[lg policy] The importance of local language in urban ministry

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Apr 24 11:10:24 EDT 2019

The importance of local language in urban ministry Why European languages
are not sufficient in African contexts. LAUSANNE MOVEMENT 23 APRIL 2019
16:00 h GMT+1 Urban ministry has obvious attractions for today’s
missionaries. Large cities have a wide variety of facilities (restaurants,
schools for children, supermarkets, and so on). There are benefits of
travel and communication. Even should poor quarters of cities such as slums
have terrible conditions, Western missionaries can usually afford to live
in more amenable places. Missiological arguments have also been made in
favour of ministry in cities. An increasing proportion of today’s global
population, including that of the majority world, lives in relatively
accessible urban areas.i It seems to make sense to reach them where they
are gathered. People in urban areas, already dislodged from lifestyles that
might have occupied their ancestors for centuries, can be uniquely open to
outside interventions and to the gospel.ii Reaching young people in the
urban environment offers promise of building foundations that will last for
many years. I want to make a general critique of the above, asking whether
there is yet good reason for going to reach people in their homelands. More
to the point, I want in this article to look at choice of language. In
short, I want to ask: - How satisfactory is it for a missionary to reach
and engage urban people in regional or international languages? - How
important is it to make ‘costly’ efforts to reach them in their indigenous
tongues? I suggest that there are two major arguments in favour of using
globalized European languages in ministry in urban areas: 1. Use of
European languages enables a great deal of ministry to happen quickly and
easily and with relatively little interference to Western missionaries’ own
ways of life. Use of an indigenous language would require much more time,
effort, and inconvenience.iii 2. Urban people typically make much more use
of European languages than do their rural cousins. This is for various
reasons because their own languages are compromised through not being
universally known in cities, and because city technology comes from the
West. In a context in which a language like English is already evidently
rising in prominence, it makes sense to many that Christian mission should
engage using the same language.   Problems with European languages
Inter-human proximity itself does not of course produce English: people can
live very close together, in urban areas, without any profound, long-term
effect on their ongoing knowledge of English or other European languages.
‘Urban’ need not mean ‘Western language’. Yet, Neville Alexander makes it
clear that post-independence African countries adopted Western languages
for official purposes because, as a result of the global scene combined
with their own circumstances economically and politically speaking, they
had little choice.iv   Linguists tell us of problems caused by the use of
European languages for formal purposes in the majority world. The sound of
newly introduced ways of life, such as the good news of Jesus, when
communicated using non-indigenous languages, will make them appear to be
foreign. The categories presupposed in Western languages are not the
familiar categories known by people in the majority world. Presumably as a
result, people are more likely to come to Christ for financial or other
pragmatic reasons, rather than as a result of being deeply stirred in their
hearts. Once the gospel is accepted, a lack of depth in its communication,
resulting from the necessity of use of a foreign code, can perpetuate a
pragmatic motivation, such as the ‘prosperity gospel’.v The foreignness of
communication means that gospel teaching can appear to be addressing
someone else. Although youth may be attracted to such, the very same youth
may be more inclined to abandon it later if what they are taught does not
enable them to deal with crises they hit later in life.   Indigenous
language and contextualization Learning and then using an indigenous
language will demonstrate that a missionary is serious in wanting to relate
to nationals. Having ears that enable hearing of debates engaged by locals
will enable a missionary to begin to understand the local contexts actually
faced by native people, as they themselves understand them. The gospel is
said to be translatable.vi When appropriately translated, the good news of
Jesus can speak pertinently into a variety of contexts. Such a translated
gospel may make little sense, or even appear plainly wrong, when heard only
in translation back into Western languages. Western languages function
using categories that remain unfamiliar to indigenous people.vii If they do
not understand the very words they use, this can make people a victim
rather than a master of their own communication.viii The above are just a
few ideas drawn from a vast literature that points to the importance of
contextualization in cross-cultural mission, where use of an indigenous
tongue both is, and enables, contextualization.   Sympathetic magic
Furthermore, apparent similarity to the West found in urban contexts is
often deceptive. I want to consider this with respect to sympathetic magic.
While this is often considered to be practiced in primitive societies, Paul
Rozin and Carol Nemeroff ‘find many examples of … operation [of sympathetic
magic] in educated adults in Western developed countries … [they find that]
laws [of sympathetic magic] are factors in decision making in US
culture.’ix According to Rozin and Nemeroff, in sympathetic magic ‘things
that have once been in contact with each other may influence or change each
other for a period that extends well past the termination of contact’, and
‘things that resemble one another share fundamental properties.’x A few
examples from Rozin and Nemeroff illustrate this. They discuss the ‘law of
contagion’:xi - Someone might be inclined to reject a whole bowl of soup
when one fly lands in it. - Mere contact of a cockroach with food can lead
people to conclude that it is inedible.   Shapes carry qualities, so that a
chocolate made in the shape of human faeces can be disgusting. Sympathetic
magic also operates positively: a cup once used by the Queen, a cardigan
once worn by a US President, or a football shirt once used by a particular
professional footballer, can become highly coveted items, sometimes sold at
a high price, as if the essence of the person once associated with the item
is carried on or in it. The above examples illustrate ways in which human
living is far from ‘rational’. Humans, including Western people, commonly
make implicit associations on the basis of resemblances that, ‘rationally
speaking’, do not exist. An equivalent to the above examples (much
commented on in recent years) is that of African tribesmen using mobile
phones: - An image of a herdsman in a wild-appearing African steppe using a
smart phone causes some cognitive confusion, as Western people’s
perceptions vacillate incongruously between impressions of primitivity and
those of modernity. - Their mind struggles to deal with the contradiction:
that a primitive tribesman can at the same time be holding and using a
high-tech implement like a contemporary smart phone.   Just as the
cockroach that has touched some food can appear to contaminate a whole
bowlful, so the smartphone implicitly ‘modernizes’ the African
tribesman.xii The tendency to make assumptions about African people found
in a modern-appearing majority world urban context is similar. A background
of buildings, cars, computers, supermarkets, televisions, and so on will
affect Westerners’ perception of the African.xiii The assumptions that
Westerners pick up include that those people are no longer ‘traditional’.
This scene deceives the Western observer regarding the mindset of the
person concerned. The use of a European language such as English has a
similar effect, appearing to transform a foreign person into ‘one of us’,
into being ‘sophisticated’ in the way that ‘we are’. Sympathetic magic is
often considered to be confined to primitive people. Rozin and Nemeroff
have discovered that ‘modern’ people are subject to the same deceptive
‘magical’ effects. I conclude that Western people are not well equipped to
evaluate rationally Majority World scenes. They are apt erroneously to
impute Western qualities to non-Western people: a Western person will
likely, in their own head, impute ‘Westernisms’ onto indigenous African
people.   Implications Some missiologists make a clear case in favour of
urban rather than rural ministry. Westerners ministering in urban contexts
in other parts of the world can easily, I suggest, be deceived by the
apparent familiarity of settings and languages that they meet. I have here
identified this apparent familiarity as often being based on ‘magic’.
Reliance on magic for Christian ministry and development activities is
problematic. The importance of accurate contextual understanding is the
prime reason given in this article for advocating that it is appropriate to
use indigenous languages, even in urban contexts, in the majority world. So
my practical advice is to use local languages and local resources in what
you are doing. This article constitutes a small part of the wider case made
by the AVM (Alliance for Vulnerable Mission)xiv in favour of the use of
local languages and resources by some missionaries from the West in the
majority world. Such linguistic and resource practice is known as
vulnerable mission. It can enable a foreign missionary, by coming alongside
people, to empower them. Jim Harries, PhD, works in both urban and rural
contexts in East Africa. He is the chairman of the AVM (Alliance for
Vulnerable Mission), which advocates that some Western missionaries use
indigenous languages and resources in their ministries in the majority
world. This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of
the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. Learn
more about this flagship publication from the Lausanne Movement at
www.lausanne.org/lga.    Endnotes i See
https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS. ii Editor’s Note:
See article by Mac Pier, entitled, ‘Movement Day and Lausanne’, in May 2016
issue of Lausanne Global Analysis
https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2016-05/movement-day-and-lausanne. iii
Note that what I am advocating for is Western missionaries learning and
engaging using non-Western languages, not simply Western missionaries
communicating using Western languages to people who are then expected to
engage their colleagues using indigenous languages. The latter conceals
irreconcilable translation difficulties. iv Neville Alexander, ‘English
Unassailable but Unattainable: the dilemma of language policy in South
African Education’, Paper presented at the Biennial Conference of the
International Federation for the Teaching of English (University of
Warwick, England, UK, July 7-10, 1999),
http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=ED444151 (accessed
28.08.08), 5. v Editor’s Note: See article by Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu,
entitled, ‘The Prosperity Gospel and Its Challenge to Mission in Our Time’,
in July 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis
vi Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture
(New York: Orbis Books, 1989). vii For example, Western languages tend to
presuppose dualisms, such as that between spiritual and material. viii Fear
of saying the wrong thing in the wrong way contributes to education in
Africa often being by rote. ix Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff, ‘The Laws of
Sympathetic Magic a Psychological Analysis of Similarity and Contagion.’
in: Stigler, J & Herdt, G and Schweder R.A. (eds) Cultural Psychology;
Essays on Comparative Human Development (Cambridge University Press,
1990):207, 229. x Ibid 206 xi Ibid 206. Notions of ‘magical’ contagion
preceded and apparently set the foundation for the science of
micro-organisms ibid 218. xii The use of the smart phone by the African
tribesman will also contaminate (be a contagion with respect to) the purity
of the smartphone as a Western/ modern product. Our main interest here is
in the reverse. xiii Note that in much of Africa, it is outsiders and not
indigenous African people who are largely responsible for designing and
controlling the operation of ‘modern’ urban environments. Hence, even if in
Africa, African people in that sense remain ‘strangers’ to modern contexts
within their homelands. xiv See http://www.vulnerablemission.org.
See more:


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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