Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 4, Number 1


Teaching English as a Tool of Evangelism:
Problems and Limitations

Daniel C. Hardin
Lubbock Christian University
Lubbock, Texas

Understanding the zeal and dedication of those who are currently using English as a tool for foreign evangelism it may be worthwhile to note that it is easy to criticize another's efforts on a foreign field. This is especially true if you can do it from the safety of a comfortable office in the U.S. Therefore, I try to remind myself that I like the way another is doing mission work better than the way I am not doing it.

In the past two months I have had reports and requests coming across my desk from organizers and workers representing English Language mission programs involving almost every part of the old Soviet Union. The use of English, as a tool for reaching people whose first language is not English, is not limited to the old Soviet states. Any number of programs are now being used to reach people around the world. The reports on such works range from enthusiastic support through skeptical approval to harsh criticism.

Reports of baptisms and the establishment of congregations represent the positive side. The 3rd and 4th quarter Eastern European Mission and Bible Foundation report of 1992 contains the report of 30 Americans teaching English to 240 Albanians. The report notes that an average of 100 people are attending Sunday morning worship services. The Bel-Aire church in Tullahoma, Tennessee, hosted the 2nd annual Romanian Evangelism Workshop this past month. Short term team efforts were discussed at this workshop.

An attitude of caution also can be observed in reports like one from a missionary in Romania who has been teaching the Bible through English. He noted that one couple admitted that they had attended the classes only to learn English and escape their country. However, after finding Christ they had decided to stay and help spread the Gospel.

A face-to-face visit with a couple that had recently spent a few weeks in one old Iron-Curtain country revealed greater skepticism. Both are experienced campaigners and one spent two years on a mission field. They commented that the experience had been good for those who made the trip. However, they felt that they had been groping in the dark since they knew so little about the people and culture and nothing about the language. They also felt that the full-time workers there were ill-prepared and limited in ability.

The most critical report came from a trained missionary, fluent in the language, who observed a group of sincere Christians on a campaign in one of the old Soviet states. They were paying interpreters $25.00 per day in a country where the average salary of a college professor is equal to $10.00 per month. He cringed at the possible ramifications of these "spiritual tourists" who have good hearts but may, out of ignorance, do more damage than good.

I have a letter from a person on his way to the Ukraine to do mission work. His letter contains the following statement: "I make no pretenses of any experience with the people in the Ukraine or any where in the Commonwealth." This confession is followed by a request for advice, which is commendable. I am at a loss exactly how to reply.

That the programs mentioned above are operated by sincere Christians is not the question, but one must question the wisdom of the proliferation of these efforts unless they are recognized as temporary approaches. We must, while using stop-gap forces, train qualified evangelists who can plant indigenous churches using sound mission principles.

In a recent article in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 1992), Walter Sawatsky wrote,

    Much of the missionary energy now being expended in the former Soviet Union is based on the theory that in the great cosmic war between God and Satan, there is a temporary respite. Soon the door of opportunity may be closed again, hence we must get the minimal proclamation to as many as possible. Such missionaries are too busy to wonder whether their style of work might be a precipitating factor in closing doors.

He then wrote, ". . . Western missionary imports also will not last, unless properly contextualized." After observing a large gathering of young people in jeans who crowded around Western preachers and their Russian interpreters, he asked two questions, "Would they find their way to a church? Would it last?"

Philip Bogosian, in the 1993 Great Commission Handbook, writes of the challenge of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who present what he calls "rigorous cultural and linguistic challenges." To do this job he notes that we need "sharp, determined young soldiers to send into the battlefield." This is no call for spiritual tourists but for Pauls and Timothys who will do whatever is necessary to become all things to all people.

A young student just left my office who has just returned from four and one-half months in Russia. He had two years of Russian language and history before going and studied Russian while there. He lamented the fact that his language had not been better and that he was just learning to understand the people when he had to return to the States.

Those who go into the mission field need a Paul-like knowledge of the people being targeted -- knowledge of their literature, history, and language. Sanneh, in Translating the Message (Orbis, 1991), defends the Christian approach to evangelism that has traditionally translated the Gospel into the vernacular.

The times may seem to demand Band-Aid approaches, at least until fully prepared missionaries are ready to go. During this time, however, we must not allow the urgency of the times to distract teachers of missions from the task of properly preparing young men and women to do effective mission work. I will merely mention in passing the areas of study necessary for a missionary do mission work correctly and effectively.

He or she must have a knowledge of the Word, a knowledge of the target people, and expertise in church planting. Beginning with this last item, I will contend that church planters are difficult to train here in the United States. Our fellowship is currently in the doldrums and growth is negligible. Thus we have no training ground for future missionaries. Still, we must do the best we can to train people to plant churches.

I use the term "church planting" because it involves a wide spectrum of courses and activities. Church planting demands an understanding of soils, sowing, and nurturing. The church planter is sensitive to the importance of indigenization and contextualization. The goal of the church planter is not simply numbers and press clippings but churches that will plant churches that will plant churches.

To plant a viable dynamic church a church planter must know his target population. Paul could become all things to all men because, raised in Hellenistic Tarsus and schooled in Judaism, he knew the literature, customs, and languages of both Jew and Greek. The evangelist to Russia who does not know Tolstoy is ill-prepared for his mission. Without a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the current flight to the cities by tribal Africans, a missionary to Kenya or Zambia is at a terrible disadvantage. The trained missionary must know his target population.

Significant in this regard is a knowledge of the language of those people. Words do not have meaning. Only people have meaning, which they associate with words. Just a few minutes ago I asked my wife to go to our office at home to get a disk for my computer at school. She got a disk and we made our journey to work at Lubbock Christian. On the way we learned that the disk she picked up was not the one I needed. Though we both speak English with reasonable facility and though we have known each other intimately for many years, we still did not communicate. The words were right but communication goes beyond words.

Jack Lewis has cogently pointed out the need for preparation in his lecture, "Shall I Speak Falsely for God?" Speaking at an A.C.U. Summer Missions Seminar, Dr. Lewis noted that when we go into a foreign country we face frightening challenges. The people we meet are not going to be "dumb." Dr. Leon Crouch recently returned from a summer in Russia where he taught Greek for six hours a day for four weeks. His Russian students mastered more Greek in those four weeks than any student he has ever had in a semester's course in an American university.

In most of the world life is a constant struggle of survival. While we rest secure in our plush homes, air-conditioned offices, and streamlined cars, those people we are going to meet in Somalia or Siberia have been struggling against political and economic exploitation for years. We are naive if we think we can waltz into a foreign country and not be (as Lewis said) an "object to be taken in or at least tried by every scheme that clever minds can pull."

While tongue-tied and ethnocentric we stand little chance of coping with the challenges facing us in foreign cultures. Even with adequate training in these areas we are no better prepared than our competition. Lewis points out that people of other religions can match or surpass our zeal and dedication. This brings us to the final ingredient in proper missionary preparation, the Word.

The only clear advantage we have is the truth. Lewis notes that Moses, Paul, Luther, Loyola, and Xavier were all men who changed history and they were all highly educated men. Lewis believes that the missionary should be a scholar. He points out the problems the missionary faces as he has to deal with various foreign translations of the Bible.

Lewis discovered that in Japan the word "sin" was translated "crime." In my own experience, I found the identical problem in Korean translations. Ray Cox has noted that in Acts 2:38 in the Good News Translation being distributed in Russia, the word aphesin (forgiveness) is translated isklyupleniya (redemption). The theological implications of sin being redeemed by repentance and baptism are manifold. Likewise, one would be hard pressed to preach of the "person" of the Holy Spirit since the Holy Spirit is translated with an inanimate accusative form in the Russian translation, in both Acts 2:38 and John 3:5.

Lewis concludes that the missionary needs a grasp of the Bible languages, the methods and tools of research, and the language of the target culture to be fully trained. This has been the goal of teachers of missions for many years and I do not see any reason to think this training needs to be significantly modified.

Anything less than well trained missionaries with well laid plans will leave us open to many dangers. The spiritual tourist will always be in danger of being victimized by the unscrupulous, and his irresponsible use of American funds can do untold damage to otherwise good programs. As Nicholls points out, the preaching and teaching of "Western . . ., middle-class, suburban, conservatives" may reflect "the consumer principles of capitalistic society rather than . . . the realities of the New Testament." (Contextualization, IVP, p. 31)

  Meanwhile, the church that becomes so enamored with English correspondence courses, summer campaigns, and media mission work, that the identification, calling, training, and sending of missionaries is neglected can bring foreign evangelism to a virtual standstill in one generation. There is no free lunch. There is no easy way to take a world for Christ. Those who would claim the world must be willing to pay the price.

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