“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” [Revelation 7:9]
In the past, I have written about second-language learning and about racial reconciliation for REO. And those two things have come together for my local church in Chicago to form a decision that our church would not separate our worship services or social events based on the two dominant languages of our neighborhood, English and Spanish. We decided to translate everything we do and be a bilingual church.
And for the past eight years or so we have been trying slowly and surely to develop this philosophy of ministry and to communicate it to our church and to others. We desire to be clear that we do not think all churches can or should do this. Each church must decide what is best for them. There is no one way or right way. But here are five reasons why we feel this way is best for us.
1. Because of the New Testament focus on being ONE
Consider just this partial list of verses in the New Testament:
Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, so that they may be ONE as we are ONE…I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be ONE as we are ONE—so that they may be brought to complete unity. (Jesus, praying in John 17:11, 20, 23)
All the believers were ONE in heart and mind. (Acts 4:32)
For just as each of us has ONE body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form ONE body, and each member belongs to all the others. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
...So that with ONE mind and ONE voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:6)
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all ONE in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
His purpose was to create in himself ONE new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in ONE body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:16)
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of ONE body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)
There is ONE body and ONE Spirit, just as you were called to ONE hope when you were called; ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism; ONE God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
I will know that you stand firm in the ONE Spirit, striving together as ONE for the faith of the Gospel… (Philippians 1:27)
2. Because the United States desperately needs unity in spite of differences
In a country where we wage daily social media war over politics and race and many other topics, it can speak loudly when a group of people says, “We refuse to be divided based on typical anthropological differences.” Like language. You can have a multi-cultural church without being multi-lingual but being multi-lingual guarantees you will be multi-cultural. People whose first languages are different will likely be different in many ways.
And by nature we find differences annoying and ignore what is different when we can. We often think in terms of “Us” and “Them” and only tolerate “Them” as far as to be polite. So our church’s mission statement on being bilingual says, “At Northwest, there is no Us and Them. Only Us.” The church of all organisms needs to be countercultural and push back against homogeneous thinking and community living. Bilingual community forces us to interact with people who we otherwise perhaps would not.
There are times in our church we have social event and a person who does not speak Spanish and a person who does not speak English will communicate with each other in significant conversation, using hand gestures, the few words in the other’s language they do know and the universal language of smiling and laughing. And they love it. They will grab a translator if absolutely necessary but experience has taught us that since 90+% of communication is nonverbal, if you demonstrate just a little bit of patience and humility, it rarely is necessary for informal conversation. But you’d never know that unless you tried it or were forced into it.
3. Because it teaches us to be outward and others focused.
In a religion whose truth contains the ideology of “Consider others more important that yourself” and “No one should seek their own good but the good of others” as a core tenant of the faith, it can challenge your commitment to it when you are in a place where you do not understand everything going on around you and when you do not understand so that others can understand.
When the Scripture reading happens in Spanish, about 40% of the people at my church do not understand it. When it happens in English, around 30% do not understand it. Someone at my church is constantly sacrificing for the sake of others. It is good for the DNA of the church. This is especially true for English speakers in the US since English is essentially the official language. It takes humility to say “Your language is welcome here, even if I don’t understand it.” The humility of deferring for the good of others.
Even for some Spanish-speakers who speak English well, they long to hear the Scripture, songs and sermon in their first language since that is how they understand it best. As Mick Donahue, former missionary to Spain, shared with me from an English conversation partner he had over there: “When you preach to me in English, I understand it in my head. When you preach in Spanish, I understand it in my heart.”
4. We learn more about each other by learning culture and language
I love it that even people who speak little Spanish in my church know that “Oremos” means “Let’s pray” and that “Nuestro Dios” is “Our God”. And I have no doubt that our Spanish-speaking people are improving their English weekly. Just by being in worship services and social events, the natural community of the church. And this helps us with communication skills because it enhances our empathy. It is the way of God to bless us when we sacrifice for others. And the blessing of getting to know more about brothers and sisters from other cultures just from learning a few words and phrases in their language is magnificent.
5. Because the Gospel isn’t just Christ reconciling people to God, but also people groups to other people groups
In Ephesians 2, Paul teaches clearly that Jesus’ death was not just about the forgiveness of sin, though that is foundational to Christianity. He also explains the terminology of “alien” and “foreigner” in the Kingdom of God is obsolete (2:19). There are no immigrants among God’s people, only brothers and sisters. The curtain was torn when Jesus died to obliterate the division in the holy and the common. But the separation of Jews and Gentiles in temple worship was also undone. Christ’s death destroyed the wall that divided two ethnic groups and made them united and equal under a new covenant. This is as much part of the message of Good Friday’s cross as the remission of sins. We cannot preach Christ and not preach racial and ethnic reconciliation.
And so we have determined that bilingual ministry is the best way to communicate that. We do not judge other churches based on doing this differently or on any other non-absolutes. But we encourage others to consider it.
So as we celebrate Good Friday and Easter coming up, we at REO want people to reflect on exactly what Jesus’s life and death truly meant and what they mean today. For me personally, they often mean that I die to my own ethnocentricity and embrace a world as similar to Acts 2 as possible, whatever that means for me in Chicago in 2017. Bilingualism has been invaluable in doing so.