Is English a Blessing or a Curse in Missions?
by Paul Switz and Michael Lessard-Clouston
Christians are charged with taking the gospel to all nations, and therefore inevitably work in cross-cultural situations. But the current prominence of English as an international language creates potential problems in our approaches to missions and to communicating the gospel.
Christians are charged with taking the gospel to all nations, and therefore inevitably work in cross-cultural situations. But the current prominence of English as an international language creates potential problems in our approaches to missions and to communicating the gospel. Most importantly, neglecting to speak people’s local heart language may prevent us from connecting deeply with them. We believe English can be a blessing in sharing the gospel, but that there is also great potential for it to cause harm. So should native English-speaking Christians use English as our primary means of communication in missions? In this article, we consider relevant issues and suggest several principles to help formulate a useful perspective in moving forward.
As Christ-followers, we’ve all received the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), challenging us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them all Jesus commanded. In Greek, the term “all nations” is foundational and refers to people groups united by a common language and culture. So in responding to this commission we will find ourselves reaching out to people who speak a mother tongue different from our own.
Yet how are we to connect with such people if we can’t understand and communicate using their native language? According to Zoltán Dörnyei, the answer often lies in the fact that “Global English is becoming the lingua franca of Christianity in the twenty-first century” (2009, 156). Linguist David Crystal estimates that approximately two billion people, nearly one-third of the world’s population, have some level of English language proficiency. In addition to being learned at a rudimentary level in many educational systems, English is used in over sixty countries as an official or semi-official language (Crystal 2010, 370). In the last several decades, English has established itself as the world’s predominant lingua franca, or common language.
It seems that with so much of the world’s population being able to communicate with each other in English, we are at a unique point in history. Just as Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the first century AD, was vital to the spread of early Christianity, so too is English the main vehicle for doing so today (Dörnyei 2009).
To mention just a few blessings, people from different languages now serve together around the world on short and long-term missionary teams, and English is often a main language of communication. As Cheri Pierson (2003) discusses, many missionaries and others training for church work can access wonderful aids and theological resources available only in English.
Cecil Stalnaker (2005) similarly describes training church and other leaders for whom English is not a native language, and offers suggestions for doing so in English. Finally, Lonna Dickerson (2006) outlines ways to help members of multi-national teams learn English to better equip them for their service. And we must not neglect the wonderful potential for fellowship and support in English available to missionaries around the world, through prayer, worship, and social media.
All this is possible because English is a lingua franca of Christians in the twenty-first century. By using this global language as our primary means of communication, Christians can carry the good news of the gospel even further as we continue to reach all nations. However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, we believe it is not that simple.
English has been remarkably influential in making communication possible between people who previously had no practical means of doing so, but this is not without challenges. One of the main criticisms against the globalization of English is the championing of Western ideals that can harm native cultures. Qiang Niu and Martin Wolff, for example, state that English as a foreign language (EFL) “is a modern day Trojan horse filled with EFL teachers/soldiers or missionaries, armed with English words rather than bullets, intent upon re-colonizing the world to remake it in the image of Western democracy” (2005, 59).
Although writing specifically about teaching English in China, this is representative of negative views toward English’s recent spread across the globe. Unfortunately, westerners have often failed to separate our own cultural values from the heart of the gospel. This is unacceptable, and just one issue that needs to be addressed.
Another pressing, and often overlooked, issue is that using English as the primary means of communication in missionary outreach can be impersonal. Doing so fails to recognize that language is foundational to a person’s identity and self-worth. As William Smalley points out:
English is everywhere a language of international relationships and of advanced learning… But it tends to be impersonal when it is not the mother-tongue, not usually the language of close friendship. (1994, 484)
The language we speak influences who we are and helps define us. By not communicating with others in their mother tongue, or heart language, we fail to show people that they are worth getting to know on a deeper level. As a result, we are kept from connecting with them in ways that establish a foundation of true friendship. It is crucial to address this problem if we ever hope to share with others the gospel that has transformed our own lives.
English has unquestionably shown itself to be an invaluable means of communication for connecting speakers of other languages, so it would be silly to suggest that the gospel cannot be shared by using English as a lingua franca (ELF). But it’s also important to note that there are several challenges inherent in doing so that demand our attention. How, then, can we reconcile our calling to share the gospel with all nations with the global spread of English and the issues it presents? The answer may not be clear cut, but there are several foundational principles that help in formulating a useful perspective for moving forward. They demand our attention, and require changing the way we think as mostly monolingual westerners, leading as Christ led through servantship, and engaging in mutually-edifying dialogue with those who may have other views.
A Cultural Conversion
To begin, why are so many North American missionaries not concerned about learning the languages of others? The answer seems to be two-fold. First, we’re native speakers of the world’s current lingua franca. So learning another language isn’t on our minds; we can already communicate what we want with much of the world. Second, we’re predominantly monolingual, since English is the only language many of us know. The idea of speaking multiple languages is often foreign to us. We think we wouldn’t be able to learn another language, or we don’t need to.
What is crucial to note is that even though we may be able to communicate adequately with others using ELF, we are actually saying much more by only using English. As Smalley (1994, 487) states, “Instead of servanthood, we signal authority. Instead of identification, we signal alienation. Instead of solidarity, we signal condescension. Instead of warmth, we signal coolness and distance. Instead of incarnation, we signal alien incursion.” He thus concludes that we need a “cultural conversion” if we truly want to connect with others about the gospel.
Yet before significant change can occur, changes in our thinking are required. We need to be reminded of Romans 12:2, not to conform to worldly thinking, but to let God transform us and help us determine “his good, pleasing and perfect will.” If what we believe determines how we act, then a change in action depends upon a change in thinking. What then needs to change? We’d like to propose three things.
1. We must realize the importance that language has in defining one’s self-image and self-worth (Joseph 2004). In order to truly connect with people, we need to meet them on a personal level of knowledge, which includes understanding their language and culture. As Smalley astutely declares, “To speak a local language instead is to say, ‘I want to talk to you where you live, the way you are, where your feelings are. I want to be allowed into your life’” (1994, 484). If we commit ourselves to learning the language and culture of our hosts, we show them they are worth the time and effort to do so, and that we truly want to get to know them.
2. We must acknowledge that English is not the native, and therefore heart, language of the majority of the world. Language is for communicating with others and expressing thoughts and emotions, so for most people who have to do this in a foreign language, it can be likened to performing a task without the normal tools. In ministry, if we want others to be able to express themselves accurately, we cannot always expect them to do so in English. We can guard against this by devoting ourselves to seeing others as whole persons and by learning their heart language in order to show people God loves them on a deeply personal level. As Rick Brown says, “Use of a people’s heart language affirms their personal worth and opens hearts and minds to hear the message” (2009, 85).
3. We need to realize that Christianity is not limited to being a religion of English or even the Western world. The good news of the gospel is relevant to people of all nations. It’s important to be reminded of this in order to avoid bringing our own cultural presuppositions and customs into the world of others. We want others to see that God is fully relatable, and that he can be worshipped in their own language and in the context of their own culture, as Eleanora Scott (2013) so beautifully outlines. All nations may receive life in Christ and bring glory to God.
God is much bigger than Western Christianity, from our acoustic guitars to the sharing of wafers and wine. He can and wants to be worshipped in the cultural contexts and heart languages of all peoples. A beautiful picture of this is found in Revelation 7:9, with the “great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” God wants to bring people of all nations, ethnic groups, languages, and cultures into relationship with him, and we have the privilege of joining with him in this process.
It’s encouraging to remember that this cultural conversion comes about through the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t rely on our own skills and strength. And as Jesus declares in Matthew 28:20, he is always with us in fulfilling the Great Commission. Yet this doesn’t mean that God will change our thinking overnight or magically grant us the ability to speak another language. Instead, we need to rely on his power and be good students of language and culture, using effective means that the Lord provides (Dickerson 2004). May we realize the need for cultural conversion, so that by learning the heart language of others our actions might change as well.
Having examined how to communicate with others cross-culturally, we now turn to how to live alongside them. The model for us is how Christ lived during his time on earth.
Jesus is the perfect example of servant leadership, living by putting the needs of others before his own (e.g., John 19:25-27). If we find our identity in Christ, we must also model a life that leads by acts of service. Our focus in living life with others, then, is not just the proclamation of the gospel, but also the demonstration of it. But what does this look like in learning to communicate in another’s heart language?
1. We must remember that the source of our value as human beings is rooted in having been created in the image of God, the author of all creation (John 1:3). The implications of this are significant. Kathleen Winslow notes, “We should be especially conscious of respecting our fellow image-bearers. Our faith should lead to faithful witness, not to manipulation of them as objects to be dragged into the Kingdom of God” (2012, 10). By respecting others as fellow image-bearers we will see beauty in God’s creation of them, including the language with which they define and express themselves. So we commit to learning heart languages out of respect for, and as a way of serving, them, and we avoid manipulating others as we value them and the diversity they bring.
2. We must remember that in addition to learning the language of others, we must also learn their culture. The two are not mutually exclusive. Language is defined in the context of culture, and culture is most often communicated through language. Culture learning is also a form of servanthood, to meet the needs of others by validating the way they see the world and live their lives. As long as cultural practices don’t contradict a proper understanding of God and what it means to be in relationship with him, we can value the lifestyles and traditions of those we serve. This means we engage with them in their everyday lives, by serving alongside them and learning from the wisdom they have to share. By doing so, we may not only learn their language more quickly and thoroughly, but we will also honor them as reflections of the One who created us all.
3. We must remember to be vulnerable with them. This is fundamental to servant leadership, as it shows people that we are not above them due to prestige or privilege. In fact, there is much we can learn from them. Being vulnerable means admitting when we are wrong and that we do not have all the answers. We are blessed in knowing the God who brings salvation (Ps. 68:20), but we are no less human than anyone else. Showing others our humanity allows them to relate to us.
As Smalley states, “People who regularly laugh with us in our vulnerability more easily identify with us, and with the Christ we represent, than do ones who laugh at us as elevated preachers and teachers” (1994, 486, emphasis added). In learning a new language, there are surely moments of confusion and correction that lead to laughter. Our choice is in how we respond. So let us join with them in laughter and develop a deeper sense of friendship and mutual understanding. In short, we need to respect others and embrace vulnerability so that we might move closer towards those we are there to serve.
4. In serving cross-culturally, we must remember that we will encounter individuals who have views different from our own. They may be the people who we have committed to serve by learning their language and culture, or they may be academics and others who we engage with through the exchange of information. In servant leadership, we engage in dialogue with others, hopefully mostly in their heart language, realizing that by doing so we come to a better understanding of what we both believe.
Yet, as servants, we also need to be open to correction. Suresh Canagarajah states, “It is possible to be open-minded for correction, but also share one’s well-researched and reflected opinion on matters” (2009, 85). Failing to recognize this can hinder us from seeing areas that require change in ourselves. When we are unwilling to accept correction or unaware of needing to do so, we miss opportunities to build friendships and establish trust. Committed to foundational Christian truths as servant leaders, we are first and foremost representatives of Jesus Christ. Therefore, as we serve, we must remain open to correction from those whom we hope to build up.
We have considered several issues related to the recent spread of the English language. In communicating the gospel to others in missions we must make it our priority to learn their heart languages. We should also devote ourselves to servant leadership through learning their culture, and be humbly open to correction as we build relationships in cross-cultural ministry.
Through how we think and act, we can show that Jesus and Christianity are not just relevant to native English-speaking westerners. God is real and relevant to all people. Let’s live out the gospel as we work to reach all nations, communicating with them in their heart languages. By doing so, may they see that God wants to be known and worshipped in their languages and cultures as well.
Brown, Rick. 2009. “Like Bright Sunlight: The Benefit of Communicating in Heart Language.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26(2):85-88.
Canagarajah, A. Suresh. 2009. “Can We Talk? Finding a Platform for Dialogue Among Values-based Professionals in Post-positivist Education.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 75-86. London: Routledge.
Crystal, David. 2010. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dickerson, Lonna. 2004. “Steps to More Effective Missionary Language and Culture Learning.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(1):78-81.
_____. 2006. “Teaching English—to Missionaries!” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 42(2):192-198.
Dörnyei, Zoltán. 2009. “The English Language and the Word of God.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 154-157. London: Routledge.
Joseph, John E. 2004. Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Niu, Qiang and Martin Wolff. 2005. “Is EFL a Modern Trojan Horse?” English Today 21(4):55-60.
Pierson, Cheri. 2003. “Designing an ‘English for Bible and Theology’ Course.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 39(2):232-236.
Scott, Eleanora. 2013. “Heart Language, Heart Worship.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 49(1):36-41.
Smalley, William A. 1994. “Missionary Language Learning in a World Hierarchy of Languages.” Missiology: An International Review 22(4):481-488.
Stalnaker, Cecil. 2005. “Dos and Don’ts in Speaking to ESL Audiences.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41(3):327-376.
Winslow, Kathleen. 2012. “Worldviews Made Visible: Principles for Christians in TESOL.” CELEA News 4(1):7-11.
Michael Lessard-Clouston (PhD, Toronto) teaches applied linguistics and TESOL in the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, where he directs the MA program in applied linguistics. He served thirteen years in China and Japan.
Paul Switz is a graduate student in the Applied Linguistics program at Biola University. He and his wife, Shannon, are spending two months on an internship to East Asia this summer as they consider the possibility of serving overseas.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 4 pp. 394-401. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. Reflecting on the authors’ views, how have you seen or used English in missions in positive and/or damaging ways? In the future, how might you ensure such use is helpful, rather than harmful?
2. Which of the seven principles outlined in the article is currently most relevant to you and your cross-cultural ministry? What steps might you take to put it in practice where you work?
3. What are additional areas for cultural conversion and servant leadership in cross-cultural situations? How might you address them and help others to become more aware of their importance?