Why Doing Long-Term Ministry Through Translation Is a Bad Idea

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

I love the Gospel.  And I want to see any missionary loves the Gospel succeed in what they do.  But it saddens me when I hear about missionaries who have a lot to offer but are held back by poor language skills.  I am not talking about new missionaries who are just starting their language study.  I am talking about missionaries who have been on the field for YEARS.

In this first post (see part 2part 3), I want to explain why this is a problem.  It should go without saying that missionaries not being able to speak the local language is a problem but there seem to be churches back home and mission leaders on the field who do not help missionaries to give sufficiently high priority to language study, and therefore handicap their long-term effectiveness.

Are Poor Language Skills Really a Problem?

In some parts of the world, you can do a LOT with just English.  But in other parts of the world, knowing JUST English restricts you to a small foreign ghetto with little meaningful contact with the majority of people.  That’s the situation in Thailand where I work as a missionary.  For a lot of daily tasks, you can get away with knowing little Thai but if you really want to...

  • get to know people
  • meet them where they’re at
  • enter their world
  • listen to their problems
  • form true friendships
  • really understand what’s going on around you
  • preach the Gospel in a culturally understandable way
  • pray with people
  • work with local believers as equals

...then you need to know Thai well.

Some missionaries might say, “But I can do a lot through translation.”  That may be so, but you will...

  • always be one step removed from the people you’ve come to minister to
  • be dependent on others for knowledge of what’s really going on
  • unable to do anything on your own (beyond the most basic tasks)
  • unconsciously communicate to people that they are not important enough to really learn their language

Of course there will be times when translation needs to be done, such as when traveling short-term for teaching or preaching in an area (or to a congregation) outside of the normal language group that you work with.  And there are places in the world where there multiple different languages spoken in the same vicinity, such that it is impossible to learn them all.  But if you don’t know the language of the people group you are working with the majority of the time, that’s a problem.

In the long run, poor language skills (or no language skills) result in less effective ministry because one does not get to the level of language proficiency necessary to understand deeply the people to whom they are trying to minister, or to effectively teach people “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).  Missionaries need to have the language not only to present a basic Gospel outline, but to unpack all that Jesus committed to His disciples, and apply it accurately in the local context and to the specifics of people’s lives.  Jesus said, “Make disciples” (Matt 28:19), not “Make converts”.  It takes a whole lot more language to disciple someone than it does to dump a Gospel outline on them.

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