De vraag van taal in zendingswerk

Op de site van de Lausannebeweging verscheen in 2019 een artikel van de hand van Jim Harries over de vraag naar het gebruik van taal in Afrikaanse contexten door zendingswerkers van buiten die context. Wat is de impact van het gebruik van een Europese taal ten opzichte van het gebruik van een lokale taal? Een belangwekkende vraag en eentje die zeker tot denken aanzet voor zendingsorganisaties. Daarom volgt hieronder een deel van het artikel (in het Engels).

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.[1] 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.[2] 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:

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.[3]

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.[4]

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’.[5] 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.


Het artikel kan in zijn geheel hier en hier worden gedownload.


Foto: Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji op Unsplash