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A Test for All We Are Worth

This is only my second week to serve with the Ethnos360 Home Office Communications Team, and already I can see — just a glimpse — the enormity of the language training required for missionaries to be witnesses for Christ “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Although I am not a missionary nor have I attended any missionary language school, I have had extensive language training in my distant past. It is in that context that I share these few words about my experiences to provide a fresh perspective into missionary language training. My early background was in military intelligence, and the language I studied was Russian — worlds apart in purpose and learning technique from the missionary; in fact, the only common thread I can see is using a language every day in an official capacity in distant lands. Certainly, they are both on an entirely different level than taking an elective course in high school or college or learning snippets of a language before embarking on a summer vacation. And that pretty much rounds out the list of similarities.

I won’t go into the purposes the military had for our particular job description, but I can say that we were in the middle of the Cold War and that we weren’t exactly taught to order lunch in a Russian restaurant. And that was kind of the problem in my case. Although Russian is a very difficult language to learn for English speakers, I did quite well in the areas of reading and writing, but my aural comprehension skills were lacking. That subsequently had a detrimental effect on what I was trained to do. The point I want to make is that total immersion among the people who speak the target language, which I did not have, is crucial for any level of fluency. The missionary in the field must be able to communicate clearly in the people group’s native tongue. Also, if the missionary doesn’t understand the people’s customs and heritage, communication is inhibited; if communication is inhibited, the close personal relationships required to share the gospel in an environment of trust can’t happen. I have no doubt that I would have been more effective in my job if I had had those opportunities. The first eye opener for me was the high level of preparation a missionary must endure to be effective in the field.

Another eye opener had to do with resources. When I studied Russian all those years ago, our instructors spoke fluent English. We had books and audio tapes and video news footage freely available to us. And Russian is one of the most widely used languages in the world. Missionaries don’t typically have that luxury, as the languages they learn are generally unique and restricted to a small geographic area. If they have English-speaking instructors and books and other devices, it’s because others have gone before them to spend years learning about the people group, learning their language and developing the course materials themselves.

Almost all those missionaries who had gone before were faced with a people group that had no written language at all! And this is still true today, as missionaries continue to reach the unreached who don’t have a written form of their language. To spread the gospel, these emissaries of God’s Word must first travel far from any kind of civilization, somehow make initial contact with the people group and foster a friendly relationship with them. Once that has been accomplished, they can set about studying the people’s beliefs, values, world views, culture, customs and habits. They’ll take photos, videos and audios to document speech patterns and behaviors; then they’ll compile it and study it to learn the language. Only then can they attempt to share the gospel and plant a church. The missionary will ultimately need to translate the Bible into the people’s heart language. If no written language exists and a Bible is to be provided, the missionaries must create the written language and teach the people to read it. This all takes many years, a luxury we didn’t have when I was a foreign language student.

When you think about it, it takes us many years just to learn our own native tongue of English. First as toddlers, we emulate the speech patterns of our parents and others. We pick up more language skills as children by watching cartoons and other programming. When we get a little older, we learn how to write rudimentary sentences, and we continue to develop our language skills as the years go by. Only then, when we become young adults, can we communicate on an intelligent level. (And the funny thing is that by studying a foreign language, I learned more about the English language than I ever learned in high school — and I doubt that I’m alone in this.) This is all very obvious, of course, but it points to the fact that it takes several years of total immersion to train our brains, so to speak, to be fluent in English. Can we share the complex teachings of the Bible — of creation, law vs. grace, incarnation, resurrection — with someone who doesn’t have that level of proficiency in English? By contrast, the missionary skips over all those developmental years and jumps right into an environment where fluency is needed right away.

Is there another, better, more efficient way for missionaries to communicate with a target group? That was another eye opener for me as I learned more about missionary language training. Another option might be to travel to one of these remote areas and try to teach the locals English and then share the gospel in our own language. But that can never work for several reasons. Besides the notion of their having to spend at least as many years to learn our language as we would theirs, it opens too many doors to confusion. And it seems to me that it would result in a level of dominance over the people and a kind of forced association with our own culture and customs. Now we’re talking about colonization. The missionary’s commission is to share the Word of God with these people, not to conquer them. Compared to my experiences with language learning, missionaries are up against a pretty high wall to scale. Learning a new language for anyone requires effort, patience, persistence and perseverance. I endured all that too. But missionaries are on a whole other plane. Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate…because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life” (Matthew 7:13-14). And from that Scripture, Oswald Chambers commented, “If we are going to live as disciples of Jesus, we have to remember that all efforts of worth and excellence are difficult. The Christian life is gloriously difficult, but its difficulty does not make us faint and cave in — it stirs us up to overcome.… Thank God that He does give us difficult things to do! His salvation is a joyous thing, but it is also something that requires bravery, courage, and holiness. It tests us for all we are worth.”


In 1993 I was living in a block house on the Pacific coast of Colombia. My wife and I had moved there to learn Emberá, a language spoken by around 20,000 people in the northwestern corner of Colombia and across the border into Panama.

A few years later I found myself with the responsibility of helping other missionaries who were learning language and studying culture. Each context was unique, and each missionary came with his or her own set of challenges. One thing I noticed that kept cropping up was a lack of clarity in what the goal was. Why study culture? Isn’t just teaching the Bible enough? How good do I have to be at the language before I can start teaching? These types of questions were repeated often and demanded an answer.

The first CLA (Culture and Language Acquisition) manual, which began development in the late 1990s, sought to answer these questions and did so with a degree of success. Through the CLA manual, internationally recognized levels of language proficiency gave us benchmarks to measure progress. Language learning techniques were developed and refined to give us a more effective “toolbox” for a variety of contexts. The increasing awareness of foundational Bible teaching, particularly through the Building on Firm Foundations series, gave us clearer goals for culture investigation. Alongside these technical tools we rediscovered the importance of relationships as a vital component of discipleship.

Now, in 2021, we find ourselves able to answer those same questions with increasing confidence. In response to the needs of missionaries around the world working in a variety of contexts, we are developing two separate yet related helps for CLA.

The first help is the new CLA program called Engage. This is like a roadmap showing the learner the steps to take in order to reach proficiency and fluency in both language and culture. Divided into different levels, Engage takes into account the proficiency of the learner and assigns level-appropriate tasks designed to increase proficiency and move them forward in both language proficiency and cultural insight.

The second help is Stages, the mobile app that goes with Engage. Different features become useful for the learner as progress is made. Photos and audio and video recordings sync to a computer to facilitate language learning both in and out of real-life situations. Powerful search and tagging components allow analysis of worldview assumptions. Some necessary tasks that took people hours to complete are now done in the background, allowing the missionary more time to spend with people, building relationships with them through learning to communicate in their language to understand better how they view the world.

As I look back over the last almost three decades, I see the Engage and Stages combination providing a healthier approach to CLA. There is a greater emphasis on communication and less on simply understanding grammar. Vernacular speech often breaks grammar rules while still communicating accurately. There is a stronger focus on relationships. By automating repetitive tasks such as timekeeping and some filing work, the Stages app allows the learner to spend more time with people. There is much more help now on discovering worldview and then applying that discovery to future teaching.

Many years ago, we would show a timeline of the church planting effort, divided into neat sections. Today we see that the church planting effort can’t be divided so neatly. From the day we contemplate planting a church among a people group, we have committed ourselves to a continuum which carries us through the whole process. Engage and Stages take this continuum into account, providing direction today for what is coming tomorrow, asking questions today that provide answers for the future, encouraging investment in lives today that will produce fruit down the road.

[Note from Jonathan: The Emberá church is now beginning to send out missionaries of their own. Some of those missionaries have been trained in CLA techniques. They will be some of the first to benefit from the Stages app as they step onto that church planting continuum themselves.]

— By Jonathan Willcock, Consultant Coordinator for the Latin America region

Tags: Partner to Partner
POSTED ON May 25, 2021 by Ron Hyink