I have often wondered what the Early Church did when faced with swathes of different nationalities entering their churches but with no help from Google Translate, no simultaneous translation equipment and no credible way to produce a translated script. It is possible the operative language of each church was determined by their locality but also likely that they simply decided to operate in the Greek lingua franca, especially if faced with multiple languages in one meeting. Evidently it is not one of those issues on which scripture offers any clear cut guidance.
Muslims sometimes like to claim superiority on the issue by insisting that everyone learns Arabic for the purposes of reading the Qur’an. What they often don’t tell you is that the vast majority of Muslims simply cannot read or understand the Arabic language. Although the Qur’an is read in Arabic by the imam, mosques still operate in local languages and dialects. One of the reasons for different mosques appearing in a locality is because people speak different languages and thus prefer to worship where they can understand the goings on. Whilst the Muslim world still suffers from the same problem faced by 16th Century Christianity – that only a learned few are capable of reading the Qur’an – Arabic has not become the hoped for universal language of the Islamic world. Most mosques in Oldham still primarily operate in Urdu, Bengali, Pahari or Sylheti.
We are often quick to speak about multiculturalism in churches, and happy to speak about multiethnic churches, both of which come with some issues that need addressing (and they are not the same thing). For example, every area of the UK has a local culture and any church made up of people from anywhere other than the local culture is, to some degree, multicultural. Being multiethnic is an extension of multiculturalism, simply meaning your church will not be homogeneous in terms of colour, nationality and culture. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible to be multicultural and multiethnic without having to face the problems of being a multilingual church.
Most churches in the UK are unilingual. Typically, they operate in English and expect anybody coming to their church to have sufficient English language skills to engage with the programme. There are growing numbers of unilingual minority language churches. Historically, the UK had a rich seam of Welsh-speaking unilingual churches. As immigration has increased to the UK, other types of unilingual churches have cropped up. These function in exactly the same way as English-speaking unilingual churches, differing only in the main operative language. So, for example, we get Chinese churches operating in Mandarin and Iranian churches operating in Farsi. Those coming in would be expected to have sufficient Mandarin or Farsi to engage with the goings on.
It is possible for churches that operate in the national language to include those who speak a different first language. For example, English-speaking churches in the UK can operate in English and expect, to some degree, foreign residents to begin learning English, not least given the need for everyday operation in the English language. Those churches that operate in minority languages will find it almost impossible to draw in anyone who is not already fluent in their operative language. For example, a Chinese church in the UK is highly unlikely to gain any non-Mandarin speakers and cannot realistically expect many to improve their Mandarin given most people will operate on a daily basis in English. Only those already fluent in Mandarin are ever likely to join that church. This tends to mean that churches operating in minority languages become more homogeneous than those operating in a mainline national language.
As I have noted here, minority language churches very often elevate cultural and ethnic differences above the gospel imperative for visible unity among the nations. Whilst recognising the importance of being able to understand what is going on, it is often the case that cultural and ethnic differences lead to ‘birds of a feather’ churches. When the language is right, the same type of people go and we end up with a homogeneous ethnic group defining their church almost entirely by their ethnicity.
From the linked article:
At the risk of severely irritating some of my Welsh brothers and sisters, this issue seems particularly perverse in many, but by no means all, Welsh-speaking churches. I am quite prepared to concede that in certain communities there may be some who speak no English and/or the vast majority of the community truly have Welsh as a first language. But in many places, where just about all speak English but only a select number can understand Welsh, it does seem to be an anti-gospel perversity that insists on elevating the exercise of cultural distinctives over and above the need to make the gospel understandable to all. It certainly elevates cultural distinctiveness over the importance of gospel unity itself, which surely extends as much to language where we are able as it does to submitting on issues of second, or third, tier importance.
The problem is perhaps more understandable among minority-language churches that serve groups who cannot understand the mainline language sufficiently to engage with a church operating predominantly in English. Nonetheless, the issue still remains. Homogeneous ethnic groups form churches because of their language. It is almost an institutionalising within the church of the Babel curse which the gospel is supposed to remedy.
Inevitably, churches must operate in a primary language. No speaker – no matter how multilingual – has more than one mouth from which to speak. However, if minority-language churches tend to lead to homogeneous ethnic churches, and if such homogeneity undercuts the visible representation of gospel unity that ought to be pictured in the church, then it follows that minority-language churches are not the way to go. Churches, perhaps, ought to operate in the predominant language of their area (whatever that may be) whilst working hard to include those who speak a different first-language rather than encouraging them to hive off into their own homogeneous church.
I would see a good case here for translation over segregation. Even where we run separate Sunday services and meetings based on language, we run the danger of birds of feather flocking together and – even if this is not our intention – having two churches operating in the same building divided by language.
As an aside, just as we have women’s meetings, men’s events and other groups targeted at specific people, there is no issue of itself with having groups for those with a shared culture, ethnicity or language. It may be appropriate to run such things at times. However, if we are splitting the Sunday gathering by language or there are almost no occasions where people of different languages and cultures are sat together as part of the same church sharing fellowship with one another, to all intents and purposes we are running two churches divided by language.
It should also be noted that if we are running specific language groups and the majority of individuals are coming to the meetings in their first-language and eschewing mainline meetings operating in the majority language, then again we are running two churches.
Even if we argue that the minority language meetings are not the main focus of the church, if the minority language speakers go to meetings in their language and not those in the majority language, then we have one of two problems. Either, we have a homogeneous church running a separate language group that fails to include minority language speakers in the church proper at all; or, we have two churches in which one group treats the other as a second-class church because they are not meeting as part of the mainline church. In either case, it is not terribly desirable.
As an aim for gospel unity, should we not endeavour to include as far as possible those who speak minority languages in the main meetings of the church? If we are all one in Christ Jesus, should we not try to visibly manifest that unity by at least sitting together under the same teaching and sharing fellowship together at the same time? Whilst nothing is ever going to be perfect this side of glory, could we not endeavour to translate our services – and perhaps encourage and help those currently limited to learn the mainline language – so that they can engage with us together in the church?
Perhaps this may mean incorporating elements of the minority language into our church services. It may mean letting people pray in their own language so that they can engage in prayer together with the rest of the church. It may mean having Bible readings in two or three different languages rather than just the one. It may mean investing in some translation equipment and allowing people to translate elements of the service simultaneously so that all are listening to the same teaching and sharing in the same fellowship at the same time. It might mean singing some songs in a language you don’t understand and having a translation of them in a book.
In all these things, isn’t unity in the gospel – especially unity that is visibly expressed – more important than our relative comfort with all that is going on? If church is not all about me, but how I can serve others, what a reminder to have to slow down and do things differently because people who don’t even speak my language want to engage with the same gospel that unites us in Jesus Christ. I don’t want to hive off my brothers and sisters from another country just so I can get home to my dinner bang on 12. I want to visibly express our unity in Jesus Christ. I want us to sit under the same Word. I want us to sing and worship together despite our differences in language.
What are we really after in the church? Do we just want to sit with people like us? Are we going for comfort and ease of things happening the way I like? Is our main concern getting back for lunch, or the football, or whatever? I would rather my service took longer, things were a bit more chaotic and we had to work a bit harder if it meant that we weren’t just homogeneously comfortable but we were genuinely and visibly unified. If Babel was a curse, it seems odd to me in the extreme for the church to actively encourage it by segregating their congregation by language. If the Early Church could manage to integrate, with all our technological advantages, surely with a bit of thought we can do it too.