The Lost Will be Won in Their Heart Language: Business, Church Planting and Language Acquisition

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Dear BAM Mentor,

I can see that language acquisition is going to be essential to both business and church planting efforts in my target area, but it is a lot to think about. How have you seen language learning combined with business development and start–up? What has worked? Any other tips for successfully putting together business strategy and church planting strategy?

~ Planning to Plant

Dear Planning,

I find it impossible to think of ministry that could be in any way divorced or separated from what is happening in the course of everyday work during an entrepreneurial phase of starting a business. Ministry in this context must flow through the day to day activities of getting the business off the ground. You develop relationships with potential clients, government officials, employees, etc. It is these people you are able to reach with your witness, it is these people you do life with, and are able to share the Hope that you have in your Savior. However, having said that, I think it would be impossible to work on a church plant alone, and also successfully start a business. It is essential that a new entrepreneur be part of a church planting team where the rest of the team is not at the same stage of early development of their business. Otherwise there won’t be the capacity do everything that needs to be done in church planting and the business. One or the other will flounder.

To be an entrepreneur and pull off everything that needs to happen to successfully start a new business requires 150% of our capabilities. This will be the greatest walk of faith that we have ever experienced. Successful entrepreneurs have come to the realization that, until the business is off the ground, the thought of a 50 hour work week is long gone, perhaps for years. They will live, breathe, and dream their venture day and night. Whether in the shower, sitting at their desk, meeting with clients or suppliers, eating lunch, or watching their kids’ baseball game, they are constantly planning, processing, and thinking about their business. If you are not consumed by the business during the first phase of the launch, you are unlikely to succeed.

The exact same thing can be said about a new church planting effort. Seeing people come to the Lord must become what dominates our thoughts, dreams, plans and visions. I have started many businesses and started several churches, in the US, Mexico and Afghanistan. However, I have not started a business and a church at the same time. I have run a business that has got past the start-up phase, and I have started a business while playing a supporting role in church planting, but I have not successfully been in start-up mode for both, and I do not recommend it.

Now, mix in the language learning. Language learning is a lifelong process. To acquire a new language you should ideally have a phase where you have to dedicate the same level of energy I’ve described above for starting a business or planting a church. You can’t really do it half-way. If you spend 50 hours a week learning a language (as I have done on a couple of occasions), you are likely to learn a language of moderate difficulty in 12 to 18 months, to an advanced low level. By then you have dedicated about 3000 to 4000 hours to learning the language. Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill or knowledge set. That means you still have years ahead of you of dedicated language learning to reach a level where you are truly proficient in the local language.

I recommend taking 9 to 12 months before starting your business to dedicate to intensive language learning. Imagine the amount of time per week it will take to start your business, and dedicate the same level of energy and commitment to learning the language. Live with a local family that does not know English. Hire a grammar teacher, and two language helpers (you will tire them out before you are ready to quit for the day). Hang out with neighbors. Make sure you learn spiritual vocabulary to an extremely high level. Completely immerse yourself so that you end up with around 3000 hours of intentional language learning in that first year. It will be hard, but it will serve you for the rest of your time in the culture.

Then start your business. It will consume you, but at least you will have an advanced low level of language to function in. That will make you more efficient than if you had to rely on translators. Hire a language teacher to meet with you for two hours a day to help you learn all the new vocabulary you are having to learn as you do business. Because you have learned enough language prior to starting the business, you will be able to run your business in the local language, so it will be easier to maintain the 50 hours of language even as you start your business. At about four years in, you will be approaching the 10,000 hour mark.

As you get your business off the ground, you will develop an integrated ministry among your clients, employees, and other stakeholders. You won’t be able to drive a church planting effort, but you will be an effective team member since you will have increasing fluency, and your spiritual vocabulary will be a strong suit in your language (remember, you prioritized this early on, before you started your business).

Once you have been in the country three years or so, you will have a superior command of the language if you have kept your intentional language immersion at 50+ hours per week. Week by week you will be approaching that 10,000 hours of language. You will have a two year old business that should ideally be coming out of start-up phase, and you should be putting a more independent management team in place. You will still need to dedicate 50+ hours per week to work, but your mental energy can begin to focus more on other things: family, interests, ministry, and yes, even church planting. It’s not that you didn’t do ministry during this phase, it’s just that your mental energy was mostly around getting that business going. It’s not that you stopped being an active parent during the early years of your start-up, but you have to admit that your mind was not always as present as it should be. Now is the time to rebalance. After a few months, perhaps approaching year four, you may feel a new bandwidth to drive a church planting effort. Your business still keeps you busy, but it does not dominate you like it did at first. Your family life is a little more in balance. You are ready to take more of a lead in church planting.

Notice this timeline does not allow for home visits or furlough. Furloughs in the conventional sense do not exist in business. That is the reality. We need to forget the idea that we are going to be able to automatically spend three to four years “in the field” and then get to go home and raise support and speak for weeks on end, at church after church for six months or a year. That does not work with business. We have to set ourselves up for the long-term in our host countries, and rethink our involvement with our home countries to more frequent, shorter visits rather than one long extended stay after a few years on the field. This is the new wave of missions and it looks different than the old wave. But the lost will still be won in their heart language, so language acquisition will continue to be a core component of what we do to reach them.

André Mann is serving as a Guest Mentor for our Ask a BAM Mentors column this month.

More Responses on this topic:

From Dwight Nordstrom and Nathan Chester:

We’ve seen that for 10/40 locations – such as China, India, the Islamic world – the statistics for BAMers wanting to stay more than 5 years are clear: you have to get to working proficiency in the local language!

Among PRI’s several hundred non-nationals (since 1990), 90% of those who made it to working proficiency in the local language achieved this proficiency prior to working in a job of 40 hours per week. There are exceptions to the rule, but very few BAMers get to working proficiency after starting working full-time on the field. If they do manage it, it is by bringing in a tutor from 7:30 to 9am in the morning – not recommended! Instead we recommend financial support from donors for the language acquisition period. It’s not current 2015 market reality to ask to ask the company to pay for it. […Read more]

From BAM Practitioner in Middle East: 

This is a good question and there are no easy answers. Your approach will depend your goals and your constraints. Here are a few questions to consider:

1. How do you define business: one where you will be totally supported by your operations or one in which you will still receive outside funding to support your living expenses? If you are okay with being subsidized through outside funding and able to raise such funding, even if for an initial timeframe, this will allow for more options. One option could be to spend more time learning a language for a period while you do some business-related work. Another benefit if you started a business would be that this support could sustain a period of losses, before profitability is reached. However, if you wanted to be totally supported by your operations, you would be more constrained by time. It would be very difficult to do intense language learning at the same time as working full-on in the business. […Read more]

André Mann is a multilingual entrepreneur and international business manager with 18 years of business experience in Latin America and Central Asia. André began his career in corporate business in Puerto Rico and Mexico. In 2002, he moved to Uzbekistan and then Afghanistan where he started several businesses, including an adventure travel company, a small manufacturing company, a consulting company, and a media production company. In 2011 he co-founded Sovereign’s Capital, and focuses on pipeline development and managing investments in Consumer Products and Services. André is currently the Head of European operations for Diversified Conveyors, a rapidly growing material handling Kingdom business.  

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