Thursday, May 10, 2012

More Thoughts About Heart-Language

In January I posted on this blog asking the question "Is Insistence Upon Heart Languages Biblical?" Today, in the midst of a week spent mostly in the research of a short list of 9 UUPGs while we at FBC Farmersville attempt to locate the group we plan to adopt, I have a further question along the same lines.

One of the UUPGs that we're researching is in Mexico. The IMB lists it as a GSEC 0 people group. This means that they know of no gospel resources—no Bibles, no tracts, no Jesus film…nothing—available in that indigenous language. To present the gospel in that language would require starting from scratch. It would be a herculean task.

Performing further research on other web sites, I discovered that the native tongue in question has been classified as an endangered language. Linguists fear that this tongue will soon pass entirely out of use unless something happens to preserve it. The major reason why this language is endangered is the domineering pressure of the Spanish language within the community.

With all of this in mind, and in light of my previous post (which you should read if you haven't), I ask these questions:

  1. Shouldn't we be rooting for this endangered language to become an extinct, dead language?
  2. If language is the primary boundary separating this people group from others, is that a legitimate boundary if the language is dying and is almost dead? Why should missionaries make more of the linguistic boundary than do the people of the people group themselves?

  3. Since there is an untold wealth of gospel material available in Spanish, absolutely no gospel materials available in this target language, and such near hegemony of the Spanish language among this group, wouldn't it be a criminal waste of time and resources to expend any money or time on the development of native-language materials for this group if that money and time could be used to bring the gospel to them in Spanish?


David Rogers said...

It seems to me your reasoning on these questions is on target.

I wonder if the over-emphasis on heart language is an example of "the tail wagging the dog." In a laudable effort to make the gospel more accessible and more understandable to all the people (and peoples) of the earth, a big push has been made on identifying UPGs and translating the Bible into all known languages.

Sometimes, Rev. 5:9 and 7:9 have been used as a guideline for missionary strategy and prioritization of resources, stressing the need to make disciples of people from every language group as a fulfillment of prophecy. Eckhard Schnabel, in Paul the Missionary, makes a good case, however, that Paul's strategy was simply to get the gospel to everyone who would listen, both far and wide, not a focus on specific population segments or ethnic groups.

It is true that some people (and peoples) are relatively "hidden," and thus neglected, and a special effort may be needed to get them the gospel. But I am afraid the Homogeneous Unit Principle of McGavran, Wagner, and the Church Growth Movement folks has put an unbiblical premium on specialized strategies to reach specialized groups. The ultimate aim of the gospel is to bring people of different ethnic and linguistic background together in Christ, not to keep them separated. If language barriers are keeping them from correctly understanding the gospel, yes, by all means let's do all we can to cross these barriers and help them to understand better. But getting the gospel in as many different languages as possible, and planting churches which function in as many different languages as possible, is not, in and of itself, a biblical imperative, as far as I can tell.

God may well wish to have a kaleidoscope of praise from different language and ethnic groups manifested at the last day, and throughout history. But the important thing is that they understand the gospel, not that linguistic differences are maintained. Almost certainly, there are dead languages from which there was no Christian missionary harvest, in centuries past. I don't believe we have a mandate to resurrect these languages in an effort to assure they are represented around the throne of the Lamb. If God sovereignly chooses to do so, that is a different matter, though.

Anonymous said...

You may have some older people in your UUPG from Mexico whose Spanish is not that good. For them to be able to hear the Gospel in a way they understand and have opportunity to repent and believe, then they'll need to hear in their heart language, unless God chooses to boost their Spanish or speak to them in a supernatural way.

Especially in making them disciples, there will need to be people on the ground who can dialogue with them about deep, spiritual matters, and that won't happen without communicating in their language and a significant time investment.

What needs to happen is that we pray God calls someone from your church who will be willing to be trained and prepped to go and spend the time needed to be with these elderly UUPG members and learn their language, sharing Good News with them as they progress with the language. This doesn't take a lot of money. Just basically living expenses, pen, notebooks, digital recorder...language-learning stuff.

I think that one problem is that sometimes this UPG/UUPG research is based on relatively quick, in-and-out survey trips. You cannot get a good picture of what the language situation really is on the ground. Someone has to be there for a longer period of time to understand what's really needed.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, David. I agree with your every point.

Bart Barber said...


It seems to me that the meaning of the second 'U' in UUPG (Unreached), as defined by the IMB, would suggest to us that once we've reached 2% of the population we can hand over evangelization to those believers. Even if we were to debate whether 2% is or is not enough, surely if the vast preponderance of the population speaks Spanish, we can reach enough people with Spanish to allow the indigenous believers to reach those without fluency in Spanish.

Our job is not to reach every last person of that people group, right? It is simply to plant a strong enough Christian presence to be able to hand over the ministry of reconciliation to those who, in every way, are going to be better equipped to reach their culture than we will be.

Ed Lauber said...

You have great questions. However, you need to do more research to find out what is meant by "endangered language" in this case. There are gradations used to describe the vibrancy of a language. One scale has four levels between endangered and extinct. Depending on how the word is used and by whom, "endangered" might not mean the the language is dying, just that it is starting in a direction that, if it continues in a linear fashion, will result in the death of the language. But that process usually takes 70 years at least. As this language is in Mexico, I suggest that you consult the Ethnologue and perhaps even get in touche with the Mexico branch of SIL - talk to the their survey or sociolinguistics department.

Let's take a fictitious case to illustrate how data can be misleading. Let's say that in 1900 there was a language group in Mexico with 100,000 speakers. By population growth, that group would now have 500,000 speakers, or perhaps more. Let's say that 75% of the people have abandoned their language for Spanish, but for the rest, children are still learning the language. That means that there are more speakers of the language than there were in 1900 and for the remaining speakers the language is just as vibrant as it was in 1990. But, because 75% have stopped speaking the language, it might be classified as endangered. Some sections of a language group can abandon the language while others do not.

So talk to IMB and SIL and see if you can get some more definition about what is meant by endangered in this specific case.

But, if the language is dying (different than endangered), then I agree with the direction your questions are taking you.


Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Ed,

I didn't know that about the different degrees of being endangered. That is helpful information.

IamanM said...

We have been with the IMB working with a UUPG for over 10 years now in a very similar situation to the one you are looking at - no resources of any kind, no known believers or churches, etc.

When we started, my wife and I knew that we would not be the ones that would reach the heart of this population, let alone the older women that never attended school living in a remote village (as mentioned in the previous comment). We knew that this would only happen as a result of us working with the first believers who then were burdened from the Lord to take the gospel to the rest of their people. I think this is a valid strategy, and we have seen the Lord do amazing things as the first church, baptisms, praise songs, etc., have come into being entirely through our local partners.

That being said, you should be careful about entirely overlooking the need for heart language work. The linguist that had written the most about this uupg language when we started also said that it would quickly be extinct. Personal observation, though, showed us that almost everyone was still speaking this language, in addition to the trade language. And SIL obviously agreed with us because they now have a team of 5 starting on the initial Bible translation work. The biggest sign to me that this heart language is important, even if the experts say that it is dying, is that the local church thinks its absolutely important! And they really should be the ones making that call.

I think it would indeed be a criminal waste of time and resources for your church to try to minister in the heart language. You can use Spanish to reach some and cast vision to them to reach the rest. But it's an entirely different question about whether we should be rooting for this endangered language to become extinct. Leave that call to the church that the Lord will build among them.

Bart Barber said...


I don't disagree at all. Once you reach the point that THERE IS an indigenous church, then you point them to scripture and follow their lead on cultural questions, so long as any sinful cultural prejudices don't get in the way. Absolutely.

Stuart said...

This is such a helpful dialogue. Thank you Bart, David, Ed, and IamanM.

David, what you've expressed in your second paragraph needs to be sounded again and again.