In predominantly indigenous white British contexts, it is rare to meet people with whom you can’t easily communicate on any level. Yes, there may be folks with low literacy, but usually you can still speak with them. And even the guys with low literacy can read a bit, just not necessarily brilliantly well.
But in areas that are full of non-indigenous people – like our town – it is quite common to meet people who can’t easily communicate with you. Whilst there are plenty of British Muslims around, second and third generation people born and raised in the UK, and a good number of first-generation immigrants with good language skills, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how we might run into this problem with frequency. People who can neither read, write, nor speak our language. So how are we supposed to reach these people with the gospel?
I know it seems like a cute thing to say, but it bears recognising the brute reality. At the end of the day, you simply won’t be able to do everything with those who have low-level language ability that you can with a native speaker. It pays to remember that it will just be very difficult so that we manage our expectations.
Play the long game
Once we have recognised the first point, we can take a long term view of this gospel work. I might not be able to reel off the Two Ways to Live presentation today, but I can perhaps start by helping the person learn some basic English. Obviously, it is a long road from there to sharing the gospel in the fullest way, but it is possible to get there.
What is more, if you commit to teaching somebody English, there are ways of incorporating scripture and gospel into your teaching. Whilst not everything will get through, some of the things might do. Equally, one of the key things with language learning is making sure people spend their time speaking and listening to the target language. Inviting people into Sunday services and home groups – whilst it might seem to us like they are getting nothing from it – over time people frequently imbibe more than we often reckon. What is more, it will help their language skills so that they might be in a position to hear the gospel from you in time.
Demonstrate the love of God
Regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t have a great deal of time for the pseudo-Franciscan philosophy of sharing the gospel and using words if necessary. Obviously using words is necessary because the gospel is a message that needs to be communicated. Whilst the gospel will inevitably affect our behaviour, our lifestyle alone cannot communicate the facts necessary for somebody to turn to Christ.
That being true, however, doesn’t change the fact that our lifestyle does convey something. It may not be enough on its own to lead somebody to Christ, but it does do something. If we are playing the long game, and seeking to help the person with their language (even if it is helping them onto a college course and then acting as a native speaker on whom they can practice), demonstrating the love of God may just help them respond to the gospel when they are in a position to actually hear it.
Use available resources
Depending on the language your friends speak, you may have access to a lesser or greater amount of resources. However, what the vast majority of us do have access to is a smart phone. On that smart phone, you can download the YouVersion Bible App. That app has the Bible in a huge number of different language such that the vast majority of us at least have that which we can use with our non-English speaking friends. Even if we cannot explain everything we would like, we can at least help our friends to start reading the Bible with us by pointing them to clear verses in their Bible version.
If we have access to the YouVersion Bible on a smartphone, we will also have access to Google Translate. Whilst this come with fewer languages, many of the ones we might encounter will be available. This provides us with the essential tools we need to do a very basic bible study. We can look at single verses in our respective Bible translations and then, using very basic English, pose questions via Google Translate. We can even begin to simply explain things this way. Whilst the translation is far from perfect, it is possible to get a remarkably long way doing this. It is very slow and can be frustrating, but the gospel can be reasonably and clearly shared doing this with a bit of trial and error.
Use a human translator
Even better than Google Translate, try and get a human to translate for you. In my experience, whilst it can be helpful to have somebody with perfect English and a degree in the other language, it isn’t necessary. If you have others around who have better English than the person you are working with, ask them to come along to translate.
The benefit of this is several fold. First, you will probably get better translation than Google (and, for the occasional word, you can still use Google). This makes the translation more accurate. Second, you will have somebody who can say that your question doesn’t make sense to them or that the other person’s answer makes no sense. Google can’t do that. But third, it acts as excellent discipleship for the translator. They are made to read the Word more than they would otherwise. They are hearing the gospel again and seeing it applied. They can see how you are trying to lead somebody else to faith and can copy you. It is an excellent discipleship and training opportunity if you have people around who can help this way.
We so quickly forget, we have a sovereign God able to do all things. Should he wish to speed along somebody’s language development, he is surely able. If he wants us to have opportunities that we thought well outside of our grasp, he can open them up. Most importantly, if we want people to be saved, no amount of excellent English and clear gospel presentation will do it alone. A person must be ‘born from above’ as John puts it. Without a supernatural work of God’s Spirit, nothing it going to happen. And if he can move people like you and me from death to life, he can surely overcome the barrier of language somehow too. If we can do nothing else, we can always pray. If we are praying, there is always a possibility that the Lord will choose to work.