Do you have to learn the language perfectly before you start ministry?
I recently met a really great guy that came with a bunch of friends to spend about three months in Turkey. Him and his friends were spending a lot of time praying, taking a little bit of Turkish lessons each week, and also trying to get out and reach out to people there. Of course, language was often an issue, but him and his friends were trying.
One night, my friend had a vision of girl working in a pizza shop that he recognized in the city, and he could see that her shoulder was hurting. He woke up in the morning and decided lean into Christ’s courage inside of him, go there, and go for it. As he was going in, he had to look up the word for shoulder. “Do - you - have - pain - in - your - shoulder?” he managed to ask. “Yes” she said. Somehow he had a phrase in his dictionary that said, “I had a vision,” so he could use that then. Then, all he could say is, “I - want - to - pray. Better.” She understood and came out from behind the counter and stood there. He gently put his hand on her shoulder and started praying, and tears started flowing from her eyes. “Yes. Better!” she said.
This all happened with very limited language. Christ wasn’t waiting for him to become super eloquent or fluent. He just showed him the girl that was hurting and gave him the courage to go in there and heal her. We live with Christ inside of us, and his life is our ministry. And we learn language as we live, with him inside of us, doing stuff in ordinary life. I had to learn how to say “to go” when getting some food. Someone has to learn how to figure out directions when they’re lost and asking people for the way to the bus stop. I had to learn how to say “washed clean” when I was trying to explain what Jesus did to my sins. My friend had to learn the word for “shoulder” when he was going to heal someone. It’s all learned through ordinary, daily life.
The Good News is also quite easy to share with very limited language, as you start figuring out how to put sentences together. “Jesus died.” That’s not hard to learn in any language. Then as you get better you can get more complicated and precise. “Jesus died for you.” “Jesus died for your sins.” “Jesus died for your sins and then he rose again from the dead.”
Our goal, our ministry, is to explain the Gospel to people and call them to be reconciled with God. To do that, of course, we have to come in contact with people and talk to them. As we learn bits of language, we talk to people and practice what we’re learning. As we talk to people, we learn more. As we learn more, we discover bridges and opportunities to explain the gospel. We take these opportunities to explain the gospel. We brag about Jesus. And then we learn more language, and then we understand more about the heart of the people, and then we talk about Jesus more. And it just goes on and on like that. It’s learning to operate and get comfortable in a new language and culture, all the while making Jesus known. Language learning is something that happens at the same time as ministry. It is ministry.
I had a roommate who was learning the language, and found someone who he could practice with at a sort of coffee shop in downtown. He would often visit him, talk about all sorts of different things, and try to learn and get comfortable in this difficult new language. I ended up visiting this guy he was practicing with, and as we were shooting the breeze when he said… “you know, your roommate is totally different than other Americans. You know what he believes?? If I understood right from his Turkish, he said that Jesus died for him. And Jesus took his sin away, so he doesn’t have sin anymore. That’s amazing! He’s different!” In my roommates life, language learning and diffusing the knowledge of Jesus was happening at the same time, in one breath.
Language learning is more than just learning a bunch of words and how to form certain sentences. It’s learning (consciously and most of the time unconsciously) a whole new way of sitting, moving your face, making small talk, showing respect, and expressing emotions. And all this happens through hours and hours of natural interactions with real people. And in all these interactions with people, you can start pointing to Jesus, and saying what you know and love about him. You can do this with simple, faltering language and you can do it with rich, flawless speech. Children learn to joyfully brag about their parents at about the same time they start forming words, and long before they become fully articulate.
If your ministry is being a messenger and a carrier of Christ, it can start start at the beginning of the language learning process. At first you have very poor, limited and faltering language, and then you work to improve it and take away the handicaps bit by bit. But ministry–living for him with his life and power inside of you–starts from day one. When you are weak, he is strong. My friend could barely string together a couple of sentences to say something to that girl in the pizza place, but God could heal her shoulder.
Yes, work to learn the language with all your heart, mind, and strength. You want to be free to fully understand their world and speak clearly as you make disciples. You want to be able to rattle out his truth clearly, naturally, and without hindrance as it bubbles up from your heart. But your ministry starts the moment you hit the ground, because the ministry of reconciliation is inside of you, it’s Christ inside of you. (The ministry, the walk of faith, starts even when you’re just listening, and believing that these people speaking this weird language you’re trying to figure out can look to Christ and be re-born.)
Even when you can’t speak or understand a word, you can love God and love the people.
Listen, pray, love, and have faith. And then you’ll start understanding, and then you’ll start speaking. Just like a child. But don’t wait until your language is perfect before you start to brag about your dad.