Why A Bilingual Church?

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“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.

 

 

Gowdy Cannon

I am the pastor of the bilingual ministry of Northwest Community Church in Chicago. Our church is intentional in trying to bring English and Spanish speakers together in worship and community. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married almost four years and just welcomed our first child into the world, Liam Erasmus. I have taught ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for 12 years, first to adult immigrants in my community and now to Chinese children. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

14 thoughts on “Why A Bilingual Church?

  • April 9, 2017 at 10:07 am
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    Great thoughts Gowdy. We are trying to move in this direction at Cofer’s Chapel. Thanks for the words of challenge and encouragement.

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  • April 20, 2018 at 2:49 pm
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    Hi, writing from Ottawa, Canada’s Capitol, we have a two sanctuary church with an English congregation and a French congregation. We have about 180 in the English and 120 on the French. We are exploring merging and are looking for sample bilingual constitutions. Would you be able to send us a copy of yours?
    Yes we have Spanish speaking folk as well. oddly enough for an officially bilingual City there are few bilingual churches!
    Thanks in advance for any help or advice.
    Pastor Randy
    Bilberry Creek Baptist Church

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    • April 20, 2018 at 3:10 pm
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      When you say “Constitution” may I ask exactly what you mean by that? I just want to make sure I help as effectively as possible.

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  • December 2, 2018 at 11:51 am
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    Hello – I’m a member of an English speaking church in Boston and would like to learn more about how and what mechanisms your church used in becoming a billingual church? We have some Spanish speakers that are in need of translation.

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  • December 2, 2018 at 8:21 pm
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    Hi Carolina! It’s nice to read about you and/or your church being interested in this. Here is the standard answer I have for this, via my church’s sound booth pro. This is from 2012 (We made this transition in 2009) so I do not know if this info is still updated. If not let me know and I will try to find out something else. I know technology moves fast and things change. But I hope this can help get you started:

    *****
    The headsets Northwest uses are from Williams Sound and we bought them from Full Compass Solutions.

    They were able to match the cheapest price I found online and were really helpful with technical stuff as well. They may not make this system anymore since I wasn’t able to find it on their website, but I admittedly didn’t spend a lot of time looking. There are several options, but at the time the Williams Sound got the best reviews and the receivers (headsets) were the cheapest (about $75 ea.). These systems go by several names from Listening Systems, to Interpretation Systems, to Assisted Listening devices. I never really got to the bottom of this, but that’s why it was helpful to talk to a dealer who deals a lot of the various systems — they’ll tell you what system will work best for your application. WS makes a “interpretation system” now that’s specifically made for translation and I think the pricing is similar to what we paid ( +/- $1500 retail), but you’ll need to do some more digging.

    In general, all the systems have 2 main parts, the transmitter (hangs out by the sound board) and the receivers (headsets). The speaker’s sound path is as follows: Pastor talks > soundboard > line out to the headphones of the translator. The translator’s sound path is as follows: Translator listens and speaks into a mic > translation transmitter > transmits to individual headsets of end users. At NW, there is also a direct line out of the translation transmitter that goes back into the soundboard and eventually to the computer so that we can record the Spanish separate from the English.
    *****

    Also, if you will email me at Gowdy@Northwestcommunity.net I can get you the direct contact information with the people who hooked us up 10 years ago. And give you some pdfs.

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  • January 1, 2019 at 2:34 pm
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    Hi Gowdy,
    First, thank you so much for writing this article. It seems there is little information on the internet about bilingual churches.

    We are in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m not originally from here and it is amazing to me that there aren’t any true bilingual churches here. It doesn’t matter the denomination or if non-denominational, there are just English speaking churches, just Spanish speaking churches and the occasional ones that say they are bilingual but are actually English speaking with a separate Spanish ministry or church meeting in the same building or grounds.

    Our church is in a neighborhood with the most Spanish speakers in the State. We know there is a need for a truly bilingual, multicultural church where people of different backgrounds can be a true community. We have been transitioning for about a year. Our music has been the easiest to make bilingual. We have recently been blessed with someone willing to translate so we’re hoping to be able to make the entire Sunday service bilingual. We still need to work on our website and social media.

    It sounds like you guys had some bumps along the way and we are experiencing the some ourselves. It seems like one has to keep trying different things until you figure out what works for your particular group. I have a bunch of questions, but I’ll start with one. If you would, would you please describe why your church decided to use headphones for translation as opposed to having both speakers stand on the stage and go back and forth? Thank you!

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    • January 2, 2019 at 8:03 am
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      First, thank you for your message. This is exactly why this web site exists and why we write these articles. I know little to zero about a million things but I know some about a few and I want to help others with what I’ve learned and even learn back from them.

      I will gladly answer ANY question you may have.

      To answer your first question, the biggest reason we do headphones is that our sermons are typically pretty long. I’d say 45-55 minutes on average. Our worship service simply cannot sustain an extra 45 minutes each week. Another reason is that we have 5 pastors/preachers and neither the English only, Spanish only or bilingual guys have any or much experience being translated from a stage. As such we all have been hesitant to do it as not to mess with the flow of our preachers when they speak. It definitely changes things when it is alternative stage translation. I know it inhibits my ability to “get going” sometimes and while presentation is not as important as content to me, it is important. Sometimes I can feel emotion coming to really nail a point and then I have to pause to be translated and momentum is broken. I’d guess most people who’ve preached would get this.

      I will say though that I am not the senior pastor of my church and the to guy has been very willing to experiment with this and we typically about 4-5 times a year do preach the sermon with a stage translator instead of through headphones. Occasionally this is necessary (like we might have such a huge crowd we run out of headphones and we know this ahead of time) but at times we have done it just to try something different. But for the aforementioned reasons we still go with headphones 90% of the the time.

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  • February 6, 2019 at 12:32 am
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    Hey Gowdy, I’m in the process of planting churches for the next generation of Hispanic churches. I am a second generation hispanic and have sensed the need for churches that can meet the needs of multicultural communities.

    My biggest obstacle has been figuring out logistics with the language. Most hispanics born in the states prefer english but we are tight with our families and a lot of our family does not speak english or prefers spanish.

    I am leaning towards fully bilingual services which would include sermons being translated from the stage. Of course, this would mean an overall shorter sermon.

    Do you feel like the headsets end up causing a barrier for those who wear them? Do you think they feel any less part of the congregation/service?

    Also, does the bilingualism extend out to your printed material/website, social media, etc?

    I think many of us know there is a need for this but we just don’t know how to maneuver the logistics of it all. Very interesting article and these discussions will continue to be important for the next years to come…

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    • February 6, 2019 at 10:19 am
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      Those are excellent questions.

      I fully support doing alternative translation from the stage and we only do headphones for long presentations like sermons. I honestly think that if we had planted a church bilingual—instead of changing an established English church into bilingual—we probably would have started with alternative sermon translation. But it was just too hard to change our pastors’ preaching styles.

      I support alternative sermon translation for reasons that stem from the questions you ask. I’ve never thought of the word “Barrier” but it has seemed obvious to me that the headphones have been a source of awkwardness for those who wear them, especially in the beginning when there were less people wearing them. And this was especially true for men. We had almost no men take them for a few years. As we’ve gotten more 50-50 in our congregation demographic this has become less a source of awkwardness (embarrassment) but I have noticed that some people still take out the actual big over the ear headphones we use and use their own earbuds that are less conspicuous and more hidden. Additionally, it has also helped that as we have added another Spanish-speaking pastor and our Spanish-to-English sermons have jumped from 3-4 a year to about 35% of all sermons in 2018, that also helps with people feeling awkward. Because the Spanish speakers see the English speakers with them so often it is like no one has to feel like they are the outsider. Our true goal is to be 50-50 in our sermons as far as language preached. Right now with 5 pastors and only two that speak Spanish we are not quite there yet.

      Yet having said all of that, it eliminates all of those problems to do it from the stage. You inherit new problems–at least at our church it causes the preachers to not be able to get into a groove and it certainly shortens the sermons and cuts out content. But I think those sacrifices–in a vacuum–are worth it for no one to feel like they are the outsider. I haven’t stumped for that at our church for the aforementioned reasons: I think at our church it would be too big a weight on the pastors to change preaching styles right now. Even so we do alternative from the stage about 5 times a year. We may do more in the future.

      And this is part of why I don’t blame churches for staying separate. I strongly encourage people to consider bilingual because sacrifice is good for the church. But when there is no translation there are none of the problems we are discussing.

      And yes we translate everything we do, including print and social media. Two caveats to that: First, even after 10 years of this, sometimes one of our English leaders will put a sign up sheet in the lobby for something and forget to have it translated. Second, with our leadership team you have people who speak little to no Spanish, people who speak little to no English and people who speak a range of both. It is too imprudent to expect every email exchanged by our leadership team to be translated by one of our translators before sent so sometimes Google translate gets involved. The results can be funny and we just have to use grace to work through those times. I mention that because while the goal is excellence and to translate everything professionally (and we have some translators who have done it professionally), sometimes life is too complex and we just have to go with what we can get in print and social media.

      Reply
  • February 13, 2019 at 1:52 pm
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    Great article, thanks for putting this out there and making the effort to Be One. I’m a 2nd gen Hispanic in here in Texas my community is 40% hispanic 45% anglo and the rest is divided up. I started our church plant as a bilingual church for the purpose of reaching the younger generation of the elderly
    that would attend our service. We started with 4 grandmas and a married couple. The grandmas would bring their grandkids and on occasion even their kids so instead of speaking strictly in Spanish to the comfort of the elder generation we spoke in both Eng/Sp then our congregation began to grow and the demand to be bilingual continued. 90% of our congregation understands English but is of hispanic decent we have a few population of anglos attending and feeling comfortable. The headphones and on stage translators have never been our thing for two reasons(not to say they don’t work). Headphone volume and isolation seem to keep us from going this route. As for the on stage translators as you mentioned it does reduce the flow of making a point. but so does translating your own sermon. It’s also is hard as an attender who has attended translated services to not be caught up in checking the accuracy of the translation. We are currently doing one service bilingual and I do my own translations. I say it in one and repeat it in the other a common practice for some one who is fluent in both languages. This does however becomes and obstacle when finding guest speakers or training up in house ministers. We are currently in the process of converting our bilingual service into two. I have been apart of an English church with a Spanish Ministry and it does feel like a them and us atmosphere but I believe with the right intentions and strategy it can be ONE with their own language as long as the culture is the same and willing to worship together. Again I applaud you for your ministry thank you for all that you do. Be Blessed! #WEAREONE #SOMOSUNO

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    • February 14, 2019 at 8:32 am
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      So wonderful to hear! I enjoy hearing about how other churches do things differently. It’s so obvious to me how God is not a cookie-cutter God. We have so much freedom to be different in Christ depending on our giftings and contexts and a whole host of other factors. It’s an indictment on the subculture I grew up in that many people feel there is a right way or single way to do most things, including church (worship wars, for example). I love the differences and if I attended your church I would only smile and appreciate them.

      I think the goal of every church should be to preach God’s reconciliation to man and man’s reconciliation to other men. And the church should be a conduit of God’s grace in achieving it. What that looks like should be different from church to church. Otherwise we are leaning on formulas and not the Spirit, who leads and gifts and gives discernment. Thanks for the comment!!!!

      Reply
  • March 13, 2019 at 1:48 pm
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    Great to see others engaged in this kind of ministry. I have pastored New Life Bilingual Church / Iglesia Bilingue Nueva Vida for the last 19 years. We do side by side translation from the front by the way. I preach one week in English and the next week in Spanish so that no one feels like they are always getting the ¨leftovers¨.

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    • March 13, 2019 at 2:18 pm
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      We´re in West Chicago IL by the way…

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  • March 25, 2019 at 11:53 am
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    I have friends who pastor a Hispanic church. They first began meeting at my English speaking church before they grew (faster than we did) and needed their own space. After some church politics, I found myself leaving my old church and joining them in their church. We have discussed and tried (and found how difficult it can be) to start being a bilingual church. It’s awkward and clumsy. The pastor forgets sometimes someone is trying to translate from the stage into English for the few English only people who are in the congregation. I have preached on a few occasions and it is awkward trying to pause while the translator keeps up. We experimented with some Bluetooth headsets and translation programs but they just couldn’t keep up for a whole sermon. The idea was nice – it translated from Spanish to English on smartphones. But technology is not quite there for translation without a human interpreter. I experimented with 5 or 6 different translation apps. A couple were good enough to get the basics of a message – but nothing like a live interpreter. When I first started attending some of the teenagers were translating for me – sitting next to me. But it was awkward because I always felt like we were distracting people around us. I have now learned enough Spanish to understand a good portion of the message without translation. My goal has always been to becoming a conversational Spanish speaker – but it isn’t as easy to do when you are no longer a young person. I also discovered how difficult it is for Spanish speaking adults to learn English of they aren’t exposed to it on a regular basis. We tried teaching English classes but couldn’t continue because the commitment level wasn’t there at the time.

    Do you have any recommendations for learning conversational Spanish? I have tried different apps – and they help some. I learned Spain’s type of Spanish when I was in high school more than 30 years ago – but never used it so I forgot most of it. Then I find Latin American Spanish is somewhat different. But I like the challenge.

    We have also discovered that more than half of the Hispanic children in the church don’t read, write or comprehend a lot of Spanish. They have learned English in the schools so they are more comfortable with it. We have been blessed with some teachers who speak both languages.

    Reply

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