by Roger Chapman
I was a church planter in Russia for four and a half years. I hold a graduate degree in missions, and I have intently studied the culture that I have been immersed in. Only one problem–I never really learned the language. Everywhere I went to minister, I took my interpreter.
I was a church planter in Russia for four and a half years. I hold a graduate degree in missions, and I have intently studied the culture that I have been immersed in. Only one problem—I never really learned the language. Everywhere I went to minister, I took my interpreter.
For most missiologists, not knowing the language is an unpardonable sin. I certainly agree that it is a terrible shortcoming, but I think the emphasis on language acquisition frequently fosters two misconceptions: (1) that knowing the language automatically makes you a good missionary; and (2) that not knowing the language automatically makes you a mediocre missionary.
I was amused by two missiologists who went to Russia to conduct an assessment of the mission work. In their subsequent book they noted how interpreters are often a barrier rather than a bridge to communication. Ironically, they used interpreters during their investigation. It seems to me that if they could rely on interpreters for making a critique, others could rely on interpreters for sharing the gospel.
Some believe that the early church leaders always taught in the indigenous language. But when Paul and Barnabas went to Lystra, they taught in Greek, the lingua franca, not the Lycaonian dialect (Acts 14:8-18). The text indicates that Paul and Barnabas were not fully aware of what was going on because the people were speaking in Lycaonian. While the people of Lystra — probably most of them — also knew Greek, it certainly was not their “heart language.”
Interpreters are often called ineffective because they do not know theological terms. While that may be true initially, a person who is already fluent in the two languages will certainly learn those theological terms more quickly than someone who is learning a language from scratch. I have also heard that it takes five years of study and use before someone is truly fluent with a language. This is considerably longer than any of Paul’s visits during his missionary journeys.
Of course, we can be more effective by knowing the language. Clearly, using interpreters is less than ideal, much less than ideal. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out some positive aspects, based on my experiences.
1. It enabled me to teach at an advanced level. How’s that? Simply because I found an interpreter advanced in both languages. My Russian is good enough for me to say, “God loves you.” But the people want more than that kind of lesson.
A missionary in St. Petersburg gave his first sermon in Russian after six months of intensive language study. He was proud of his achievement, but unaware of what was being said behind his back: “Boring!” There was an American in Volgograd who had learned Russian while in the military, but nonetheless people were begging him to speak in English so that his words might be interpreted and put in proper form.
Of course, some will argue, rightly, that learning the language is a matter of investing for the long-term, that the initial foibles will be smoothed out. But how many who are taking this ideal approach are actually going to do long-term service? (Some head off to graduate school after learning enough of the language to meet an academic prerequisite.)
Russia is the land of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. If you can preach at their level, then you will do fine. But if you can’t even read those authors in the original Russian, then your teaching in that language is going to be mediocre.
2. I was forced to be less paternalistic. Our freshly planted church right away demanded that Russians be leaders, simply because of my language ineptitude. Russians lead the singing, say the prayers, make the announcements, and always give the devotional remarks when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Also, they began preaching within the first six months. On the other hand, I know another congregation several years older where these things are frequently done by Americans, especially those who are picking up on the language.
3. It made me more humble. The missionary often finds himself the expert: on theology,on how to do “the thing called church,” on seeking spiritual answers to life’s problems. It can be easy to lose perspective of who you are in the eternal scope of things.
In contrast, my reliance on a translator put me in a position of weakness. I was not the wizard behind the curtain of mystery, but a person humbly dependent on someone else for something very basic. People saw that I am not the answer. The serendipity is that I decrease while making it more possible for Christ to increase in their lives.
There is typically a celebratory spirit when a missionary gives his first lesson in the indigenous language. But this distracts from what ought to be the true focus. The gospel, after all, is not a linguistic performance.
Missiologists sometimes say that people will know you love them if you learn their language. This may or may not be true (Stalin, a Georgian, knew Russian and killed more Russians than Hitler did). But people will also appreciate anyone willing to live a while in their country for the sake of promoting good.
4. It was the price I paid for immediately teaching the gospel during a window of opportunity. Circumstances did not permit us time to master the language. And we never looked on ourselves as “career missionaries.” The realities of our sponsoring church were such that they wanted to hear reports about something happening other than our grammar breakthroughs.
A lot of good has happened—more than would have happened if every missionary to Russia had first stopped to learn the language. Russian is more difficult to master than say, Spanish, and in America it is not so frequently taught as other languages are. In 1991 the sending churches did not have a great pool of potential missionaries who already knew Russian. All things considered, it was appropriate and good that ministry began in whatever way it could.
Already we note a declining receptivity in Russia. And this is happening right about the time when someone who would have begun earnest language study back in 1991 might now be ready to teach at the level of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
5. It provided a special setting to attract people who would not have come otherwise. Some people came to my gospel lessons because they were pleased to hear a native speaker of the English language. An instant translation allowed them to test their comprehension. In the process, they heard each lesson twice! Over the years many became Christians, after being convicted of their need to reconcile with God.
I also know that some people felt less timid about attending a Bible class because it was being taught in English. Outwardly they could claim that their interest was in the language, but secretly they were very curious about the Bible. Later, after becoming convinced believers, they would shed their timidity and even attend lessons taught by Russians.
Yes, using an interpreter is a less than ideal way to do cross-cultural ministry. But let us not overlook the good that can be done. As we stress the ideal approaches, we should not throw cold water on other people’s willingness to obey the Great Commission. If we put professional conditions on cross-cultural ministry, then we will in essence be stifling the church’s true potential. The history of Christianity is replete with less than ideal situations.
If even one person goes to heaven because he or she heard the gospel through an interpreter, then we should rejoice. But if that is too difficult, then we should just keep silent. The truth is, whenever the gospel is proclaimed, it is being interpreted.
Roger Chapman was a Church of Christ missionary in Russia, working in the cities of Volgorad and St. Petersburg, from 1992 to 1997. He has an M.A. in missions/intercultural studies from Wheaton College.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 54-57. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.