“Transforming Children in Christ through His Church”

English Should Not be the Lingua Franca

Daniel C. Watts

Daniel C. Watts

Why Christianity is a Foreign Religion (Part 1)

One Sunday, a Swedish Pastor visited our Polish church in Krakow, Poland. He did not speak Polish or English, and there was no Swedish-Polish translator. Therefore, in order for him to preach, the message was translated from Swedish into English and then English into Polish. The thirty minute sermon took an hour and a half. During one section of the sermon, the Swedish-English translator referred to the man in Mark 8:21 as having no eyes. She did not know the word “blind” in English.

The service was a linguistic nightmare…

One of the reasons that Christianity is often labeled a foreign religion is due to the proliferation of English language ministry in other cultures. One hundred and fifty years ago, missionaries understood that in order to carry on ministry work in another culture, you had to learn the language of the culture. Over the last fifty years, the ease of travel and technological advances have created several phenomena that have changed our views on language:

Short-Term Ministry

Today thousands of English speaking Christians travel the world for 1-2 week ministry trips in other cultures. They are carrying on a variety of work including street witnessing, teaching, preaching, humanitarian work, training conferences and the like. This wide array of ministry work is being done in English. In many cases a translator is alongside, and in other cases English alone, is the avenue of attempted communication. During our ten years of service in Poland, we had guest English speaking preachers at least once/month.

Proliferation of Translated American Christian Writings

There are a number of Christian authors whose work has been translated into more than 35 languages. I have traveled in many countries and observed first-hand the widespread publications of American Christian writings in other languages. Many of the Bible colleges in Eastern Europe use translated materials from American Evangelical writers. If you peruse their ministry websites, you will find data on how widely an author’s works have been translated. For example, James Dobson’s books have been translated into more than 25 languages. Francis Chan’s popular books, Crazy Love and Forgotten God, have been translated into 24 languages and 18 languages respectively.

English Worship Music (American, British and Australian)

English music has been translated into many other languages and is being used in churches across the globe. The music itself is the same. I remember stepping into an Evangelical church in Cairo, Egypt where the worship service was featuring a worship song written by one of my friends… but was sung in Arabic. The reason I knew was the music had not changed.

English has Become Lingua Franca, the Language of the World

English should not be the lingua francaUnfortunately, this has created two separate problems. The first involves God’s ability to communicate to people in their own languages (Acts 2:11). Our disregard for communicating in the heart language of people is a separate and crucial issue. However, the second problem is that Evangelical Christianity is easily characterized as a foreign religion. With so much public ministry being done in English, countless books translated from English, and even English music styles, the gospel often appears to be foreign.

The church in the English speaking world, particularly the US, is large and well resourced. Those resources include finances, technology and leadership. There are very gifted leaders serving in the English speaking world, with very significant financial resources and state-of-the-art technology. This has created an English speaking church with the potential to exercise enormous influence, for both good and bad.

To help local, indigenous expressions of Christianity flourish, the English speaking church should consider the following:

  1. Limit the use of English-based ministry to low profile development of Christian leaders in other cultures. Avoid conducting public ministry in English, but rather put the indigenous, local Christian leaders in the forefront and maintain a servant’s position of anonymity. This is particularly true in countries where Evangelical Christianity is emerging or facing strong opposition.
  2. In the event that the culture/peoples are unreached and have no church community, the message of the gospel should be declared within their own language and culture. Language learning has to precede ministry work.
  3. Encourage indigenous Christian literature and the arts. Rather than spending resources on translating and distributing music, books, and sermons written in English, we should encourage the development of these expressions from within local Christian communities.

The term lingua franca was coined, ironically, during the period of the Crusades. The lingua franca was a mix of the various Romance languages and used as a means of communication among varying languages, particularly in the Middle East. Webster Dictionary notes that the term lingua franca is often associated with an empire. This is certainly the case with the French, Belgian, English and Spanish colonization of Africa and parts of Asia. The unfettered use of English is creating the worldwide impression that Evangelical Christianity is the religious partner of “American imperialism.” The challenge for the American church is to join God in developing an indigenous expression of the Kingdom of God within every people of the earth.

In His Steps,

Daniel C. Watts

President, Every Generation Ministries

4 Comments

  1. Suzanne Smith on September 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    This was very insightful. I hadn’t realized there had been a shift from indigenous languages to English in foreign ministry. I grew up supporting Wycliffe Bible Translators that emphasized the importance of having the Bible in peoples’ heart languages. So what can I do to help make the changes you suggest?

    • Daniel Watts on October 1, 2014 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for the comment, Suzanne. Your ability to implement the changes I suggested would depend on your ministry role.
      Here are some thoughts:

      If you are involved in short-term ministry leadership, I would think long and hard about doing wide-spread public ministry in cultures where Christianity is already heavily opposed and labeled a foreign religion; places like Cuba, India, China etc.. It seems like we should take a supportive role and let the national Christian leaders be in the forefront. In other words, going door-to-door in Havana with a translator only fuels the label that Christianity is foreign. What would we think if someone came to our door to share something important, but only spoke Mandarin Chinese with a translator?

      Support writers, Christian musicians and artists in other cultures, and take care when the focus is on translating English materials.

      Finally, Wycliffe’s commitment to bringing the Word of God to people in their heart language is right in the Spirit of Acts 2:11. The long established tradition of learning language before doing any cross-cultural ministry should not be abandoned. The next time you are around “missionaries,” ask them if they preach, teach and minister in the local vernacular.

  2. Igor on September 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    The fact that Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic, make every follower of Christ the translator of His teaching for other people. So, we are foreigners even to our own family members in this sense.

    Evangelical Christianity is foreign because it presents values, which are foreign to the natural desires of sinners. When “foreign” (designed and made on another continent) cars are imported to USA or other country, people consider it privilege to own and use them… but… when the person with the heart, which exalts God, visits next door neighbour and quotes “repent and believe in the Gospel”, often the label “foreign” is used to create seemingly valid reason not to obey these words.
    We, who believe and serve the Lord God Almighty, are foreign because of the Spirit, which lives in us, not because of the language.

    God encourages His Word to be preached in any language and in this case He blesses both speaker and listener (Acts 2) in spite of language barrier.

    There is bigger barrier to the Gospel being proclaimed and it is when Americanism, Europe-ism, Russian-ism presented and promoted under the “umbrella” of true religion from God.
    Make all the effort to preach the Gospel only and language issue will never be the area of condemnation from God on your ministry.

    • Daniel Watts on October 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Thank you for the comment on my blog, Igor. I have also experienced people rejecting the gospel and taking offense to the message itself. Paul does speak about the message of the gospel being perceived as foolishness (I Corinthians 1:18-27), and all that we can do is present the gospel in the most God-honoring fashion. However it seems apparent in Acts 2 that God did indeed take language into account when he chose to communicate “the wonders of God” in the “heart language” of people. It would seem that the incarnation of Christ Himself should be sufficient grounds for considering the importance of language and culture when ministering the gospel. Establishing national ministries, where leadership development and Bible teaching materials are developed within the culture, is one of EGM’s core values. Language and culture are essential elements in that national ministry value. Our desire is to present the message of salvation and the good news of the gospel in a culturally relevant way. It would seem that God’s desire is to have boys and girls understand His wonders, while experiencing salvation and lives with Christ within their own languages and cultures. If the message is rejected as an offense, this we cannot control. However, I believe that God’s desire is that we not take away from that message by communicating it in a way that is “foreign.”

      Your continued thoughts are welcomed. Thanks for the dialogue and your thoughts on language, translation, culture, and the ministry of the gospel.

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