I first landed on Papua New Guinea in January 1979. It took days for my wife, two small sons, and me to work our way up three rivers to the unreached Iteri tribe. When we built our home in the village, we were the first outsiders to ever live among these people.
When we left, 20 years later, people who’d never heard the name of Jesus before we arrived had a New Testament in their own language and a thriving local church led by eight faithful Bible teachers. When Beth and I go back to visit, we always rejoice in the growth and depth of the congregation of believers.
The two decades between that first landing and our final departure sometimes felt like an eternity. It took five years before I was fluent enough in Iteri culture and language to begin to share the gospel with them. It took me seven months to share the story of creation, the fall, and Jesus’s death on the cross. It took working eight hours a day for 13 years to give the people a translation of God’s Word.
In the days of Google Translate and rapid church-planting movements, my process may seem excruciatingly slow. But trust me when I tell you—I was going as fast as possible.
Any genuine follower of Jesus Christ wants to see the message of salvation spread to all corners of the planet as quickly as possible. To that end, many overseas workers have set historic methods of gospel propagation aside.
For example, learning local languages to a deeply fluent level has sometimes been deemed unnecessary. After all, why take time to do that when you can find a local who’s sympathetic to you and train him to translate far more quickly? Whether he understands the gospel is incidental. It’s assumed that groups will naturally come to a clear understanding of what the passage means.
Many overseas workers have set historic methods of gospel propagation aside.
Yet those who think unsaved animists, Muslims, or Hindus will naturally figure it out on their own are taking responsibility for clear gospel communication off themselves. “Do not teach or preach; instead facilitate discovery and obedience,” Jerry Trousdale writes. “When people are simply exposed to the Scriptures, God will reveal the truth to them.”
A misreading of John 16:13 is responsible for much of this. Historically, missionaries understood Paul to mean that the responsibility for clear communication was on the gospel worker (2 Cor. 5:18–20; Col. 4:4). When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Christians at Pentecost, he immediately moved them to preach—to explain and apply God’s Word clearly in a language that the hearers could understand. And then the Spirit used the preaching to draw 3,000 souls to himself. The Spirit works in concert with clear gospel preaching for the salvation of the nations. In our desire for speed, we can’t neglect the thing the Spirit loves to use.
In my experience, there is no way to rush learning a language, and there’s no way to really understand someone’s beliefs unless you have a good grasp of what they’re saying. It took four years for me to become familiar with the characteristics of each of the Iteri’s multiple gods. Without doing that, I wouldn’t have been able to contrast their gods with the real God, and ask them to choose.
When I explained the nature of God—and what he required—to the Iteri people, it cut across the grain of how they’d been living for centuries. I was condemning their common practices of violence, killing, and rape. I was telling them their practices, and the practices of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, were wrong.
In our desire for speed, we can’t neglect the thing the Spirit loves to use.
The years I’d spent living among them, building friendships with them and their parents, helped me to do this in a way that wasn’t cold. My audience knew I’d spent hours hunting, talking, and laughing with their dads. I knew and loved them. I didn’t ignore or dismiss their ancestral beliefs, but tried to present them as fairly and fully as possible. I didn’t want to blow over a strawman argument—they’d see through that in an instant—but to present a real comparison of religious belief systems. I knew what I was asking them to give up and what it would cost them to abandon an entire way of life. I also knew what they would gain.
As anyone who has built a time-tested friendship knows, there’s no way to rush the common experiences and conversations and time that go into that firm relationship.
It’s dangerous for a gospel worker not to know the worldview of the person he or she is addressing. Good lawyers don’t ask questions to a witness if they’re going to be surprised by the answers. In the same way, serious gospel communicators must know the flags they are raising when they introduce new ideas to their listeners.
If we had presented Jesus to the Iteri people without understanding their language, culture, or relationships, they would have eagerly tried to obey God—by adding him to the list of spirits they were already appeasing.
It takes time to know a worldview to that level. It takes time to preach so that people understand the God of Scripture better than their spirits or deities. It takes time and much teaching of God’s Word to see men broken by their sin. And it takes time to see a person understand the uniqueness of Christ’s sinless life and his sacrifice on the cross as the only acceptable way to find forgiveness from God.
No one is advocating “slow” for the sake of slow. But when “slow” allows people to know the God of the universe who sent his Son to die for sinners, I’m willing to proceed as slowly as necessary.
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