Terry Virgo always says, “If you’re not convinced, you won’t sustain,” and was it Bill Beckham who said, “Where the vision’s unclear the price is too high?”
At this moment there are upwards of 900 million people learning English as a second language. Surely this means the opportunity to preach the gospel in English is greater than ever before? Why should we go through the slow, inefficient, painful, shameful process of learning local heart language? A few quick thoughts:
1. People receive their identity in their mother tongue
Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf is trilingual. He writes “Language is bound to remain the mainspring of cultural identity.” Each language he speaks has a compartment in his life with associated culture and expectations (Amin Maalouf, ‘On Identity’).
If people receive the gospel in English, not their mother tongue, it will not displace the loyalties and defaults of their previous identity. It cannot pass into the deepest places in their being. It cannot move them. It cannot change them.
If worldview is a story, the gospel cannot replace this with a better story whilst it resides in a separate compartment.
Perhaps this is the reason why Christians in Rwanda could worship Christ and then kill their brothers. When faith language is different to tribal language there is a conflict of identity. When culture kicks in (weddings, funerals, crises, conflict), people will always default to their mother-tongue loyalties.
2. Approaching God the Father in your mother tongue is a basic must of Christianity
One of our arguments to Muslims is that if God loves his kids why do some have an advantage on the basis of language? When Jesus taught his disciples to use “Abba” he was de-formalizing prayer from the religious language of Hebrew into the everyday language of Aramaic. In a world where language has so often been used for clerical control (Jewish Hebrew, Latin Catholicism, Orthodox High Greek, Quranic Arabic) ensuring that the gospel is in the hands of everyday people who can approach God on a level playing field is non-negotiable!
In 1408, Archbishop Thomas Arundell declared;
“It is a dangerous thing, as witnesseth blessed St. Jerome to translate the text of the Holy Scripture out of one tongue into another, for in the translation the same sense is not always easily kept… We therefore decree and ordain, that no man, hereafter, by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other tongue… and that no man can read any such book… in part or in whole.”
Keep it in Latin to keep it safe! If people could read the Bible for themselves, just imagine what horrors could occur!
Translation of the scriptures therefore became a fundamental of Protestant reform. William Tyndale famously said: “I defy the Pope and all his laws… If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”
Tyndale made translation of the scriptures into English his life’s work. It is exactly this sentiment today which drives us to learn local language!
3. The goal of church planting is indigenization
The church I grew up in was an international church in Cyprus meeting in English. It served the international community well, even occasionally bore local fruit.
That church no longer exists.
An international church worshiping in English is a tent, not a building. It camps on the land, it does not dig foundations. It does not take root. It will always be alien, never indigenous.
Roland Allen famously wrote, “Men have wandered all over the world, ‘preaching the word’, laying no solid foundations, establishing nothing permanent, leaving no really instructed society behind them.”
The gospel will never be widely embraced in a place while it is seen as foreign. While it is preached in English. No contextualization journey can even begin without learning language. In fact, if we hadn’t learned language sufficiently in our first two years, we would have gone home.
The greatest barrier to the gospel in many places, including where I live, is that it is seen as a Western religion. Which is a demonic lie, and untrue on so many levels. But to preach the gospel in English actually serves to reinforce this!
Keep learning language, friends.