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Retratos || El Reto de los Idiomas (The Language Challenge)


It is Sunday morning. In a small town in North Texas, the García family are sneaking into the back of a worship service that has already begun. Juan Miguel and his wife Carmen immediately engage in the Spanish worship – the sounds and lyrics resonating deep within hearts. But their children, Luisa and Ben, begin whispering to one another, counting the lights on the ceiling, already ready for service to be over. Though they understand the Spanish, it feels disengaged, almost embarrassing: their social lives take place in English. Is something in Spanish really that important?


In the heart of a metropolitan community in Florida that same morning, María and her three children are busily greeting their church friends, excited for the English service that is about to begin. Meanwhile, abuelita who attends weekly with them, sits quietly in the pew, smiling pleasantly to those who wave, but inwardly saddened that she has no real community. As important as it is for her to worship with her family and the body of Christ, she can only pick up a few words throughout the entire service.


In another city in California, a multigenerational community of recent immigrants as well as second- and third-generation Hispanic-Americans shifts uncomfortably in the pew. The translator is having a difficult time with the sermon this morning, and some things are getting lost in translation. It is distracting for the bilingual members, who are focusing less on the sermon and more on what should be said differently; it is frustrating for the Spanish speakers, who realize they are getting less than what the pastor is preaching; and it is boring for the English speakers, who are tired of the pastor’s long pauses that break their focus while the translator speaks.


These scenarios represent only a few real-life experiences that are taking place each week.


Bienvenidos a la discusión de los idiomas en la iglesia hispanoamericana. Welcome to the language discussion in the Hispanic-American church. What is the answer to languages in worship? This is an incredibly important discussion within the Hispanic-American church planting context, and one that (depending on context) does not typically have an easy answer. It is also not a question this article seeks to answer; the intention here is only to provide some clarity as to why it is a difficult dilemma, and wherein lies the Gospel hope.



THE CURSE AND BLESSING OF LANGUAGE DIVERSITY


Language diversity can be frustrating. It is frustrating not to be able to communicate. Just ask the thousands of recent immigrants in the United States. (But wait… one of you will have to know the other’s language to be able to understand!) Actually, this frustration has biblical roots. At the very beginning of Genesis, diversity of languages comes as a punishment for sin. Just as people were filling the earth post-flood, God allowed the confusion of languages to hinder their self-aggrandizing goals of building a tower to reach to heaven at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Inability to communicate meant people could no longer achieve this united goal. God used this language confusion to disperse peoples over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:9).

But as the biblical narrative continues, we find that language diversity is not just frustrating: it is redeemed, and the diversity becomes beautiful.


The book of Revelation treats us to an incredible glimpse of worship in the New Heavens and New Earth in which “a great multitude…from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are together standing before the throne of God and worshiping the Lamb (Revelation 7:9ff). Here in Revelation, language differences do not hinder but actually enhance the richness of worship of the Creator and Savior.


In 21st century America, it is clear that we are no longer in Babel (where language diversity only means confusion), but neither are we yet in Revelation (where language diversity actually means beauty and unity). Instead, we are sitting somewhere in the middle, where the frustration of dealing with overcoming language barriers reminds us of the effects of a broken, sinful world. Yet the joy of seeing people of different languages coming together in worship and community reminds us of the redemption Christ has wrought, and the renewing work He is doing.



ADDRESSING LANGUAGE DIVERSITY WITHIN THE CHURCH


So how should we, as members, leaders, and supporters of Hispanic-American churches approach the language barrier in worship? Such questions do not even come into the discussion of church planting within the majority culture, so often there is no precedent. And there is not one, simple, clear-cut, one-size-fits-all way to answer them in Hispanic churches within the United States. There is, however, much need for prayer, wisdom, patience, and flexibility for church planters, their congregations, and supporting churches. There are also some biblical principles and examples to consider.


One of the most incredible pictures of the blessing of language diversity within the church comes at the beginning of the book of Acts, as the Lord is using the Apostles to spread rapidly the truth of Christianity to the nations. Living in Jerusalem at the time were “men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5ff). As the Lord gives His promised Holy Spirit to the His followers, they follow the Spirit’s leading in sharing the Gospel with this multitude – remarkably, such that each person hears Gospel truth not only in Greek, Aramaic, or Latin, but each one “in his own native language” (2:8)! Whereas sin had divided peoples into different languages, now the message of the Gospel does not eradicate these languages, but unites people in that Jesus is bringing His truth into each of these languages.

There is much one could say regarding this passage: the point here is simply that God’s miracle was not that everyone understood the same language, but that the Gospel went forth into every language. People heard and received God’s truth in their native tongues. They had the pleasure and privilege of hearing the Gospel spoken in the language they knew best, the language that could speak to their very hearts.


Later in Acts, Paul also demonstrates this same principle during his Jerusalem trial (see Acts 21:37-22:2ff). Paul (fluent in Hebrew, Greek, and likely Latin) shifts from speaking with the tribune in Greek, to addressing the crowds in order to share his testimony of gospel transformation in the Hebrew dialect (probably Aramaic). In other words, Paul recognizes his audience, and contextualizes. While some of the crowd would have understood Greek, the reaction to hearing his message in their native tongue – in their heart language – is astonishing: they fall absolutely silent (21:40; 22:2). They are able to lean into every word, without need of translation; the Gospel message through Paul’s testimony speaks directly a sus almas (to their souls).

Of course, as the examples at the beginning of this article demonstrate, choosing the best language for contextualization in the Hispanic-American context is not always straightforward. Yet the takeaway from these examples in Acts is that language is important in the church! Being sensitive to the context, to the needs and abilities of the people is a hugely important, necessary part of pastoring within this demographic. Creativity, flexibility, humility, and a great deal of patience in determining how best to do this are essential.


Perhaps the most important take-away for navigating bilingual churches from the biblical precedent is to remember that bringing beauty and unity through the redemption of diversity is first and foremost the work of Jesus Christ. It is His Spirit that will speak the most clearly, the most directly, and the most impactfully to the soul of each individual, regardless of language. Human efforts to bridge the language divide will never be perfect; and no human words in any language will have the power to transform lives. Yet God delights to do His work of redemption through the faithfulness of His servants. We can and must trust Him as we use our gifts and talents to reach our bilingual communities for His glory. Pray, seek His wisdom, ¡aprendan nuevos idiomas! (learn new languages!), and trust the Lord to be at work drawing into His church peoples from all tribes and languages!



EL REINO AVANZA

(THE KINGDOM ADVANCES)


It is Sunday morning. In a small town in South Texas, Carlos and Marta Sanchez are enjoying coffee fellowship after service in their English-speaking, Hispanic-American church. Though learning English has been difficult, the bilingual community has welcomed them in and is helping them through some of the barriers of worshiping in a new tongue. Their children are thriving in a youth group that is both diverse and contextualized, while Carlos and Marta are thankful for friends who are praying and caring for them both in English and Spanish.

In another community in New Mexico that evening, the Gutierrez family is preparing to open their home for an intimate Spanish service with some of the friends and neighbors they have been meeting in their apartment complex. They are thankful for the

preaching and community in their bilingual church that is encouraging and supporting them to start a Spanish-only ministry to meet the needs of so many new immigrants.


On a Wednesday evening in an apartment building in New York, Judy King volunteers to open her women’s Bible study in prayer, “in English, if that’s okay,” she says. Her good friend, Isabela, volunteers for the closing prayer an hour later, "en español, si está bien.” The study has been a mixture of Spanish and English Bible reading, answers in broken Spanish, broken English, and a smattering of translations in between. The women have come to embrace the awkwardness of language as their fellowship in the Gospel has grown. They are thankful for this opportunity to bring the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking congregations of their church together, and are beginning to plan a regular, church-wide bilingual fellowship as well.


There is no doubt the Lord is at work in the Hispanic-American community. Let us seek His wisdom, act in faith, and trust His good plans as we seek to reach people across the language divide for His glory.



¡A Dios sea la gloria!


 

JOIN US IN PRAYER

  • Please pray for the continued advancement of God’s Kingdom in the bilingual Hispanic-American context.

  • Pray for the Lord to continue raising up both Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, and bilingual pastors and leaders who are able to reach the different needs of their contexts with the Gospel.

  • Pray for wisdom, patience, and encouragement for pastors, leaders, and congregations in bilingual communities, as they seek to grow in fellowship, and reach their neighbors.

  • Pray for the American church to grow in its heart and vision for multiethnic, multilingual ministry, as we have the privilege of seeing the nations coming into our cities and communities.


 

Please consider giving to HLI so that we can continue training, supporting, and encouraging pastors, leaders, and congregations who are navigating language diversity as they reach the Hispanic-American community for the Gospel.


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