There is no doubt that Babel was a curse indeed. Anybody who has spent even half an hour in the company of somebody who has a very limited amount of your native tongue, and you none of theirs, will know what I am talking about. There is little as basic as communicating and there are few things more infuriating than not being able to do so.
In our church, we have a multiplicity of people from different nations whose native tongue is not our own. We have lots of different nationalities present with around 5 separate mother tongues in the room. Compared to lots of churches that is small beans, I know, but when we have a significant contingent of people who all speak a different language – and we have quite a large percentage of the congregation who speak Farsi – it can make things complicated.
Whilst there are various ways of including and welcoming one another in formal services, this is felt nowhere as strongly as when we are trying to show hospitality. Not being able to speak somebody’s language in a meeting is one thing, not being able to communicate when the only thing you are with them to do is try and speak to one another and get to know each other better, you can see how difficult that can be. But there are lots of reasons it really is worth pressing on with it nonetheless.
First, we communicate something simply by inviting people into our homes. Last week, my family and I enjoyed the hospitality of a Persian family in our church. They had also invited round another Persian family. One half of our hosts has pretty solid English, the other less good but much better than they think. The other couple, one has reasonable English the other not so much. But we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We enjoyed the food. We enjoyed the conversation – even if it was sometimes more stilted and slow than with an native English speaker. We had a laugh with our friends, who were pleased to welcome us to their home and with whom we were delighted to spend an afternoon. Just being invited in communicated something lovely to us and we were grateful to them for it.
Second, the reality is that we can always communicate better than we think anyway. Not just showing people hospitality, but trying hard to speak – even when it is difficult – shows a desire to communicate and get to know each other. Even if we need to crack out Google translate every now and then, or we have to wait while somebody who is able translates everything we just said, or we spend our time trying to teach each other words in our respective language that we do know, we are showing a desire to spend our time with each other. We are showing a desire to share fellowship and enjoy each other’s company. That is worth more than we often realise.
Third, we can’t expect anybody to want to spend any time putting in the effort to hear us teach or listen to our gospel if they have the clear impression we don’t want to make the effort to listen to them. Whilst that obviously goes for those who do speak your language, it is true for those who don’t too. If we want them to come to know Christ, they are going to have to encounter the gospel somehow. If that takes us continually speaking with them to improve their English, then so be it. If that takes us working through translators, then so be it. If that means spending ages rewriting things into Google Translate until it makes some semblance of sense, so be it. Whilst much of what we say may be lost in translation (or lack thereof) some of what we say might just get through if we stick at it. Whilst nobody will be saved because they saw me being nice to them of itself, showing that sort of love and patience may just help them to listen to me when we can communicate the gospel to them clearly enough and as they have seen it lived out in our weak and feeble effort to love them.