For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Church of Many Languages

Juan quietly entered the worship service. Someone had greeted him at the door. They seemed friendly enough, but there were others coming in so the conversation didn't last long. His work had sent him to Strasbourg for a year from Argentina. The accounting problems at work were not difficult, because the company systems were in Spanish, but everything else was strange. Grocery shopping, getting a cell phone, setting up a bank account were all overwhelming. How was he going to make it for a year here? He felt alone. For the first time since he was a small child he felt like he couldn't handle things. Someone mentioned an English speaking church met in Strasbourg. His English wasn't very good, but it was better than his French, which he didn't speak at all. He hadn't been to church in years, but maybe he could meet some people who he could relate to. And maybe, just maybe, these people could help him understand the depths of confusion he felt inside.

The only reason Monique was there that morning was that a friend had suggested that it was a good place to practice speaking English. Monique's friend was excited about the church and kept asking her to come, but Monique kept saying that she wasn't interested in religion. Monique's parents had told her that churches were just interested in manipulating people for their money. The massive centuries-old church buildings in her home town of Strasbourg seem to confirm what her parents said. That's what surprised her when she entered the room. TICOS wasn't like any church she had ever been in. There were no ornate altars, stain-glass windows, or massive pipe organs. It was, well, plain. An older woman came up and introduced herself. Monique responded in English, but fumbled for her words. The woman smiled and said, "We can speak French if you would like." Monique shook her head and said that she needed to practice her English. They talked for a few minutes and Monique  relaxed a little and the English seemed to become easier. Then another English-speaker joined the conversation. After about thirty seconds the English was flying so fast that Monique was left alone with her thoughts as they continued, oblivious to the fact that she wasn't responding. She felt alone and desperately hoped that her friend would be arriving soon.

Language. Designed by God to create relationships. 
Languages. Designed by God to create division.

In the beginning God gave Adam and Eve some pretty simple instructions: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every thing that moves on the earth" (Genesis 1:28). This passage is filled with deep things that are worth exploring, but I want to focus on one thought: they were to fill the earth. God intended humans to spread out over the globe. As they did so, they would discover new things and adapt to different conditions. Deserts, tropics, mountains, and plains all lead to different lifestyles. And in each of these places God would be glorified. Then the rebellion happened. Adam and Eve sinned and plunged themselves and the world into darkness. Thorns and thistles became normal. Creation was subject to futility. The first murder happened almost immediately.

Still, the human race began to multiply and spread out, but this alarmed some people. Kids and grandkids were moving away to other places. It seemed that something had to be done to keep people together. So they decided to build a great tower that reached to the heavens. They desired the tower to become the central pole around which human existence turned to keep everyone close to "home". This was in direct violation of the purposes of God who wanted them to fill the earth!

The Lord stepped in and confused their language. All of us feel the effects of that! Differing languages create divisions between people. Naturally, they quit building the tower and formed groups based on common language. As a result of the confusion of languages, the people spread out over the the face of the earth. They moved to Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Different cultures developed as humans filled the earth and subdued it.

The Church's Task

The clear mandate of the church is to take the gospel to all nations. That means that the Church must be able to cross over geographic, cultural, and linguistic barriers to reach people with the message of salvation. It does this in a variety of ways. Typically, it sends missionaries into new areas. These missionaries learn the customs and language of a new place and seek to tell others about Jesus with the goal of establishing churches.

A second strategy is to establish a church in a country using an international trade language. These international churches have a two pronged approach to reaching the nations. First, these international churches are usually established in cities that have a high "foreign" population that speak a common trade language. These foreigners are usually undergoing transition from their home country and are open to new relationships and as a result are often receptive to the gospel message.

Second, these churches seek to reach out to people from the host country. Frequently these churches are established in countries where the natives are resistant to the gospel. An international church is often attractive to those in the host country who are curious enough about other countries or want to practice the trade language. This openness to "non-native things" frequently indicates a potential openness to the gospel message. It is also attractive to believers in the host county that have a heart to reach those from other nations.  

The Problem of Language at TICOS

It is important for us to remember that language difficulties are part of life in an international church. People like Juan and Monique arrive almost every Sunday, and our mission to reach the nations means understanding how to deal with the language barrier.

Here are some guidelines to help us navigate these waters.

Focus on Jesus.
Being part of an international church is a special experience because what draws and binds us together is Jesus. Alliance President John Stumbo recently said, "We speak dozens of languages, but one language we all share in common: we speak gospel. We cherish and speak the good news of Jesus. Our heart language, our mother tongue that stirs us is the gospel of Jesus Christ." So focus on that all-important language of the gospel.

Be sensitive.
Language skills vary widely. It is important for us to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of other people. Try not to assume that others are understanding. Seek to engage them in conversation. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a great rule to follow.

It is a balancing act.
An international church operates in a common trade language (English at TICOS). However, there are many people in the church who speak other languages, and it is common for people to form subgroups based on their native language. Relationships in those subgroups often form quickly because of common culture and language. At the same time, the relationships in the church must be intentionally international. The common trade language helps make that bridge possible. It is important that the overall culture of the church reflect all subgroups, not just one. As a result, it is important for all of us to bend in our preferences so that other groups are welcome.

Laugh alongside.
Laughter can go a long way to drawing people together. When someone makes a funny language mistake it is hard not to laugh, but make sure you are not laughing at the person. After explaining what is funny, you could tell your own story of making an embarrassing language mistake.

Don't take it personally.
Native language speakers can easily lose those who are learning a language. And often we do it without thinking and are often unaware of it. When that happens, and you find that you no longer understand the conversations around you, don't take it personally. The enemy will try to make you feel rejected, unimportant or even angry. Don't let him. In all likelihood the people were not intentionally being rude. They were not rejecting you, you were simply experiencing the separation that language causes.

Learn who speaks what language.
As you get to know people in the church, learn what languages people speak. That way when someone new comes in and you discover that they speak Russian, for example, you can introduce them to other Russian speakers. You will also know who to ask for help translating from one language to another.

An attitude of loving others helps overcome the isolation that language difficulties brings in the church. There are people who we have problems communicating with that we can still relate well with because we know that we care about one another. So seek small ways of communicating concern for one another. It could be as simple as a smile or an offer of a cup of coffee. Love builds one another up!

Give thanks.
One of the best things that you can do is give thanks to God for the people in the church. Thanksgiving builds love for one another and love helps transcend the language difficulties that exist in an international church. 

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