What is it reasonable to expect a church to do?

Yesterday, I wrote about a question that I had been asked and never really thought so much about before. You can read about that question and my reflections on it here. As I was discussing that, another question came up: what is reasonable to expect churches to do evangelistically, or for the sake of discipleship, and what isn’t?

Now, let’s be honest, that’s not a straightforward question with a simple answer. A lot of what you might say about it is going to depend on context and the makeup of your church. What it might be reasonable to expect of a 500 member church is not going to reasonable to expect of a 10 member church. What might be significant for me to do in our context, with many South Asians around, is not necessarily going to be quite so urgent or valuable in another almost exclusively white British context. So, the question doesn’t have one answer.

The reason it came up, however, is because of the particular question I was asked. Is it reasonable to expect people in my church to learn Urdu or Bengali (or both) for the sake of reaching the South Asians on our doorstep? Clearly the vast majority of churches in the UK would not be expected to do that. Their context wouldn’t demand it. Even if there are South Asians about, cost-benefit analysis may lead them to the view that it is not the best use of time even though it might serve some. Larger churches with capable linguists in them might feel more able to do this than smaller churches made up of working class folks with limited formal education and asylum seekers who are already attempting to operate in a second language day to day.

Even the question, ‘is it reasonable to expect people in the church to learnt he language of the people they’re reaching?’ is not straightforward. If you are a church in France, for example, it is difficult to see how you are meaningfully going to reach most the people in that country, nor how you will disciple anyone, without learning the native language. It wouldn’t really matter if I, and everyone else coming to the church, was English (or, at least, English-speaking) if everyone else around us can’t speak our language.

It is for this reason I think diaspora churches based around language are usually a mistake. At best, they will reach a first generation of native speakers of a particular language in a country where few others share that language. As the younger generation grow up, and go through the education system of the school and begin to consider themselves native speakers of their country’s language (even being born and bred in that country and so having limited connection to their parents country by language or nationality), should they be believers, many will choose to worship in churches that speak their language; namely, ones that speak the language of the country. That is to say, churches speaking a foreign language in a host country either have a limited shelf-life or will forever reach largely first generation immigrants and almost never keep hold of second and third generation children.

So, should a church in France, surrounded almost exclusively by French-speakers, learn and seek to operate in French? If they want to be effective, I would say so. But what about, say, a Welsh-speaking church in Wales in a community that is not exclusively Welsh-speaking? Whilst I can understand the desire to maintain one’s heritage, or operate in a “heart-language”, if everyone can speak English and only some can speak Welsh, it is hard not to see a gospel impulse pushing toward operating in the most widely understood language for our context. Whilst there will be some communities where that may make Welsh the operative language, I suspect for the most part it would mean operating in English for the sake of the gospel. The biblical principle is, after all, one of being understood before indulging what might be a matter of preference for me.

But what do we say of a church in England, in a community of predominantly English-speakers, with significant non-English speakers within its context? Again, the answer is not necessarily straightforward. Do we favour the language of the majority or do we setup to reach a particular minority? The former may seem exclusive but then the latter will face the problem of the diaspora churches mentioned above. We could seek to translate, but then in a multicultural context, we would have to make decisions about which languages to translate. We also have to ask whether, in seeking to translate everything, whether in our effort to be best understood we are actually helping those we translate for to operate most helpfully in society. The more we translate, the less need there seems to learn English and, incidentally, the harder we make it to learn English. Again, there aren’t always straightforward answers to these questions.

Then, of course, there is the question of what a church can reasonably be expected to do. Should a Pakistani turn up to church, is it reasonable to expect someone (or, everyone) to learn Urdu now? Whether evangelistically or for the sake of discipleship, are we really showing brotherly affection by not seeking to learn their language? But then, if we all do that, are we not harming that person’s efforts (and, let’s be frank, need) to learn English so they can operate day to day outside of the church? Whether doing these things would be good or not, the question here is, is it reasonable or necessary?

Then we have to accept that there comes a point where a church just comes to the end of itself. The calls of something must be done, eventually, must give way to there is no more we can do. At some point, we reach the end of our resources, our abilities, our capacity. We have the people God has given us, we have the resources he has blessed us with, we have the ability and capacity to do so much, and then no more. Perhaps the Lord just hasn’t blessed us with the appropriate language skills to welcome every possible foreigner on our doorstep in their own language? Maybe it is okay to say that we are lucky we have the means to serve anybody with translation of any sort. Within our church, we would have to accommodate at least 6 different native languages to accommodate this purely with the people we have now. I don’t think it unreasonable to simply say we do not have the resources to do that.

When I put the shoe on the other foot, if I were ever to find myself in another country long term, I would consider it a totally unreasonable imposition on my part to insist a French-speaking church learnt English for my sake. Surely it is incumbent on me to learn French rather than expect the majority in a native-speaking country to accommodate me. There may be good reasons why a bit of English here and there might be considered to everyone’s benefit, but it does seem the burden of responsibility ought to lie with the one operating in a foreign tongue, rather than the one expecting the entire church to accommodate their desire to live in a foreign land. If the skills are there already to help, praise God. But if they aren’t, that is hardly the host church’s fault.

As I argued more fully here, sometimes there is just nothing more to be done:

Sometimes, we have to recognise that there isn’t anything specific for the church to do. Sometimes, the right answer is to say there is nothing for us to do. Or, at least, there is nothing more we can do. The church doesn’t exist to meet every felt need or address every possible gap in ministry.

In the end, it seems to me what is reasonable for a church to do is whatever a church is able to do with the resources, people and gifts the Lord has given it to steward. That may or may not include certain language skills. There are good reasons to translate, there are bad reasons to do that too. There are good reasons to encourage people towards operating in the host language, there are bad reasons to do that too. In the end, we do what we can do with the resources the Lord has gifted us to do it with.