Although many Christians quickly think of proclaiming the gospel and prioritizing prayer as effective and essential elements of any missions strategy, additional ideas might not readily come to mind. One of the most important strategies for Christians to advocate is that a missionary learns from the local people to whom he is ministering. One might wonder, Isn’t the missionary supposed to be the teacher of the locals? Yes, the missionary does have that role, but not exclusively. In fact, if the missionary really wants to gain a hearing with the local people, the missionary will first have to learn from them. For this reason, Hudson Taylor insisted that all new missionaries with China Inland Mission begin their missionary experience by working under a Chinese pastor. This experience for the Western missionary was often difficult, but the lessons learned were invaluable. Let’s look at two strategies that involve a missionary’s humbly learning from local Christians.
One key strategy in missions is to invest in missionaries who are willing to learn the local language of a people group. Missionaries who speak the local language are the missionaries who tend to have the most fruitful, most penetrating, most cost-effective, and most enduring ministries. Let’s look at the mission field of China to illustrate this point. Prior to communism’s influence in China, most of the missionary work done in China was carried out by missionaries who learned Chinese, witnessed in Chinese, preached in Chinese, and taught in Chinese.
For example, Robert Morrison, Hudson Taylor, J.O. Frasier, Isabel Kuhn, and Gladys Aylward used the Chinese language to win the hearts of thousands to Christ. They taught entire communities to depart from paganism and follow the Bible. When China’s government became communistic, much of the Christian community in China went underground, but a believing remnant survived thanks in part to the solid foundations laid by the Chinese-speaking missionaries. As China has slowly opened up to the West in the past twenty years, the American church has begun sending thousands of Christian ESL instructors into China on teaching visas. Many of these dedicated teachers stay for two to four years, have an effective evangelistic ministry, and then sense God’s leading elsewhere. The Christian ESL teachers who have faithfully served in China are to be commended for their labors. Nonetheless, as China continues to open up to international ties with the West, the American church might want to revisit its traditional approach of sending Chinese-speaking missionaries to Chinese speaking areas. A Western missionary who spends two to four years learning Chinese at a Chinese university, and then spends his or her life serving as a Chinese-fluent missionary can have a far-reaching, long-lasting ministry. A Christian who can speak the Chinese language can set up a base in Hong Kong or Taiwan, travel to “closed” and “open” Chinese-speaking locations, and preach throughout the Chinese speaking world. Mainland China is more and more accessible, and the church in China is continually growing, even to the point of being able to send out its own missionaries. If the American church wants to have a deep, long-lasting role in the discipleship of Christians in China, Christians in the U.S.A. will have to recalibrate a strategy that involves some degree of sending missionaries who speak the local language of the Chinese people.
Of course, the value of language acquisition applies to outreach to other countries besides China. Regardless of the field in question, churches who stick to the historically-proven strategy of supporting missionaries who devote themselves to learning the local language are the churches that get the most value for their missionary dollar. When a missionary finds creative ways to learn a language or empower local people to preach the gospel in a community’s heart language, the missionary is making sure the gospel is getting to the hearts of his hearers. Therefore, individuals interested in becoming missionaries need to honestly face the question, Am I willing to invest in a new language for the sake of effectively getting out the gospel? Supporters of missionaries need to ask themselves, “When I contribute to this particular missionary activity, is the gospel and discipleship material getting to people in a language that strikes the heart?
A second strategy that involves learning from locals is a strategy that calls a missionary to subordinate himself at some point to the leadership of local Christians. Missionaries come and go, work and serve, live and die. When the missionary is gone, the important questions of What is left? and Who is in charge? come to the forefront. The best way for a missionary to have a lasting effect is for the missionary to eventually get out of the way by subordinating himself to a trusted local Christian. When missionaries train a local Christian, serve with him, and then humbly hold up his hands in a supportive role, an indigenous ministry can flourish. Lasting works for God’s glory emerge when local Christians sense that they are not the servants of a missionary’s work but, instead, that the missionary’s work is serving them as they accomplish God’s mission.
Not surprisingly, local Christians understand the best ways to get things done in their particular locality with their particular resources (whether the activity be growing crops, arranging a bank loan, constructing a building, fixing a meal, or organizing an evangelistic outreach). A wise missionary makes a point of learning how and why the locals do what they do. Missionaries, therefore, can ask themselves, Who am I empowering to lead and carry on ministry? Churches can hold their missionaries accountable to indigenization by asking their missionaries the question, What activities are you helping with that are led by local Christians on your mission field? The missionary who helps local Christians fulfill their ministries in a Biblical way will never have to worry about what will happen to the ministry after he leaves the field. It will continue in the capable of hands of local leadership.