More than ever before we need to see cross-cultural missions as advancing the Gospel among peoples and language groups, not merely reaching those within certain political boundaries. This distinction is becoming increasingly important as our world grows integrated through a global economy and technology. Peoples and languages, not countries—this is what I would like to emphasize.
COVID-19 has taught the world how easy it is to lock down whole countries, to control the flow of travel. Internet “footprints” and rapidly developing facial recognition make it so that people can be easily tracked and known. That means that it is now easier than ever before to keep people out that a country doesn’t want in and keep people in that it doesn’t want out. Many of us have been sensing where all of this is headed, and thoughts about the end times are on our minds.
Even before this past year, I was already quite burdened to communicate about this topic. Countries have already been denying access over its borders because of political contention or religious fanaticism. We talk a lot about “open” and “closed” countries when discussing missions. Is there a way to think about missions that will help us more effectively reached people in and from those “closed” places? Yes, there is!
Some have emphasized the tremendous opportunity that many of us have who live in more developed countries. Multitudes of young men and women come to our countries to study in our universities, look for jobs, or emigrate. The world comes to us, especially in the larger cities. In the United States, for example, 13.7% of the country’s population are immigrants, over 44 million people!1 For this reason, many churches and ministries focus on reaching out to immigrants, refugees, and have college campus ministries for the purpose of reaching out to the foreign students. This is a tremendous opportunity for ministry indeed! Praise the Lord for this!
But what if some of us went the next step and learned the languages and cultures of the unreached people groups that come to us? What if we learned the languages of peoples that live in countries so hard to enter? If we immersed ourselves in other cultures and languages, we can be in a position to have far greater ministry among them. With language comes culture. With these come understanding.
There are approximately 880,000 Hindi speaking immigrants in America today. “Hindi” includes related languages like Urdu and Bengali. People that speak these languages are the most unreached people on the planet! Just browse Joshua Project’s website and look into India and Bangladesh and see what you find there!2
It is very difficult to find ways to live and preach the Gospel as foreigners in India and Bangladesh today. But these people groups can be reached in other countries as well, not just their motherland. For example:
- There are around 147 million Urdu speakers. The vast majority of them live in India and Pakistan. But did you know that there are 32,000 Urdu speakers in Belgium? There are 53,000 in Denmark, 120,000 in Athens, Greece, and 70,000 in Melbourne, Australia! Belgium, Denmark, Greece, and Australia are all relatively free countries where Urdu speakers could be reached.
- Bengali speakers include about 226 million people, almost all of whom are Muslims or Hindus. Bangladesh is hard to enter as a foreigner and missionary activity outlawed. But there are 35,000 Bengali speakers in Thailand. There are 93,000 in Italy and 352,000 in the United Kingdom!
There are other people groups where it is almost impossible to find opportunity to witness to them in person without actually living and serving Christ in the restricted access countries that they live in. The Brahmin peoples are almost entirely unreached, numbering over 62 million. These live in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, etc. To reach Brahmins, Christians must find a way to enter these lands to reach them. The same is true of the Kazakh people. Precious few of their 12 million population is found outside of Kazakhstan.
But we have not talked about a very important factor “in the game” today: the internet. Yes, English has opened up many doors for ministry over the internet, and so has translation software. But what if someone reading this learned Bengali, learned the culture, and seriously pursued outreach to Bengali speakers over the internet? The opportunities would be countless!
I believe that Christians should zealously study languages! If we are serious about fulfilling the Great Commission, then we must be serious about making ourselves useful instruments in that great work. One major way that we make ourselves effective and greatly multiply our usefulness is by learning the language of those we seek to reach. Parents should strongly encourage most children to be bi-lingual for the sake of the Gospel.
My wife and I speak English, of course, but we also speak Khmer, the language of Cambodia. This has allowed us innumerable opportunities to preach Christ and disciple believers, not only in Cambodia, but also in Thailand, Australia, the USA, and even Austria! How is this? International travel and the internet have given many. We have used Facebook, YouTube, SermonAudio3, printed tracts and lessons, radio ministry, and other apps and websites, all in Khmer, the heart language of Cambodians. For the rest of our lives we will praise the Lord for all the opportunities to give the Gospel to any of the 15 million speakers of that language. It is well worth all of the effort, self-discipline, and resources to accomplish.
How about you? Do you understand how powerful an instrument for the Gospel that language can be? Does God want you to learn another language and culture? What would God have you to do? If you set your heart to this task in the will of God, He will give you the grace to do it.
Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia for the last twenty years. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.