While skimming some articles related to the Chau case, I came across this by TGC. It said in part:
Currently, it is unknown whether Chau was a sent by any church. Although he joined All Nations in 2017, it’s also unclear whether the missionary organization sanctioned his trip to the Sentinelese people.
I note in passing that this and several other related questions was cleared up by interviews given by All Nations, particularly this one with Christianity Today.
More curious was this statement:
Third, and most importantly, is whether they can communicate in the language of the target people group. If they cannot speak the language they cannot carry out the purpose of the missionary. They may embed themselves within a people to study the language and gain the skills necessary for communication. But until they are able to communicate the gospel to the target group, they are not functioning as missionaries[emphasis added].
This suggests a belief that the thousands of new workers who are deployed to the field by all sorts of agencies are not “really missionaries” until they finish their time of language learning. Isn’t learning the language part of the missionary task?
What about Wycliffe translators who have worked in people group A for years, and finished a translation, and now begin to work in people group B - were they once missionaries, but now not missionaries, because they have not yet learned the language?
Or, is it necessary to learn “the language of the target people group,” or simply a language that they know? For example, if the people group is very small, is it sufficient to learn the major trade language they are fluent in?
What about missionary support staff - for example, myself. I am not communicating in the language of a target people group - should I no longer call myself (as some in my field of work do) a “missionary researcher”?
I suspect that a great many people in field and global leadership with major organizations still refer to themselves as “missionaries sent by…” even though they are not on the field speaking a local language.
I think the thrust of this point is that language learning is important. If the Gospel isn’t communicated in ways that people can understand, whole people groups can be cut off from Gospel resources - and that is the heart and soul of unreached people thinking. We can certainly debate about whether it is more strategic to communicate in a specific language. And I applaud that idea.
But I think we need to be careful about filtering who is or is not a missionary, or who is performing a “missionary function,” based on what specific (often Western) approach they have or have not yet done. Remember “the missionary function” is not clearly defined in the Bible. We infer a lot of it, but Jesus didn’t send missionaries.