Stacey and I were greatly blessed to be able to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary a number of years ago. Coming from Southern California, there was a bit of culture shock, walking down marble hallways surrounded by men in suits and ties. Near the end of our time in seminary, we were glad to have the opportunity to hear Pastor John Piper speak in chapel. He started his sermon with a pretty shocking phrase. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like this: “While I am honored to come and speak at this great institution, I see a great danger. Though it is certainly not impossible to remain a Christian here, I believe it is very difficult.”
You can imagine the shock that many felt at hearing this. Seminary is supposed to be a place where committed Christians learn how to be Christian leaders. You would not expect anyone to say that it is a hard place to remain a Christian. And yet, looking back now, several friends from seminary have walked away from the faith. While I am not blaming SBTS for their departure, I can see that there is a danger in those marble halls and suits and ties. I don’t remember exactly which danger Piper was addressing in that message, but one danger that I see is the danger of professionalism.
Piper wrote a book about the subject of pastors and professionalism (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals) which makes me think that he had this in mind when speaking at that chapel. In the introduction to this book, Piper helps draw the distinction between professionals and Christian ministers:
“We are fools for Christ’s sake. But professionals are wise. We are weak. But professionals are strong. Professionals are held in honor. We are in disrepute. We do not try to secure a professional lifestyle, but we are ready to hunger and thirst and be ill-clad and homeless. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things. Or have we?” (page 2)
While I have found the world of missions to be very different than the world of seminary, I believe that the monster of “professionalism” rears its ugly head here too, especially in the field of Bible translation. This is a danger that I have never seen addressed for missions, so I thought I would write here a few warning signs I have noticed.
So, here are three warning signs that a missionary might be falling into the trap of professionalism.
1. A lack of prayer
I have recently met and been encouraged by a missionary who is working as a director for a different mission agency. Though heavily involved in the logistics of Bible translation, she has been very intentional to call missionaries around her to prayer. At one point I asked how she felt that was going and she told me that she often receives resistance, whether it be people not showing up for prayer times, or direct rebuffs. What could lead to such unwillingness to pray?
As far as I can tell linguistics is often viewed as a human endeavor. One could believe, and many certainly do, that degrees and experience are all that are needed to be a good professional linguist. However, what may be mistaken as competency, can easily become self-sufficiency for the missionary linguist. And when missionaries resist prayer times, I believe that this is a symptom of the belief that we are sufficient in ourselves. It is a symptom of professionalism.
Professionals are wise, strong, and independent. Christians however are weak, fools for Christ’s sake, and deeply dependent on the Spirit. Professional linguistics and translators can achieve good analysis and translation through in depth study and careful application of procedure. Now, secular translators and Bible translators all agree on one aspect of translation: you cannot translate something you do not understand. If I am translating from a menu in French into English, if I come across a word that I do not know, I have to look it up. If I don’t understand it, I cannot translate it.
However, in Bible translation, we cannot rely exclusively on our education or time spent in study. Paul, when addressing the way in which we understand spiritual truths, said:
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).
To understand, so that we can translate, we need the Spirit. Paul said that someone who does not have the Spirit of God is not able to understand the things of the Spirit. This is a deeply humbling reality. Professional translators, when called upon to defend their translation, can call up their LinkedIn page and demonstrate their own achievements. Bible translators have to admit that we are insufficient on our own to understand the Bible. We need someone outside of ourselves (the Spirit) to lead us to understanding.
Prayer is, among other things, a creature calling out to their Creator in knowing dependence. Therefore, a lack of prayer indicates an irrational independence characteristic of a worldly professional and inappropriate for a servant of Christ. A godly Bible translator is committed to prayer because he knows he cannot do it on his own.
2. Reticence to work with the poor
This might come as a surprise to some, but I have noticed that a few current missionary philosophies discourage working with the poor. This is how the thinking goes: One of our goals as missionaries is to reach the largest audience possible. When someone gets saved, they tend to spread their faith to those with whom they have influence. Those people who have the most influence are often leaders: government workers, chiefs, and the wealthy to name a few. When we first came to work in Cameroon we were told to reach out to the “elites” among the Kwakum (basically those in the categories I just mentioned). We were told that if the elites were not on board we should just go home because they would use their influence against the project.
Now, the Bible does call us to be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16), however, this philosophy of targeting the influential seems to go against Jesus’ ministry model. Jesus spent his time with fishermen, zealots, and various other types of low-influence people. In fact, the high-influence people (like the Pharisees) were greatly offended at whom Jesus spent his time with, saying to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11).
Paul, following in Christ’s methods, called the Roman believers to “not be haughty, but associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16b). My point is that the philosophy of reaching out to the wealthy influencers seems wise. It seems like a good way to use our limited resources. It requires a certain professionalism and carefully chosen shoes. It actually in some ways feels nice, because it places the missionary in the same realms as the influential. But I believe this is the type of “wisdom” that Paul was warning against. If we are following Christ, 99% of the time the influencers will see us as fools.
Just as a side note, our experience here in Cameroon has shown that the poor and uneducated are the most motivated to work towards translation. The poor are the ones working beside us day in and day out. Just today, one of our translators (who is not considered influential) told me that God’s work comes above all things and he will drop everything to serve when we call him to a translation session. In contrast, I have a very hard time getting the “elites” to answer their phones.
3. Concern for how the world views us
Missionaries are heavily criticized in American culture as a whole. Missionaries are often referred to as modern-day colonialists, destroyers of culture, and (to add insult to injury) Bible translators are often attacked as being bad linguists! I think it is fine to address these attacks (I wrote a response to some of them after the death of John Allen Chau). I also think it is right to listen and see if we are genuinely doing something wrong. I was impressed with one of our professors at DIU who brought up a criticism levelled at missionary linguists which said that we tend to teach outdated theory. In response, he was very careful to stay up with current trends in linguistics and teach them to his students.
However, Christian missionaries should not spend much time thinking about how the unbelieving world views us. Professionals have to be concerned with how other people view them. They have to write peer reviewed articles and speak up in defense of their methodology. Professionals seek to be treated with honor and continually pursue degrees, titles, and positions. But brothers and sisters, we are not professionals. Our primary forerunner was not Chomsky, it was Jesus Christ. And Jesus was reviled, cursed, spit upon, and in the end murdered. Jesus said,
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (Matthew 10:24-25).
Missionaries, before we are linguists (or church planters, or doctors, or agriculture specialists) we are Christians. We are followers, following a Master who was literally accused of being the devil. No matter what you do to earn the honor of the world, if you continue following Jesus they will never honor you. It is a pointless endeavor that you have already been guaranteed will fail.
So, my call to my missionary friends: Let us abandon professionalism. Let’s not try to figure out a super secret formula that Jesus never revealed in His Word. Let’s not abandon prayer, or the poor. When the world hates us, let them! They hated our King too. Amy Carmichael said,
“If the praise of others elates me and their blame depresses me; if I cannot rest under misunderstanding without defending myself; if I love to be loved more than to love, to be served more than to serve, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
Professionalism calls us to care about the praise of others, defend ourselves, and be served. This is the opposite of the Gospel and the opposite of what we should be doing in missions. Our lives should reflect Christ. When people see us and our ministry, they should not see high-minded professionals, they should see men and women who are gentle and lowly. And when they see that, many will hate us. But, they were going to hate us anyway.