Don’t allow multi-lingual, multi-cultural annoyances to separate the church

I read this post yesterday on how a church in Sweden became a multi-lingual church. It is interesting and worth checking out. Certainly a lot in it to which we can relate.

Unlike them, we are a church in England that, at one time, was full of English people and not much else. But in a similar way to the church in Sweden – who suddenly found a load of Congolese refugees sat in their church – we had one Iranian refugee turn up. That one led to him bringing others until, in God’s providence, we ended up with a significant number of Iranians and a handful of Afghans. Like the church in Sweden, this made us a two-language church (English and Farsi) that soon became three-language with the Dari-speaking Afghans.

But not only was our church English and full of English people in the past, the community was at one time predominantly English too. But as the community around the church changed from predominantly English to increasingly Caribbean, we began to see a number of Bajan folks coming to the church. This made us more multi-cultural, but did very little to increase the language count.

But the wave of Caribbean folks who came into the area in the 1950s soon gave way to South Asians moving into the area in the 1970s. Increasingly, the area around the church stopped looking white, began to look much less black, and instead started to look much more South Asian and Muslim. By the time I arrived at our church, our area had two operative language: English and Urdu. The overwhelming majority of people in the community were now South Asian Muslims of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin.

In response to these changes, we started meeting some local needs. Things like English Classes were begun. Those English Classes began with Iranians within the church but soon started to expand to include Pakistani and Bangladeshi people from the local community. As word spread, we began to see all manner of people, from across the world, coming into the church. This started to make the church seem more accessible to people of other ethnicities and languages.

As time went on, we began to offer food provision to needy people in the local community. We started providing services aimed at helping the homeless locally. All of these things started to increase the footfall into the church. We were soon becoming known as a place where people of all nationalities, languages and ethnicities were welcome.

Over time, others began coming into the church. Though we have people from all over the world – Europe, The Americas, Africa, Asia – all represented in our midst, our main operating languages are English and Farsi. Most of our international friends default to English. We also want to help most of them operate in English because, outside of church, they need to know English.

This is where we part company with the church in Sweden. They quickly found bi-lingual services annoying and moved to set up a separate Swedish-speaking service. We have actively pushed against splitting the church by language and have sought, instead, to welcome people and include them as far as possible in what is going on. We have done this for a few reasons.

Though it is undoubtedly harder, we feel it is important to try and keep the church together. Separate services, on our understanding, are effectively separate churches. We believe the gospel is best communicated to our community multiculturally, even if it is harder and more awkward to do so.

This means we try to translate the sermon every week. We try to include aspects of other cultures in the service. This might mean allowing people to pray in their own language during the time of prayer. It might mean singing songs in different languages using transliterated English some of the time. It means giving space for people to share testimonies that speak to their own experience and that of their compatriots. In these things, we are (albeit often in small ways) trying to include a range of cultures in the service and allow them to be expressed openly whilst also helping people engage in English to serve them as they go out from the church and find the world around them is English-speaking too.

It has been a point of note in our community that we are more multicultural than anything else in the area. Most things that happen in our community – even community projects meeting material needs – tend to be monocultural. Usually, they are monoculturally South Asian in our area. But it has been noted by local community workers and the mosques roundabout that the ministries at work in our church genuinely serve the wider community and take in Black, White, South and East Asian. We believe this is a better reflection of the gospel to our community than separating out – however annoying it may often feel – according to language and ethnicity.

This approach not only witnesses to the gospel in our community, but has consistently opened up doors for us. People know they will be welcome when they come to us. I think of the Albanian man who continues coming, despite having no real English to speak of, because he feels cared for and welcomed by the church. He is able to come because others have come before him and felt welcomed also. I think of our African friends who felt more able to come because there were other black people, who looked a bit like them, who were speaking and sharing in the course of our service. I think of the white working class family who feel welcome because there are other people who are from a similar background. There are many stories like these.

Of course, such mixing makes life harder. Language barriers have been a curse ever since Babel. Though it is thrilling to have people in our midst with a multitude of different tongues, there is no denying that when you can’t communicate properly it is a pain. Even where we speak the same language, our Nigerian brethren do not think like our Cameroonian folks who do not all think the same way as the American guys who in turn do not always operate like the Brits. Of course we don’t! But that means we frequently all do things that seem normal, or obvious, to us that turn out not to be so normal and obvious to others. Indeed, they come off as down right weird because they’re culturally alien. This can lead to misunderstandings, some of which prove to be quite funny others of which turn out to be causes of great offence.

The great thing about this is it forces us all to grow. We are all constantly confronted with the biblical call to prefer other’s needs above our own. I am certain the Lord intended to include cultural preferences and modes of operation when he put it in his Word. We are all constantly having to grow in grace as people do things we wouldn’t. We are constantly having to ask whether things we would like to do, or naturally want to do, are actually biblical or whether they are just cultural expressions of broadly biblical things. This is good because it continually throws us back to the Word. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if every other church in Britain does it, what does the Bible actually say? Perhaps the churches in Britain are out of step with the Word and it takes our brethren from other nations – for whom it is not so obvious – to help us see it is so. These are all good and excellent products of the annoying, irritating, and yet in my opinion, gospel-centred, biblical desire to truly allow multicultural expression in our churches.

For these reasons, I would not encourage churches to setup separate language services. Push through the awkwardness and the difficulties. Try to find ways to mitigate those annoyances, for sure, but ultimately press towards being together as far as possible. I am convinced the church will grow spiritually, the Lord will be more glorified and the gospel more clearly displayed when we do.