How do you effect integration in a multicultural church?

At Oldham Bethel Church, we have a significant number of people for whom English is not their first language. Most of our service takes place bi-lingually, with our open prayer free for anybody to pray in the (earthly) language of their choice. We have tried a number of different approaches to integration and translation in our services. Here are some of the things we have done, with varying degrees of success, and some things that we hope to do.

Sermon translation

We have tried a number of approaches to translating sermons. We’ve had groups huddled in a corner at the back while the sermon is going on listening to verbal translation; we’ve tried translating a precis of the sermon on paper which can be handed out during the service; we’ve tried translating full sermon scripts and projecting them on a screen during the sermon; and we’ve tried using simultaneous translation equipment.

We have landed on using translation equipment. This minimises disruption during the service and takes out a vast amount of preparation time for the person doing the translation. Of course, this system relies on somebody having the skill to do simultaneous translation and can often lead to chunks of the sermon being missed while the translator figures out precisely what to say. There is absolutely no advantage (other than a small cost benefit, but radio translation equipment is relatively cheap) to having a group huddled in the corner for translation over and above translation equipment. It bears the significant disadvantages of disruption during the meeting of people getting up to huddle in the corner and the similar distraction of somebody noticeably talking throughout your sermon. These distractions don’t exist with simultaneous translation using equipment set in another room.

The advantage of a script on a screen is the translator won’t miss anything of the sermon and he can take his time to carefully think through each word he translates. The downside is that this involves a vast amount of time and effort prior to the service itself. Also, it makes no allowance for when a speaker goes ‘off script’. The only benefit to using a precis over a script is a time saving benefit for the translator. Otherwise, there is no advantage whatsoever and it suffers from the fact that large portions of the service – even if the main points are included – get missed.

Singing in a different language

We have been conscious, for some time, that our Iranian contingent come to church every week and are asked to sing songs in a language that is not their own. As such, it only seems fair for us to try and sing some songs in Farsi. This coming Sunday we plan to do exactly that.

Instead of trying to read Farsi script, which none of us can do, we have transliterated the words into English (or, as our Iranians friends call it, Finglish). We have chosen a well known hymn so that we all recognise the tune. Although we won’t know exactly which Farsi word corresponds to any given English one, we will all know the hymn well enough to know what we’re singing. It will simply be a case of trying to fit the syllables of a language not our own into a tune that is quite familiar.

Separate bible study/meetings

When I first joined the church, we did have separate meetings for our Iranians that were delivered in Farsi. We then stopped these because they were leading to two separate and distinct factions being formed in the church. We have since recommenced these, currently one of Iranian members is running a Farsi Christianity Explored.

The danger in separate meetings is that they can lead to obvious factions within the church. To counteract this, we stopped the separate meetings for a time and introduced home groups at which we would pray specifically for the other members of the group as well as share a meal together. Over time, different sections of the church began to talk together and gel with one another. As these relationships developed, and the home groups continue, we were able to reintroduce a separate monthly Farsi study without running the risk of forming an unhelpful faction in the church.

Bi-lingual bible reading

In conjunction with the various form of translation that we tried, we have taken different approaches to bible readings. We have tried three approaches:

  1. An English reading tell the Iranians where it is coming from so they can follow in Farsi
  2. Two readings of the same passage; one Farsi, one English
  3. Simultaneous readings

We have landed on the final one of these but this was only possible since we purchased the simultaneous translation equipment. Our service typically runs this way:

  1. Welcome & notices (translated into Farsi using STE)
  2. Songs (Predominantly English with one or two Farsi songs)
  3. Testimony (translated into Farsi using STE)
  4. Communion (a precis in Farsi giving an explanation of the basics of our practice but content delivered in English)
  5. Open Prayer (open for anybody to pray in their first language)
  6. Reading (translated into Farsi using STE)
  7. Sermon (translated into Farsi using STE)
  8. Song (English)
  9. Benediction (English)

The vast majority of content is delivered simultaneously in English and Farsi with periodic elements that cannot be done in two languages simultaneously (certainly not easily or with comprehension) done in one or other language.

Cultural Evenings

We have, periodically, held cultural evenings. Typically these have involved our Iranian and/or African friends making some of the dishes, playing some of the music, wearing the clothes and telling us about their home country. These have been helpful for us in learning more about their home culture and also an excellent way for them to both serve us this way and to enjoy something of a taste of home.

Interestingly, these periodic cultural evenings for our own folk morphed into our regular monthly dialogue evenings with the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in our area of Glodwick. It is possible that, had we not started with the ‘soft-landing’ of cultural evenings for our own guys in-house, some of our people might never felt confident enough to join in a regular evangelistic cultural evening to our Muslim neighbours.

Anyway, here are some things that we have tried to improve integration. If you are in a multicultural church setting, perhaps you might want to try some of these things. If you have any other thoughts as to how to improve integration between different linguistic and cultural groups in the church, feel free to comment below and maybe we’ll try them too.