Translating Christianity for those from a non-English speaking background

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Translating Christianity for those from a non-English speaking background image

A Chinese father saw a new sign outside Rosemeadow Anglican Church and concluded that this would be a good place to hear about Jesus. The very next Sunday, he arrived with his family and two very important questions.

“He turned up one Sunday and asked me, ‘Is there anyone here who can help us to know Jesus? Is there anyone here who can speak our language?,” says the Rev Brett Hall, rector of Rosemeadow and Appin. “I replied, ‘Do you speak Cantonese? My new wife speaks Cantonese. Let me go and get her.’”

Hall had only married recently, and marvels at God’s providence of someone bilingual who was able to help a new family at their church.

But what about the rest of us? The reality is that not every church has a bilingual member ready to assist in interpreting and welcoming people in their native tongue. However, the chances of someone walking into our churches familiar with another language are increasing daily, with the 2016 Census reporting that 20 per cent of Australian households speak a language other than English at home. The number of households that spoke English only dropped in the past five years from 76.8 per cent in 2011 to 72.7 per cent in last year’s Census.

So what can churches do to love and care for people from a non-English speaking background?

“The question is, how do we make people feel most comfortable coming to church, especially if they are from a non-English speaking background and they feel that everyone else is a native English speaker?” asks the Rev John Bartik, rector at Bankstown. “They might question if Christianity is actually something for them.

And Bartik knows what he’s on about – he also works with Anglicare as the English as a Second Language (ESL) co-ordinator for the Georges River Region, helping churches to do ESL ministry effectively.

With his church located in an area that is highly multicultural, he sees that sharing the gospel with his local community must involve working hard to minister well to people from a non-English speaking background.

“We can’t give up on ministering to all people just because society has become extraordinarily diverse” Bartik says

“This means we have to put effort into this. The challenge for churches is to reach out to all kinds of people in such a way that they resonate with the truth without compromising the heart, depth and glory of those truths. Paul talks about this – being a Greek to Greeks and a Jew to Jews. He really wrestled with making the gospel appropriate for all people.”

Despite what seems like a clear biblical call to minister to all nations, Bartik still comes across churches and people who are not enthusiastic about accommodating people from a non-English speaking background.

“There are churches who don’t see the need,” he says, adding that their resistance is often well-intentioned. “Their opposition is based on what has to happen to their regular members to properly accommodate low-level English speakers. They are concerned that it’s patronising for native speakers who want to be engaged intellectually.”

However, he is convinced that this shouldn’t mean the teaching is dumbed down. He hopes to see churches working hard to present core gospel truths in a way that is challenging for English speakers, but clear and accessible for those who are still grasping the language.

Thinking Strategically: Some thoughts and ideas

Bartik’s research led him to develop numerous resources and ideas for improving church-run English classes, and ways churches can improve their Sunday services to better accommodate different levels of English.

His primary method for helping churches to engage with people from a non-English speaking background is through English classes. These have been a great first step for people who have limited English to be cared for in a very practical way by members of a church community. It is often also where many people from different backgrounds and faiths will get the opportunity to meet and build friendships with Christians.

As part of his quest to help churches include those with a lower level of English, Bartik has brainstormed several methods for accommodating people in a Sunday service. He noticed that many from a non-English speaking background struggle to follow along with the sermon. This is caused by a number of factors including the accent of the preacher, the speed at which they preach, the complex ideas being unpacked and the cultural references and colloquial phrases used in the sermon.

To help people follow along, he began to use Google Translate to adapt English sermons to other languages. He started by writing a simplified English sermon, pasted it into the translation program, and printed off copies of the sermon in a range of languages for his congregation.

With delight, he found it helped some cultures to engage with his Bible teaching. However, as he expanded to other languages, he ran into difficulties.

“Google Translate has worked quite well for Urdu, French and Spanish,” he says, “but it doesn’t work for Chinese or Arabic. Somehow the algorithms match for some languages but not for others.”

While Bartik was once a big advocate of Google Translate, encouraging other churches to take advantage of the free translation platform online, he has since concluded there is no one  approach to catering for multi-language congregations.

“It’s a shifting sands situation and there’s no silver bullet, so my thinking must keep changing,” he says. “The fact is that things don’t work out for every culture, and this means that the work of adapting and including has to be an active work. You have to be willing to change thinking and directions. You can’t be static.”

Find Community despite the language barrier

Bartik is also keen to see churches think strategically about how they will help people move from English classes to belonging to the wider church community.

“Christianity is so community-based that if you can’t participate in the community due to language barriers, it feels like Christianity itself is something you can’t participate in. So the challenge for us as churches is to provide a platform where people from all nations feel like they are in a community that know them, love them and engage in the most deep and effortless way. It’s hard to engage in gospel truths alone, and if you don’t feel like you can share your life and burdens with the church family, then it’s not quite working.”

Although there are many creative ways to help people of a non-English speaking background understand the gospel and connect to the church family, Bartik believes it is important for believers to have a common language, and for sermons to aim to challenge fluent English speakers and also accommodate those with lower English levels.

“The means of engaging lower-level English speakers doesn’t have to compromise the native levels of language,” he says. “There are times where a church is strong enough to provide a translation of a sermon, but that’s pretty labour intensive and that can make it more difficult. It’s quite powerful though, and the people who come along feel quite well looked after.

“Other churches will do a digest of a sermon – where someone who is bilingual will walk through the main points of a sermon after it has been preached. They can have native English-level input, and then process the content in their own language afterwards. That’s quite powerful as well.”

At Rosemeadow, Brett Hall’s wife has continued to interpret for the Chinese family during the service and also at Bible study. “The father of the Chinese family often says, ‘I feel bad that you work so hard to interpret’, but he seems very appreciative,” Hall says.

He also works hard to ensure that people can have Scriptures in the language they find easiest to read. Bible passages are printed from the internet for the Chinese family, and the church uses different resources to help those who speak other languages. But Hall reflects that having people from non-English speaking backgrounds in the parish has helped his congregation as a whole to grow in their sensitivity to others, especially in his Bible study.

At the moment, study members are working through the Gospel of Luke using an audio Bible. Sisi, who is originally from Rwanda, also listens along to a Rwandan version of the Bible with the YouVersion app. Hall provides his group with Bible study questions a week in advance so those who are from a non-English speaking background can take them home and prepare.

“I think because we have other ethnicities represented at our church, there was already an awareness of other cultures,” he says. “Sisi has been in our Bible study for a while, but we hadn’t thought about how to better help her until the Chinese family arrived. It’s caused us to consider different ways we can be helping people who have different levels of English in our church.”

While some things are working well for some churches, and others are trying new methods to communicate cross-culturally, John Bartik encourages all Anglicans to continue persevering in this vital ministry.

“The gospel is for everyone, including those who don’t speak English. Everyone should have access to the Lord Jesus, and this is an international need… We have to think holistically about what we are doing. If a church did this well, there would be an interchange between meeting [people] where they are at and showing them the bigger picture." - Bartik

“Our responses need to be in the spectrum of reaching out and preparing things for them, and doing what we do excellently. It could be hosting dinners and meeting them in fellowship, it could be easy English Bible studies. It’s not just how we reach people from other countries, but how we speak to other people. At the end of the day we present truths that speak to the heart, that change people’s hearts and glorify Jesus from the core.”