Yes, you can be a missionary to some group where at least some people speak your language. Many from unreached people groups are moving to other areas or countries where they learn to speak English. Frequently, when resistant people move elsewhere, they become open to the gospel. In addition, many working with international business companies speak English, so you have vast opportunities with educated middle- and upper-class people. Finally, worldwide over 400 million people speak English.
Also consider the global market for you as an English teacher. If you’re a native English speaker, you could go just about anywhere in the world to teach or tutor English. Language doesn’t need to be a barrier. Visit ESL-jobs.com, a website that mobilizes Christians to take jobs teaching English as a second language in Asia. These are ministry positions, but they also offer some income.
Finally, examine your heart concerning the language issue. Are you unwilling to try to learn at least some of a foreign language? You should do some language learning to show the love of Christ wherever you go.
Answer compiled from submissions from Moises, Ken, Jim, and Nate.
“Speaking the language is critical to making disciples.”
Throughout our organization, we stress the need to learn the language and understand the culture of the people among whom we live. Our experiences have convinced us that these things become critically important to the effectiveness of “making disciples.” People have to hear and understand the gospel both in word and in deed.
If you’re unwilling to learn another language, then I would definitely advise you to work only among those who speak a language common to you both.
In any case, I encourage you to ask the Lord to bring you freedom to fulfill his purposes. Honestly express your fears to God. If learning another language would best fulfill his purposes for you, then start praying for a transformation in your heart and mind and for the grace and courage to take up the challenge.
Answer from Lisa, who has served fifteen years in Austria, Romania, Canada with International Teams.
“Language learning may be easier than you think.”
To learn another language, our agency has new missionaries go to Southeast Asia to live with a local family. After four months of language study, some start leading simple Bible studies. Most don’t study the language longer than twelve months. I acknowledge that some languages are harder to learn than others. But it’s well worth being able to communicate on the heart level in the local language. Whether or not you achieve fluency, every effort toward learning the language will put you ahead in relating to people.
Answer from Jim, who served twenty-five years in Asia with The Navigators.
“Ministry in English can be very effective, especially for those only staying a few years and/or working with University students.”
Learning the language of the host nation is essential or very advisable if you are going to spend a lifetime there. But all too often I have seen people come into the field, spend all their time learning the language, and then leave without having attempted or achieved very much.
For those who are not certain they will spend their whole lives in a country, ministry in English (among university students for example) has been shown to be extremely effective. Actually ministry done in the native language can be less effective in some cases, because it less of a draw to the average student who may not initially be interested in Christianity but is very interested in improving their English. Many students would never attend a Bible study in their own language but will come to one in English.
Answer from Peter, who has served for many years in the Middle East and Asia.
“You can, but you will be limited in your witness.”
I’m a tentmaker missionary in Taiwan and have been struggling for the last three years to learn traditional Chinese. While opportunities to share in English are plentiful, not everyone understands difficult concepts such as “sin,” “salvation,” or even “grace” right off the bat. I have taught ESL for most of these three years and the opportunities to share the gospel from this has been minimal at best.
While every missionary opportunity might not be so radical as trying to learn a pictographic language from an alphabetic frame of mind, I must say up front that learning the language does indeed offer a great deal more opportunities for outreach. If you’re serious about reaching the lost, then they must be able to comprehend you and your message. A simple “Jesus loves you” may be profound in America but it’s lost in translation in Taiwan where Jesus is merely one god among many.
God will help you along the way. You have to trust that. My wife (a Taiwanese pastor’s daughter) is a teacher at a local elementary school. After I failed out of my first semester at language college I made the joke to her that since I failed out of college, maybe I should go back to the first grade and start over. She took me seriously and enrolled me in the first grade the next day. It has led to the two greatest years of my life as I have struggled to learn Chinese along with forty eight-year-olds who think it funny that they have a 40+ year-old fellow student. God opened the door, I merely walked through. He can do the same for you.
In short, if you don’t want to take the time to learn the language, your effectiveness as a minister of the gospel is sorely limited. You might do good deeds but you’ll never be able to preach the honest and full gospel as it was intended: “Jesus came into this world to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Answer from Wayne, who has served as a tentmaker missionary in Taiwan for three years.
“Willingness to learn and be changed is vital.”
While it’s certainly possible to be a missionary without learning another language, I think a willingness to learn to communicate with people and meet them where they are is vital to any missional witness. If someone asked me this question I’d have reservations not so much about a person’s ability to communicate (as has been pointed out there will always be opportunities to witness to those who speak your own language) but rather in terms of whether the person is truly willing to learn, and be changed, in order to bridge the gap to the people they want to serve.
Answer from Mark, who has served with Wycliffe Bible Translators UK in Tanzania and the UK for seven years.
“Learning their language shows genuine love.”
People appreciate the fact that you’ve gone through the trouble to learn their heart language, and they will be much more open. It helps them to feel that you do not set yourself apart from or above them. It also opens many doors for witness as they hear an accent and want to know why you came to live in their country.
If they have learned English as a second (or third, or fourth language), you may be able to communicate to the ears and mind in English. If, however, you want to communicate to the heart, that is much better accomplished in their own language.
As a practical example, I married a “national.” Many of our conversations involve both languages, because we communicate best in our heart languages. Even though he learned English from me and is quite fluent, if he really wants to communicate with me, he switches to his own language. I do the same thing.
To reach the other’s heart, we each use the other’s heart language. I believe it’s the same way in a witnessing situation. If you want to reach the heart, that is best done in the heart language, even if your accent is obvious and your grammar is imperfect … and even if you feel that you haven’t made it as clear as you could in English. The Holy Spirit can take your feeble attempts and clarify them to the listener.
Answer from Shanna, who has served with Beacon Missions International in Moldova for eleven years.