Things Home Mission Can Learn: Speak

When we first went to live with the Kouya, we spent the best part of two years concentrating on learning to speak the language. On an intellectual level, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Emotionally, it wasn’t a bundle of laughs either, forcing yourself to go out and talk to people, knowing that you are unlikely to understand or be understand and that it is almost certain that people will laugh at you, is hard going. However, if we were going to be involved in helping to translate the New Testament into Kouya, we had to have a good knowledge of the language.

People involved in mission in England also need to speak the language of the people around them.

Before I get into what I mean by this, let me say a few things that this isn’t.

  • I don’t mean that church leaders should try and be cool and speak like teenagers. There is nothing quite so embarrassing – don’t do it.
  • I am not suggesting that a minister who was brought up in Devon and now works in Newcastle should try to speak in a Geordie accent. You aren’t going to fool anyone doing that!
  • Nor do I mean that we should drop long Christian words such as justification and sanctification. People fully understand that all areas of life have technical vocabulary. You should, however, explain words like these when you use them.

Basically, all I’m suggesting is that people doing mission in England need to speak straightforward English.

Let me go back to our Kouya experience to illustrate what I mean and why I say it.

Rather embarrassingly, we became something of a tourist attraction in the village of Gouabafla. Family and friends visiting the village would come to our house to see if it was true that a white family were there and trying to learn the language. We didn’t particularly enjoy being stared at, but it did give more opportunities for language practice. However, one day after a couple of years in the village, when someone expressed astonishment at the toubabous (white people) speaking Kouya, on of our neighbours spoke up and said, “they aren’t toubabous, they are Kouya”.

Language and identity are intimately bound together and by learning to speak the Kouya language, we had to some extent become Kouyas. I always tell language learning students that their job is not so much to learn to speak a language, but to become a member of the community of people who speak that language. Language doesn’t just communicate, it also says something about who you are.

This is why I believe that native-English speakers who are working on mission in the UK need to think about language learning. It’s not so much that they won’t be understood, but by the use of “Christianese” they can mark themselves out as being strange. When we use the strange jargon that is part of church life, we give a message about Christians being a bit weird and different to everyone else. The messages are subtle, but human beings are finely attuned to picking up this sort of thing and reacting to it.

To a newcomer, a phrase such as “we will now enter into a time of worship” conveys far more background information about the person using it than it does about what is going to happen next in the service. Similarly, the mystical passive that is part of church life (“may God’s presence be known” rather than “may you know that God is here with us”) serves as as “in-group” language, and helps to exclude the visitor.

There is no real value or importance in these types of language use, it’s just the sort of thing that all groups drift into over time. However, if our desire is to draw people into our group so that they can understand the message, we need make sure that we speak in a way that doesn’t mark us out as weird. There are enough obstacles to people becoming believers, without us adding a barrier of Christianese for people to overcome.

Posts In This Series

  • Introduction: I believe that the skills and experience of cross-cultural missionaries are crucial to the future of the church in the UK: the start of a blog series….
  • Go: When push comes to shove, there is one basic difference between long-term, cross-cultural missionaries and the average church member. …
  • Study: How well do we understand the culture that surrounds us?…
  • Contextualise: When Paul spoke to a Jewish audience, he started off with the story of the Jewish nation, when speaking to Greeks, he worked from inscriptions on statues and Greek poetry. …
  • Serve: If you just preach the word but don’t do the deeds then you are not credible, if you just do the deeds without preaching the word then you are not audible….
  • Don’t Look Down: Looking down on a class of people, and holding them in contempt for their reading habits, has far more to do with liberal, middle-class prejudice than it has to do with Christianity.  …
  • Speak: To a newcomer, a phrase such as “we will now enter into a time of worship” conveys far more background information about the person using it than it does about what is going to happen next in the service. …
  • Religion: Learn from people who have been there and done that….
  • Stories: Taking one of Jesus’ amazingly creative parables and turning it into an alliterated, three-point, logical sermon has to be the ultimate in literate processing. …
  • Pray: It would be easy – very easy – for a Western rationalist to dismiss all of this. I’m a biologist, I know what causes diseases! …

One thought on “Things Home Mission Can Learn: Speak

  1. Absolutely, totally on the spot. One of the advantages of having to communicate in a language you haven’t completely mastered yet is that you have to make sure you’re saying what you want to say… which native speakers tend to take for granted.
    As a preacher constantly using my second language (English), I always try to make sure I vary my phraseology and avoid Christian jargon (as opposed to technical theological terms which I try and explain).
    Being a missionary in Albania, using my fourth language to explain those theological terms in ordinary language, was even more fun!

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