Category: Orality, Scripture Engagement, Diasporas
The obvious advantage of diapora ministry is that the people needing to hear the Gospel have relocated to a place of easy access for local Christians. Another significant factor is that at least some of the individuals from a given people group that has migrated have narrowed the cultural and linguistic gap between them and the messengers of the Gospel, as their migration experience has given them some level of bilingualism in the predominant language and some degree of accomodation to the majority culture.
In many instances this narrowing of the linguistic and cultural gap has made it possible for the predominant local language in the diaspora location to be used successfully as a bridge for communicating the Gospel through local Christians. Praise God! In Mexico there are likely scores of cases where the Gospel entered an indigenous people group not via an intentional missionary strategy but rather via community members who were evangelized in Spanish during temporary migration to other parts of the country or the US.
However, the fact that God has graciously worked in this manner has led many churches to not even consider developing ministries that utilize the people’s mother tongue. Not doing so can have some serious consequences.
For one, it is often only a certain percentage of the people who learn the second language well enough to be able to understand the Gospel in it. For example, I live in a signficant migratory destination within Mexico and I know indigenous people who have been here for 20 years and who speak virtually no Spanish. Unless ministered to in their mother tongue they are cut off from Gospel witness even when their next door neighbor is a pastor.
In a biography about the late Romulo Sauñe, a Peruvian Quechua Indian, it was mentioned that what motivated him so strongly to translate the Scriptures in his language was the situation that people like his mother faced. She knew enough Spanish to understand the basic Gospel message, but not enough to understand all of the wonderful truths that God wanted her to know. People in that situation are in need of access to the Scriptures and discipling in their heart language, despite having been initially evangelized in their second language.
Another issue is that members of a minority people group who have come to Christ through their second language often have learned everything they know of the Bible in that language. For some it can be extremely difficult to know how to communicate in their native tongue what they have learned in the majority language. It can seem so hard that some do not even try. Several years ago an adult indigenous man who had been a Christian for some years and who was taking a course I teach on ministry to indigenous peoples of Mexico admitted that he had never witnessed in his mother tongue. (I am happy to say that he finished his Bible school studies and focused mentoring and returned to his home village and has planted a church and he now ministers to people both in Spanish and his native language.)
Others do attempt to share with their people in their native language what they have learned from the Bible but can’t figure out how to say many key spiritual terms, so interject loan words from their second language instead. Even if 95% of the words they speak are in the native tongue, much of the meaning can be lost or distorted if the other 5% they say in their second language includes the key spiritual terms, like salvation, grace, forgiveness, repentance, prayer, etc. This is a real issue in the people group I work with, as most native Christians have primarily had access to the Scriptures in Spanish, and this is a highly oral group and the number of those who can access the written translated Scriptures in their language probably numbers only in the dozens. I remember the ironic situation when I accompanied a native pastor as he spent hours ministering to a non-Christian family in a time of need and there I was, the gringo missionary, giving him tips on how to say key spiritual terms in his own language.
Of course, there is also the danger of syncretism due to only partially understanding the Scriptures and Christian teaching members of a diaspora receive in local churches, especially if there is no attempt made to contextualize the message and help them address the application of the Scriptures within their ethnic context.
It is very easy to see the value of developing ministries in the mother tongue in diaspora contexts, but it may seem a huge and perhaps overwhelming task for a local congregation to take on such a challenge. There are many options that could be pursued which are beyond the scope of this article. But at the very least, one should attempt to make Scripture and other Christian resources in the native language (if they exist) available to the people to supplement what they are receiving through their second language.
Strategic networking can be key in helping make this a reality. For example, in my role as a diaspora ministry facilitator for a specific people group God has put me in touch with a number of people who are ministering to the same group in other locations via Spanish. As a supplement to what they are already doing we are able to provide them with a variety of Christian audio and video resources in the language that they can distribute to the people who are already receptive because of the loving interaction of these local Christians. My key native co-worker is also able to provide some deeper interaction in the native language with some of his people in the broader diaspora through a phoning ministry.
There is so much more that could be discussed... I encourage others to also share their reflections and experiences so we can all learn from each other.