In early January, I moved from Chicago to Birmingham, England, after my spouse got a job here. Since then, I’ve been regularly embarrassing myself during simple acts of conversation.
- Sitting back in my chair at the end of a dinner party and saying, “Wow, I’m stuffed!”
- Asking the cashier at a local bakery if they had a “biggie” version of the pastry I wanted.
- Mentioning to a group of teenagers that I liked my crumpets buttered.
All of these earnest comments brought forth unexpected silence, disgust, or laughter from my conversation partners. You can check out Urban Dictionary to find out why.
It’s often said that the US and the UK are two countries “separated by a common language.” The “same” word might be spelled or pronounced differently depending on your location. A standard phrase on one side of the Atlantic might make no sense at all on the other side, or might make a totally different impression than the one intended, as I continue to discover. So these days I find myself constantly trying to translate between one version of English and the other. And while it’s not as exhausting as the translating I’m doing from English to my barely conversant French for an upcoming talk in Paris, it still requires a heightened attentiveness.
First Language Speakers
Since I’m new to the UK, I’ve also been visiting a lot of different churches, in part because I’m personally searching for a community of people to share life with, but also because, as a pastor, church planter (in the UK, a “pioneer”) and ministry coach, I’m professionally interested in what I can learn from diverse expressions of church. One of the things I’ve been struck with in many of the wonderful places I’ve visited so far — from evangelical church plant to established high church liturgy to mainline worship to Pentecostal prayer meeting to fringe missional collective — is how thoroughly the words and practices of their services assume that Christianity is the first language of the people gathered there. Words like sin, grace, gospel, atonement, salvation, offering, tithe, communion, etc., are used, often with little or no description or interpretation. (This is certainly not a UK-specific condition).
On one hand, I know that many of these and other words are particularly beautiful and beautifully particular, and there are few adequate synonyms to convey the richness they point to. So don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that we should jettison our ancient vocabulary; instead, we should teach it compellingly and as early as possible — as a first language.
Linguistic studies demonstrate the tremendous advantage that children and young students have for learning languages. Apparently the brain’s plasticity to internalize new constructions and the mouth’s flexibility to make new sounds both begin to diminish after puberty. Learning the Christian faith is of course different from learning another language, but there are still resonances to pay attention to. For example, most Millennial (Gen Y) and Gen X people who attend church services today have had some point of contact with Christianity in their childhood. The early formation makes a significant difference. So when I meet with parents who are considering not raising their children in a faith community so that “they will be able to make their own religious choices when they’re old enough,” I compare learning Christianity to learning a first language and challenge them to give their children a deeply-rooted spiritual communication system that they will be able to employ intuitively throughout their lives. If at some point their children want to learn a second religious language — Buddhism, say, or atheism — or to abandon their first language altogether, then they will be able to make that choice then. (Interestingly, linguists say that knowing a first language really well — how it’s structured and how it works — makes it much easier to learn a second language later in life). But the risk of waiting until some future age when they can “decide for themselves” is that they won’t learn any faith language at all. So, again, let’s teach Christianity as a first language, and let’s teach it early.
Teaching Christianity as a Second Language
On the other hand, I worry that many existing faith communities don’t have the willingness to learn how to connect with people for whom Christianity is not a first language, which is an increasing supermajority of human beings. Unless the Church accepts that Christianity will be for most people a second language, and then learns how to translate Christianity into the secular vernacular, there will be little potential for real engagement with those who are investigating spirituality and faith with no prior religious language or experience. To be relevant requires at the most basic level the capacity to communicate effectively.
Of course, there will be some who are particularly gifted for ministries of translation — teachers, evangelists, and apostles, for example — but I believe that teaching Christianity as a second language is a missional calling of every Christian community and of every disciple of Jesus Christ.
Words Are Necessary
Teaching Christianity as a second language will require developing individual and congregational capacities to say something about the Gospel. Probably for most of us, this will mean learning how to say something about our own experience of the Gospel, which may be why some Christianity-as-first-language speakers are reluctant to embrace this ministry of translation, because it would require them to testify, in descriptive and narrative language, to what it feels like to undergo the Gospel in their own skin.
And for many (especially “mainline”) Christians, that is awkward territory. In fact, some of us find that prospect so uncomfortable that we have defaulted almost completely to non-verbal forms of communication and evangelism. “As long as we don’t have to actually say anything about God, we’re okay.” We’ve heard sermon after sermon, usually from first-language speakers, on that old chestnut incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” That’s a lovely quote and we should, of course, be concerned with letting the Gospel permeate all of our affairs, but in this day and age, especially when it comes to ministry with the next generations, words will be necessary most of the time. Quoting “St. Francis” as an escape from having to find words reflects not only a failure of nerve and lack of verve, but also potentially a kind of “first-language privilege.”
Tim Keller, one of the brightest contemporary church planters (and someone with whom I have significant theological disagreements) hits the nail on the head when he points out that nearly every time the word euangelion is used in the New Testament, it’s connected to a verbal expression of the good news. The Good News must be “en-worded” and not only that: it must be translated into a language that makes sense to hearers who don’t speak Christianity.
How Can We Practice Our New Language Skills?
Since corporate worship is still a primary gathering for Christians in many contexts, it’s a good place to begin to practice our new language skills and to shift the congregational culture toward a ministry of translation.
A few starter ideas:
- Begin to fold in well-curated but non-pedantic descriptions of different elements in the service each week, such as a clear statement of the congregation’s relevant mission (reason for being), an explicit welcome to the communion table, some spiritual direction that actually teaches people how to pray, etc. (Don’t do this all at once; try maybe an element or two a week). This helps not only people who are just learning the language of Christianity but also some who’ve been sitting in the pews for years using language that they’ve maybe not fully understood.
- When preaching, work hard to hold together didactic and narrative sermonic traditions. Dive deeply and intellectually into concepts and ideas and refuse to “dumb down” complex beauty and mysterious truths. But do it narratively, as Jesus did, pointing frequently to worldly things and weaving in human stories in order to convey the news.
- Recover the practice of lay testimony. Please do this. (I’m looking at you, clergy: give up some of “your” speaking time in the service). There are very few panaceas in the ministry of church starting and revitalization, but for my money, this is one of them. Begin to incorporate the tradition of a different layperson standing up for five minutes in worship every week and sharing how God is moving (or not moving) in her or his life. Encourage people to be authentic and to tell true, unvarnished stories. See if things don’t start to change for the healthier in your community. As Proverbs 14.25 says, a truthful witness saves lives.
A Translation Homework Assignment
The mission of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is, in a word, recovery. Now that’s a big word that signifies many things, so AA translates it: “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” Then, in its “Big Book,” AA goes on to offer a thick description of what that process looks like, in 12 didactic steps and dozens of true stories of human transformation. AA is excellent at translation. It realizes that its language is a second one for most people, and so it works hard to make it plain. Again, to be relevant requires at the most basic level the capacity to communicate effectively.
For those Christianity-as-first-language speakers who want some extra translation practice, here’s a homework assignment. Try it by yourself and with leaders in your faith community.
- Translate “Gospel” into 10-12 words of compelling secular language.
- Extra credit: In the tradition of AA, break down “salvation” (Christianity’s translation of “recovery”) into a series of 3-5 steps, again using compelling secular language.
I’d love to hear your translations! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may ask to include your response in a future blog post.
So, let’s practice together, first and second language speakers with a myriad of gorgeous accents, all testifying to what it’s like to undergo God.
*This post was doubly inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Teach Yourself Italian” in the 7 December 2015 New Yorker and Bishop Sally Dyck’s introduction of a “Spanish as a Second Language” curriculum in The Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church.