Speaking Another Language :: MK Ministry Lesson 1 of 8

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.

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:

  1. Knowing how to speak the culture’s language.
  2. Knowing the right words to say.


  1. says

    Really cool series. I look forward to reading the future posts here.

    I have some ties to Cathedral de Fe in Lima… cool to read about living in that city.

  2. says

    An important lesson, Kent. I’ve found it vital to have a “consultant” or two to help me avoid embarrassing blunders: e.g., my kids signing off on what I wear before ministering to youth. I hate being a poser!

  3. says

    Hola, soy pastor en Arequipa,Peru, me gustó mucho tu post. Yo siempre leo tu blog, es muy bueno. Gracias por tu buen trabajo y sigue adelante, que Dios te bendiga.

  4. says

    This is so true in any culture, even here in Western Europe. Living here has shown me that America is diverse enough to require that churches use the right language for your area/culture/subculture, even when everyone involved is American.

  5. Gabriel says

    Good post, and definately relevant. One thing to add:

    3. You must speak to the specific issues that your culture faces.

    As an American, working as a school teacher and youth pastor in Jakarta, Indonesia, I pick up on this anytime I visit a church. An example: most of the people that can speak English here are Chinese-Indonesians: immigrants that have settled here after leaving China. Those that own their own businesses work hard & push themslves to run as many companies as possible. As a result, when the prosperity gospel came through a while back (the God-wants-you-rich-all-the-time message, imported from America, of course), it stuck. It hasn’t gone away yet. Nearly any English speaking church I have visited the past two years has some kind of mention of this message, and as a result, my well meaning friends that attend these churches turn around and work hard all week, all for moneymoneymoney. Otherwise, they don’t feel blessed, or look blessed.

    By no means is this a rant. It is simply a good example of the wrong message spoken to the right crowd. If churches were to speak to some of the issues rampant in this workaholic culture- things like greed, judging others, bitterness, gossip, and a lack of family values- then it’s possible to see some real life-change in this culture.