by Shawn Duncan
“Program is our native tongue,” the missions pastor told me.
Her words caused the gears in my brain to realign and click together. After meeting with countless groups who deeply desire to love and serve their neighbors, but struggle in many ways to do so, the metaphor of language so perfectly captures the challenges of changing our charity models. Program is a our native tongue, and learning a new language is difficult.
We don’t have to concentrate when we’re speaking our first language. We can confess love, crack jokes, engage conflict, or weave complex explanations without giving special attention to our verb tenses or vocabulary choices. It’s natural, it’s reflexive.
On the other hand, language barriers can be incredibly challenging and can lead to disconnection. I have enjoyed many meals at the tables of neighbors with whom I do not share a common tongue. They offer me food, and I gladly partake. With some practice, I learned to say “dhanyavad” (pronounced in my Southern English as Don-Day-Baht), which simply means “thank you” in their language, Nepali. As much as we find delight in one another across language and culture, it is hard to be be fully oneself in these situations. I can’t make jokes or ask thoughtful questions. I can’t discuss theology, listen to the challenges their family may be facing, or offer a word of encouragement. It can be uncomfortable and stretching for me.
It’s similar with our charity practices. Too often, we’re not asking the right questions. We’re trying to tweak and improve our programs when transformation must start at a much deeper place. While initativing or growing programs may be one way churches seek to show love to their communities, the one-way engagement may be communicating an entirely different message to the people they hope to serve. It’s time to reimagine charity. It’s time we learn a different language.
I believe the commitment required to learn a new language is why so many churches struggle to reimagine charity. It’s easier to memorize the phrases we need to get by: how to order food, reserve a hotel room, find the bathroom. But these language basics - even sprinkled with a few handy slang expressions - do not demonstrate true fluency. Similarly, even when leaders or congregation members fully buy-in to the philosophy of smart charity, they struggle to move forward because of the time and reorientation it takes to start with developing meaningful local relationships over beginning to organize programming.
Learning a new language takes a great deal of commitment. It requires study, practice, time, attention, and patience. It takes work. It involves getting outside your comfort zone, embarrassing yourself, and trying again. I believe this same level of commitment can transform our charity programs into meaningful, deep partnerships between communities and their local churches and organizations.
Program is our native tongue. But we can learn a new language. The language of relationship.