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Language learning is ministry

After five months of studying at OMF’s Japanese Language and Culture Centre I had spent over 600 hours formally learning the language. But I felt like I had only scratched the surface.

As a supported Christian missionary, the temptation is to consider language learning as a hurdle. Something I have to “get over” so I can get to the real stuff of preaching and discipling. However, I have come to realize that language learning takes time, but this is not wasted time. In fact, it is necessary.

I came up with four reasons why language learning for missionaries should take time.

It is good to be humbled

I came to Japan with a little bit of pride. I did not know it at the time, but it was there. I have a Masters in theology and I have experience as a preacher and a pastor—surely, I will lead a successful ministry. Well . . . five months in and I was still really bad at Japanese. I realised I was not so great after all. I couldn’t read my post; I couldn’t have significant conversations in Japanese. It’s all very humbling. Through this experience I have learned more about depending on God for everything.

Jesus did it

Jesus was not in a hurry to start his earthly ministry. Before he started “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52 NIV). Jesus studied the Scriptures and learnt carpentry. From childhood he had to learn language and how to interact with the culture of his day. Jesus spent 30 years humbling himself and learning, is it not ludicrous for missionaries to think that we can get by with only a couple of months of training?

It is more than just learning words

Language is the skin of a culture that covers worldview, values, etc. Language is the flower above the surface; the root is the culture that gives life to this flower. Japanese is a difficult language, not simply because of the complex characters or grammar, but because of the culture beneath. For example, polite versus casual speech and silence versus speaking must all be thought about. Learning all this takes a lifetime.

It shows something about us

OMF missionaries typically spend their first four years in training—their whole first term. This shows Japanese that we love their culture, we love their language, we want to understand them, and we want to hear their heartbeat. Our desire is to share the good news of Jesus Christ, but we want Japanese people to see that it is their good news, not our imposed news.

Language learning is not a stepping stone to ministry, it is ministry.

Maybe you are frustrated with learning or preparation for something that you want to do. Remember, God is in the process, not just the result.

By AJ, an OMF missionary

Will you pray for missionaries in Japan?

  • Learning the Japanese language and culture is not something missionaries ever feel like they are finished with. Pray for perseverance and encouragement to persist.
  • Pray for language teachers at OMF Japan’s language and culture center (JLCC). Pray that they will be wise and patient teachers.
  • Pray that the care that missionaries take in learning the language will speak to Japanese people’s hearts.

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