Should we baptise and welcome into membership those who don’t speak our language?

I was reading the latest 9 Marks mailbag and stumbled across a question regarding baptism and membership for those who do not speak our language. The question was stated thus:

A family of Spanish speakers recently started attending our church. They’re baptized believers who were attending an evangelical church in Spain before moving to the UK, but their grasp of English is limited. How would you suggest we maintain a robust membership process while taking into account their language limitations?

You can read Jonathan Leeman’s response here.

As a church that does run bilingually, and seeks to translate as much of what goes on as possible, I am going to disagree with Jonathan here. Before I do that, I want to land on the key points of agreement between us.

First, Jonathan is right that the level of language ability does make some difference. Whilst I do not necessarily think the best answer is to send such people away to monocultural, monolingual churches, I agree this makes a difference in how we handle each situation.

Second, Jonathan is absolutely right that church is about much more than a Sunday morning service. If our sole contact with those who don’t speak our language is on Sunday morning, and we have no means of communicating with them outside of that one meeting, common sense dictates ours is not going to be a happy home for that family and we are unlikely to fulfil our pastoral responsibilities to them. However, I sense this sets up a false dichotomy between Sunday-morning-onlyism and full-blown daily communication as to a native English speaker. There is a significant excluded middle here. Nonetheless, if we can’t accommodate other languages outside of Sunday meetings at all, Jonathan is probably right that we are not going to do that family any favours.

Third, I appreciate (what I perceive to be) Jonathan’s underlying principle here. Primary in determining what to do must be the pastoral good of the family in question. We should in no way be driven by a desire to up our membership rolls or tout our multicultural credentials. The fundamental question is, would this family best be served by accommodation in our church, notwithstanding all its limitations; or, would they be pastorally better off in a monolingual, monocultural church? I don’t think the answer is always clear cut but our guiding principle must be the pastoral good of the family.

Here is where I am going to disagree with Jonathan’s answer. In effect, or so it read to me, Jonathan is making a mini-case for monolingual, monocultural church. For the record, I do not believe every church has to be multicultural in order to be biblical.

For example, the little village in which I spent my teens is 99% white. Not only white but overwhelmingly British and middle class. Though there were some working class folk around, they were a small minority. We can’t expect churches in such areas to be witnessing to the multicultural, class-crossing nature of the gospel in their membership rolls when the handful of people in the area all come from, and belong to, one cultural group. Churches in these sorts of areas rightly reflect the local demography. I would not expect a church in Wantage, Grove, Hanney, Uffington, Childrey and a host of other tiny places you’ve never heard of to be replete with BME and working class people. It’s simply not the makeup of the area.

By the same token, however, I would not expect a church in the middle of Oldham to be exclusively white and middle class. Middle class people are in a minority across Oldham and there are substantial numbers of ethnic minorities. Moreover, due to the segregated nature of the town, there are areas in which white people would be in a minority. Just as the churches across the Vale of the White Horse rightly reflect the general makeup of their area, so too churches across the borough of Oldham should reflect the makeup of their town and local areas as well.

What this means is that whilst not all churches must be multicultural, multiethnic, multiwhatever to be biblical, some churches are doing something wrong if they are not.

Jonathan rightly questions how we can preach the gospel to those who cannot speak our language. The answer, which he seems to dismiss, is through translation. Again, if our only means of translation exists on Sunday morning, this may be a problem. However, there are ways of making sure translators are available during other meetings and on a one-to-one basis. Moreover, if your church provides (as we do) English classes and/or there are means locally of those with English as a Second Language (ESOL) accessing college courses to improve their language skills, these are further ways we can help to integrate ESOL folk into our church long-term.

Moreover, if we are aiming to make the visible church as close to the invisible church as we are able, is it not incumbent upon us to include those the Lord includes and to accommodate them as far as we are able? The question much of this returns to is, will these people be pastorally better off in a multilingual, multicultural church; or, in one locally of their own language?

Jonathan rightly notes the question of whether any such church exists locally for them anyway. Further, if a Spanish-speaking church exists locally, how gospel-centred is it? Is it better to send a Spanish-speaking couple to a Spanish-speaking church that might be broadly Evangelical but whose teaching we would find problematic at various points; or, for them to be accommodated, with all its linguistic difficulties, into your own church?

For us, there are no Farsi-speaking churches in Oldham for our large Iranian contingent. There are Farsi-speaking churches in Manchester but most Iranian Christianity has been tied up with the less helpful elements of Pentecostalism and often comes with a dose of properity teaching on the side. If not this, it is typically very charismatic. Most Iranian Christian have heard, listened to and adopted the teaching of Joyce Meyer; few have even heard of Mark Dever. The Farsi-speaking Iranian churches in England exhibit this tendency. In our case, is it better to accommodate or send to the (broadly) Evangelical Farsi-speaking church? It has typically been my view that accommodation is best.

Moreover, it is worth asking a wider question. Whilst the pastoral good of the family – and, indeed, the rest of the church membership – is paramount, there is much to gain pastorally in a multicultural, multilingual church with all its limitations.

For one, we repeatedly tell our members that church is not principally about yourself and having your felt needs met. We are a family who are coming together, as Christ commanded, to serve one another and build each other up in love. Having to accommodate people with varying degrees of language ability at meetings and in discipleship is a potent reminder that we are there to serve. We acknowledge it makes things harder, but it does not make them impossible and it makes us all the more aware that we are not here to have our preferences met and our felt needs served but to serve others as Christ has served us.

Second, there is a witness to the world (both inside and outside our building) when we accommodate different languages. Whilst, of course, Jonathan is right that without a Pentecost-style gift of languages everything is going to be much harder, the fact that we are working hard to include and incorporate our brothers and sisters whose language is limited witnesses to the gospel. It shows the world that we are, indeed, a people from every tribe, tongue and nation. It shows the fact that we are one in Christ Jesus and that, despite the difficulties and limitations, we are going to serve one another as best we are able.

Third, I think Jonathan’s argument could extend to people with learning difficulties, mental impairment and, to a degree, children. How are we to preach the gospel effectively to those who, on paper, can’t understand as easily as others? Most churches (I would hope) would argue for some sort of accommodation. There aren’t many people advocating special needs churches and, more than few (John Piper amongst them), have actively made a case for scrapping in-service Sunday Schools and keeping children in during a service. Often, when this happens, some accommodation is made for them.

If we are not advocating separate churches for the mentally impaired, those with learning difficulties and children, I am not sure why we would do this for those with language limitations? In all these cases, the heart of the issue is one of understanding. But I know of nobody advocating separate churches for those with learning and mental issues, but we are happy for those who speak different languages to be siphoned off. If the answer comes back, we can tailor our teaching to those of limited capacity within our language, isn’t it equally true that we can tailor our teaching and services (both in and out of Sunday morning) to those whose language capacity is limited too?

I am naturally sceptical of anything that would want to divide the church by race, ethnicity, language or learning capacity. My inclination is typically to accommodate rather than separate. I think this is more in line with the gospel imperative to be one in Christ Jesus and that there is no Jew nor Greek etc etc.

I want to recognise that this is not without its issues. However, the question is not should we do this but how do we do this? How do we express gospel unity across different potential human divides? How do we accommodate those it is harder to accommodate? It feels a little to me like separation does not behove the gospel well.

4 comments

  1. Good analysis.

    It’s also worth considering, under the heading of “what is best for the family?” the following:

    1. Their own wishes. There may be relational and theological (not to mention providential) reasons why the family gravitated to the English-speaking church and not the Spanish-language one down the road. These desires should not be ignored, even if they make take time to discover and be articulated.

    2. The fact that language acquisition by adults is essential to the well being and flourishing of these adults in their new community. Lack of integration (with language barriers very prominent) is a problem, not a neutral position.

    3. The fact that the children of first-generation immigrants often pick up the host language more quickly than their parents. The needs of the family cannot therefore be defined as only those of its adult members. The children are more likely to identify as “belonging” to the host community before their parents, and especially as they learn the language. For them, church in their household language may well not serve them as well as church in the national language of their new home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A family that *only* speaks Spanish is not going to survive effectively in the UK. Teaching them English brings them into active participation with church members, it also helps them thrive in wider society, and it enables the church to make a reasonable judgment regarding faith/membership.

    I, personally, think that single language congregations are disastrous. There are too many issues to list, and it is an unbiblical notion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I mentioned in the article, obviously context makes some difference. I wouldn’t expect many (if any) churches in Grove or Childrey to be multilingual, it’s just not the makeup of the area. But I think multilingual, especially multiethnic, churches in areas that are very multicultural clearly do cut against the gospel and are not on a biblical footing.

      Like you, I see real problems in monolingual churches in countries where they are a minority language (e.g. Mandarin-speaking churches in the UK). But that would be a whole other article for another day.

      Like

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