Some time back I set out on a quest to begin acquiring a second language with which to interact with working class people in their mother tongue here in the country where I serve. Up to this point in time,having been studying part-time only 3-6 hours a week for a total of about 16 months, I'm still a way off from fluency.
Realizing that age is now a factor and that I am only allocated to study part-time as opposed to when I began learning Mandarin Chinese 10 years ago, I did not set very high goals initially. I figured that if I could interact with people out in the street in their heart language from time to time, that would be enough ("Listen to the foreigner. How cute. He can speak some Taiwanese!"). I could switch back to Mandarin most of the time when necessary as most people speak both. And when it comes to sharing about Christ, I can probably do that just in Mandarin as well (to be frank, my Mandarin's not so hot either).
Circumstances are forcing me to reexamine those suppositions:
1) Yesterday I went for a haircut in a local shop. Two elderly men were ahead of me but one of them insisted that I go first. Both men, as well as the older lady barber, were only able to speak Taiwanese. The barber's Mandarin was stronger but still not strong at all. After the first guy left, the other guy asked me several questions. One of them was the typical question I get here about Christianity and Catholicism because there is a large Catholic school nearby (but no viable Catholic church). But another had to do with Jesus. Sadly, I was not able to tell him about Jesus yet because I have yet to get that far in my Taiwanese! I'm reminded that God wants me to get to the point soon where I can not only handle daily conversation in Taiwanese (which I still cannot maintain for long), but definitely also share the whole gospel.... not just switch back over into the other language.
2) A few weeks ago, I had corrected my Mandarin message on the father figure in the story of the Prodigal Son. As I have been doing my last 2 messages, I then selected a few key sentences to sprinkle in a little Taiwanese in key places here and there. My teacher that hour, a charismatic Catholic believer, said that adding the Taiwanese, even though it was only 7 or 8 sentences in a full message, was a very big deal. Without it, he feels like he's sitting under the stern, strict mandatory Mandarin language educational system instituted by the KMT which he sat under years ago in his childhood. The Taiwanese sentences, he says, make the tone much less formal, more interactive, more earthy.
3) One of my neighbors, an elderly lady, is illiterate. I can read much more Chinese than she can, and my reading skills are not so hot! What are the implications of reaching this kind of person when, say, a short term team from an on-island church comes down next summer or winter vacation wanting to distribute tracts? She can understand a lot of Mandarin, but cannot speak much. And she reads even less.
4) Lately, my field director Tim Iverson has been quite thoughtful in volunteering his copy of Evangelical Missions Quarterly for me to read after he is done (I used to get it regularly until funds got tighter and the denomination had no choice but to make cuts in the missions budget). In the January 2008 EMQ, one particular article, "Event-speech as a Form of Missionary Communication", particularly relates to my countryside context. A house church pastor in Central ASia says: "If I stood up and gave a speech like you do in your Western churches, people would think I was crazy! No one would ever talk that way in real life." Rather than investing hours and hours of preparation time to deliver a speech that may or may not meet my listeners where they are (and which takes far longer for me to prepare than it would a native speaker), I should be prepared and expectant of the spontaneous opportunities to speak God's truth into peoples' lives in response to the questions and issues they raise and the divine appointments God sets. In fact, this is the context for most of the "sermons" that are recorded in scripture.
So what should "church" eventually look like here when we have one? Probably very different than the traditional Sunday sermon with a few hymns tacked on front and back. Another good reason to continue forging ahead with the 2nd language, and to trust God for national coworkers who have some insight and discernment to see past the traditional way of doing church in Chinese culture. No matter what, my Taiwanese will never be as good as theirs.