Making disciples in the heart language
Imagine hearing the gospel for the first time in a foreign language. How might this negatively affect your heartfelt connection to Jesus?
The Isaan people of NE Thailand exclaimed, “Jesus speaks our village talk!”1 This proclamation came out of their mouths when they heard worship songs in their own language and style of music versus in foreign languages and styles of music.
Nelson Mandela is known for this quote: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, it goes to his heart.”
Paul is known for this quote: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Missionaries commit to learning the heart language and using that heart language for two key reasons. One, they want the gospel and God’s Word to go to the heart—the place of belief and transformation. Two, much of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic worlds perceive Jesus as the foreigners’ god. Thus, missionaries want to transform that misperception by talking to these groups of people about Jesus in their heart language.
Pressures that impede language learning
Missionaries sometimes deal with pressures from self, donors, and sending organizations to produce countable results as soon as possible. In these cases, most missionaries set aside steady language learning to do something visible in record time so they can report it to the home front.
To NOT learn the heart language is to convey that Jesus doesn’t speak the village talk of the people—that He is only the god of the missionaries. In this context, the gospel goes merely to the head, not the heart.
Donors and supporters as language learning cheerleaders
Senders and supporters can play a huge role in missionaries learning the heart languages of the people they serve. They could lift burdensome expectations by saying: “We recognize learning the heart language as “ministry” and that it takes time. Go for it!” They could cheer missionaries on by sending notes that express something to the effect, “We know it can’t be easy, so we are praying for you as you learn the heart language.” They could ask affirming questions such as, “Tell me all about your language learning experiences and how I can pray?”
Having a mild form of dyslexia, I learned to speak, read, and write the Khmer language, which has one of the largest alphabets in the world. This was partly possible because my senders and donors at the time counted learning and knowing the language as missions.
So if missionaries send out newsletters for the first year or more telling you about language learning, applaud them, pray for them, and admire them.
As for missionaries, educate your donors on the necessity and beauty of speaking in the heart language. Bring them along on your journey. Inform them of the value of learning the language and their role in cheering you on.
Together we can change the narrative:
From: Hurry up! Get to the important work! ————> To: Language learning is “the important” work!
- Paul DeNeui, What Happened When Grandma Danced, Mission Frontiers, June 2001.