our need for salvation, and the good news.
It’s always so surprising and thrilling to see how God opens these doors. I often go out tired and discouraged, thinking nothing will happen. But then, as surprising opportunities do open up to share the good news I come back invigorated, almost skipping with joy.
When we head out there, we realize that God is actually working with us to move people around and introduce us to the right people at the right time. In an unreached place where there’s only 1 believer for every 100,000, can you imagine how eager our Father is to help us get the word out?
I’ve been doing this for the last 8 years, and I’m constantly encouraged and reminded of this. And yet, after seeing him miraculously provide incredible evangelism opportunities day after day after day, it still often feels impossible when I head out my door. Most days, I still have to stir up my faith to get over all the overwhelming feelings of “nothing will happen today.”
The more we get out there and mix with the lost, the more we do learn about how to talk to people, where to find good conversations, and how the culture works. We do learn and grow and in some ways ‘get better’ and doing evangelism. But ultimately, this is not a work that we can plan or produce. It’s not a technique that we can master. It’s the Lord that connects and provides the platforms or tea tables for us to meet people. It’s the Lord that introduces us to hungry hearts. We just need to make ourselves available to be used, day after day.
Forget numbers, measurables, strategy, and techniques. There’s no pressure to perform. Just make sure you’re meeting with the Lord in prayer, and maintaining an open heart and listening ear. Then you can go out with a joyful expectation of seeing what the Lord can do with time you give to him.
Long-term, Jesus-representing, pioneer missionary work is a lot like taking a long hike. If we look at some snippets from this article on “Long-Distance Hiking 101” we can see just how real the similarities are.
“You don’t need to be an Olympic triathlete to do a long-distance hike. Just about anyone in good health with moderate fitness can hike a few hundred miles. One of the keys to a successful long-distance hike is being open and flexible enough to deal with whatever nature, or your own body, throws at you.”
Long term, pioneer missionaries are often not very ‘exceptional’ people. They’re not super disciplined, super tough, or super talented. But they are flexible. They don’t put their hopes and dreams in the circumstances they face, or in an earthly life they’re trying to set up, and so they keep a flexible attitude as life throws curves and challenges at them. They realize that the end goal is to get the message of Christ to people who haven’t hear yet, (ie. Romans 15:20) and they hold everything else in life with a very open hand.
“You will get hot; you will get cold; you will get tired; you will get wet; you will get dirty; you will get lonely; you will get bitten by bugs; you may get sunburned; you may get rained on; you may get blisters; you may get hurt; you may get scared; you may cry. While that sounds like a lot of detractions, it is nothing to be ashamed of when it happens—and it will happen. Even the most ardent hikers get discouraged or break down from time to time.”
Long term workers do face massive difficulties, setbacks, frustrations, obstacles, and annoyances. They may also face extremely trying emotional times. There’s no way around this. It’s all part of the journey.
“Often, the hardest part of an extended journey is the first week or two. That’s when your legs are fresh (despite how many conditioning hikes you’ve taken), your pack is the heaviest and your end goal is a million miles away. But the only way you’re going to see that far-off wilderness is to put one foot in front of the other and do it.”
The hardest part of long-term missionary work is often the first year or two. That’s when you’re facing culture shock, you haven’t learned how to relate to people in a world so confusing and strange, and it seems like the end goal is million years away, or downright impossible.
But the only way you’re going to get to that ‘sweet spot’ of sharing the gospel with people who have never heard it and making disciples among the unreached, in their language, is by doing the hard work of surviving and learning one day after the next. You can only get there by learning a little bit more langauge, by spending a little more time in prayer or searching the word for encouragment, and by spending another awkward hour in the culture.
“You will quickly find that the panoramic views suddenly make your aches go away, that refreshing drinks from icy streams reenergize you when you’re tired and that freeze-dried stroganoff tastes really good when noshing in a high lake basin with sunset alpenglow lighting up the peaks around you.”
There are all kinds of wonderful surprises along the way, whether it’s seeing someone hear the gospel and believe it, seeing God do miracles, or just enjoying some good food with friends in some crazy restaurant you discovered on the road. But the most refreshing of all is the time you get to spend with Jesus, in prayer, as he encourages, strengthens, and loves you along the way.
“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:11)
There is a lot of talk in missions about sending people to teach flourishing young churches, or about how the church in certain places may be growing but “needs more proper theological training” or “more professional teachers.” Roland Allen–the great missiologist whose advice is often quoted but seldom heeded–warned us of the danger in this line of thinking.
“When converts are taught from the very beginning that they receive to hand on, and when they practice this with the inevitable consequence that there is a great advance made, and when this is reported at home, it often results in our being stirred to send them men and money to establish institutions for their intellectual advancement and to supply them with ‘better trained’ teachers. Now this action, which is designed to encourage them and to help them, seems often to hinder them. They learn to receive, they learn to rely on paid and trained men. The more teachers they have, the less they feel the need for exerting themselves to teach others. That is perhaps quite natural, but it is disastrous.
This is what we should naturally expect. Nothing is so weakening as the habit of depending upon others for those things which we ought to supply for ourselves. Nothing more undermines the spirit which should express itself in spontaneous activity. How can a man propagate a religion which he cannot support, and which he cannot expect those whom he addresses to be able to support?
Now here it will be at once observed that the little group had organized itself and could maintain itself. Its members met for mutual comfort and support; they combined to provide themselves with such things as were necessary: they were directing all their own organized religious life, until the day that they invited the visit of that foreign trained pastor. Here was self-government from the very beginning. If only that self-government had not been destroyed by the foreign missionary … there is no reason in the nature of the case why they should not have continued as they had begun.
We ought never to send a mission agent to do what men on the spot are already doing spontaneously. If they cry to us for help, as they often do, we should give them help, but help which would support their position and assist their zeal, not supersede them and kill their zeal; help that should strengthen them as leaders, not make them subordinates. To supersede them is disastrous.
They see and learn the lesson that the spontaneous zeal of native Christians is deficient in some way. It obviously does not satisfy the white man and his paid native pastors: they do not trust it: they do not encourage it. It is better to get a paid teacher however young and poorly equipped than to have the most zealous unpaid volunteer, for the moment that the white man finds out what is going on he will certainly insist on sending one of his paid teachers.”
My friend walked into the cafe right when another student was getting all flustered because a bunch of short-term trips that he was trying to sign up for all fell through. While they were figuring out what he could do next, he dropped this bomb…
“Well, actually I want to be a long-term missionary, but I can’t because I’m not a doctor and I don’t know how to sing.”
What?! My friend responded in shock and disbelief.
The guy explained how growing up he always saw missionary teams visting from Guatemala come through his church. They would talk about their medical work, and sing during their presentations. For him, this was the picture of missionary work, and he couldn’t do it.
“All I know how to do is to disciple young guys, and I just love sharing the Gospel with people.” He continued, wallowing in his feelings of uselessness. “I’m so underqualified.”
My friend started excitedly telling him how he shouldn’t feel underqualified at all! Sharing the gospel with people and discipling newer believers was exactly what the job was all about. He was totally qualified, and perfect for the job. After this conversation, he ended up moving overseas and becoming a great long-term missionary.
It’s so sad how people disqualify themselves from this apostolic gospel-carrying work that we call ‘missions’ because they have some strange idea of what it is. They might think they need to be medical professionals or business experts, teachers, “church planters,” theology professors or translators. And they often don’t feel capable of any of these intimidating human roles.
Often people see missionary presentations that are focused on the things that we do: the centers we build, the classes we teach, the businesses we run, the projects we started, etc. And people can be led to think that all these human activities are the focal point of the work. But really, the work is about laying down our lives and pointing people to Christ. It’s about walking by faith into new places, and watching God open doors to see his Son revealed.