I spent part of my childhood as a missionary’s kid in Lima, Peru. It wasn’t the mud huts and jungle you see on National Geographic. Lima is actually an urban metropolis with 8 million residents.
Less than a block from our house was a large park with grassy fields that were perfect for soccer. My brother and I went to play a game with some other boys from the neighborhood. There were German boys, an Asian boy, and a few Peruvians, and they all spoke Spanish.
Being new to Peru, my brother and I hardly spoke any Spanish. But despite the language barrier, we somehow found a way to interact and start a game. As we kicked the ball around the field, we quickly learned that they did know some English.
“F@%$ you!” one boy said, quite pleased with himself. And after that, a slew of other surprising words followed. They had nothing against us. In fact, they liked us because we were Americans. They wanted to impress us with their English cussing.
But as a nine-year-old boy, I was not impressed. I was shocked. And I did not interact with them much after that. They knew English, but they did not know the right words.
THE MINISTRY LESSON:
We live in an age with many cultures and subcultures. And effectively reaching them often requires learning how speak a culture’s language. But just because you can speak a few words of a culture’s language, does not mean you know how to effectively reach and communicate with them. In fact, you could do more harm than good.
For example, it is common for youth ministers to try to “speak” the language of youth culture by dressing like the teens they are trying to reach. Many youth pastors can pull this off. But there are some who end up looking like they are in a mid-life crisis. Authenticity speaks volumes to teenagers, and without it, a youth pastor just looks like a poser.
Knowing a culture’s language is useless if you do not have the right “words” to say.
And vice versa:
Having the right “words” to say is useless if you do not know a culture’s language.
I struggled to learn Spanish, and consequently, I got little value out of attending Spanish Sunday School. I’m sure it was good, but it was useless since I did not speak the language. Likewise, a ministry can say all the right things but still be ineffective if people do not understand the cultural language being used.
I do believe there are exceptions to these rules. But in most cases, effectively reaching a culture requires:
- Knowing how to speak the culture’s language.
- Knowing the right words to say.