The Importance of Language Skills for BAM and Church Planting

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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,

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.

What type of business and job you choose to be in has a big impact on your language learning. It is important to choose a business that is more prone to allow church planting and to choose one that allows language usage. In practice, we have found that singles have an easier time of language learning, and married couples without kids do better than married couples with kids. 

A question to ask for a quick diagnosis of your language skills is: “Can I lead a seeker Bible Study in the local language?” One of the reason we like spiritual accountability groups is that they can allow individual to get biblical language training where public schools can’t.  

Another recommendation is having a management team that is multinational or multi-ethnic (a mix of three or more is best). Not all managers have to be Christian, but the majority should be “Great Commission Christians” and no key managers should be antagonistic toward Great Commission goals. We have found that ethnic and/or cultural diversity allows the company to be more effective in achieving its business goals, while having fewer cultural and language limitations. In the early 1990’s, PRI launched a team in Central Asia consisting of more than 20 non-nationals from over five different countries with almost 10 different mission agencies. This diverse group had a broader impact in both business and ministry. With different skills and backgrounds, team members contributed to the growth of the company and a real people movement among a Muslim group.

All the kingdom professionals should be part of a church-planting or ministry team focused on a city or people group. The emphasis is on having a team and not just an individual.  Our model is to have a “strategy coordinator” – a team leader within the business that is focusing on spiritual goals – that is not the business general manager. The strategy coordinator and BAM general manager should mutually come up with plan that is strategic and significant. Bringing in short-term people to “fertilize” the field is also a good tip that we have seen is effective.

Dwight Nordstrom and Nathan Chester of PRI are serving as Guest Mentors for our Ask a BAM Mentors column this month.

More Responses on this topic:

From André Mann:

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. […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]

Dwight Nordstrom has over 25 years experience in doing business as missions in China and Islamic countries. Since 1990, he has been the chairman of Pacific Resources International (PRI), a USA manufacturing-holding company with support functions of consulting and engineering for start-up and/or expansion of manufacturing in China. PRI specializes in planning and implementing small to medium high-technology manufacturing start-ups, mergers or acquisitions – over 30 of these since 1990. PRI currently has equity or management interests in approximately 10 manufacturing or other business operations in China. Dwight has also been General Manager of 9 factories in China with employment ranging from 30 to over 750.   

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Photo credit: Prayitno via Flickr