Walmart’s neighborhood stores have been selling their products in more than one language (mostly in English / Spanish / French) for years. At these stores, you can actually find information on some product labels in as many as 10 languages. Additionally, many of these stores are staffed by multilingual “associates.” Being multilingual makes sense for Walmart. And it is making sense for some local churches as well.
There is hardly any city or town in the United States that has not witnessed an increase in multilingualism. According to CensusScope, the U.S. population that spoke English less than “very well” increased to more than 21 million in 2000, in comparison to 14 million in 1990.1 Although Indo-European and Asian language speakers have contributed to the increase, CensusScope data reveals that Spanish speakers are the major factor in these added millions of non-English dominant speakers. Immigration may account for some of this increase, but population growth (mainly among the descendents of the original European settlers of the American Southwest, who have maintained their Spanish languages for centuries) has also contributed for the increase.
Churches have responded to multilingualism as well, with such congregations primarily found in major urban centers; though some are also found in small towns and rural areas, due largely to migrant farm workers. The pastors and leadership teams of these churches have found in their multilingual communities an opportunity and a challenge, rather than an inconvenience and a threat. They have also found that those in the community who respond to their multilingual ministry prefer the multicultural/ multiracial/multiethnic nature of their congregations rather than the monolingual characteristics of other churches in the area.
When Bill Hybels transitioned Willow Creek Church in Chicago into a multicultural/multiethnic/multiracial ministry at the beginning of this decade, he also diversified into a multilingual ministry (English-Spanish).2 The model is being followed by other local churches as well: one multilingual local church, under one senior pastor, one pastoral staff, and one leadership team.
Despite the growth of multilingualism, healthy, ethnic, English only, non-immigrant churches will continue to be important for specific cultural segments of the population, even in communities where multilingualism has become the norm. Monolingual churches will also continue to be important among first generation adult immigrants who continue to use their own native languages. Churches that become multilingual, and even those that are started as multilingual, are only introducing an alternative model for church development, signaling perhaps a more cosmopolitan, flexible approach to church development than the one provided by the homogeneous principle.
Multilingualism in any given congregation may become a natural transition into a multicultural/multiethnic/ multiracial church, or it may not. It may be permanent, or it may be temporary. Multilingualism is dynamic. Today it may be English-Spanish; in the next outreach cycle, it may be English-Spanish-and-another language; and in the cycle after that, it may be any other language combination (including sign language). The changing language representation of the community in which the local church serves will dictate the language combination it uses. This principle applies to those white congregations that have become Walmart-smart, as well as to Black, Latino, Asian, Haitian and other ethnic congregations that have become multilingual in their ministry or plan to do so in the future. The important thing is to retain the multiple language nature of the ministry as a tool to develop a local church, no matter how transitory or how permanent may be the multilingual strategy for the spreading of the gospel.
The mechanics for a multilingual Sunday School class or of a single worship service may be as simple as having an interpreter sitting by the non-dominant language user(s), or as complex as a multilingual, simultaneous translation from a booth using radio transmitters and individual radio receivers (as demonstrated with international delegates at general assembly).
Furthermore, current social media have unlimited potential for multilingual purposes. Once a local church becomes involved in preaching and teaching in more than one language on Sunday mornings and during the week, or broadcasts online using any form of social media, it will potentially be multiplying its communication channels many times over, both nationally and worldwide. It will be a local church doing global missions directly from its own venue!
Multilingualism in Christian worship, preaching, and teaching within a single local church has its historical antecedent in the Jewish synagogue. By New Testament times, it was expected that the “ministerial staff” serving a Jewish synagogue in Israel would be at least bilingual (Hebrew-Aramaic). Not all those who attended a synagogue in Galilee or Judea had mastered the Hebrew language. Therefore, it was common practice for the “ministerial staff” to read the scripture in Hebrew and then translate it and interpret it in Aramaic (the Targum, which is the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible). The participation of our Lord in the synagogue liturgy, as described in Luke 4, probably followed this multilingual pattern. By the same reasoning, it would be reasonable to think that in the approximately 150 synagogues spread throughout the Roman Empire at that time, a third or fourth local language like Greek or Latin might have been added to the local synagogue liturgy.3
Strikingly, the first result of the believers’ infilling with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was that they “began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability” (2:4, NLT). It is also significant that the first reaction of those who heard them speaking the gospel was: “And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” (2:11, NLT). The structure of this Pentecost Day multilingual service was rather simple: One gathering, in one place, being ministered to simultaneously through the Holy Spiritinspired, multilingual communication of the gospel. A local church that becomes Walmart-smart is a church that, in a sense, is experiencing a new Day of Pentecost every Sunday morning—a communication miracle. It is a church that has become Pentecost Day-smart.
The apostle Paul was exceptionally insightful as to this multilingual dynamic in communicating the gospel. He consistently and effectively took advantage of it in his church-planting operations throughout the Mediterranean Sea basin. The book of Acts repeatedly records the different ways in which Paul took advantage of his multilingualism and that of the synagogues he visited in order to effectively spread the gospel among Jews and “Greeks” alike, in one place and in one religious gathering (Acts 13:5, 14ff; 14:1; 17:1-4, 10-12; etc.).
The multilingual local church is a viable church development option.
Thus, it seems practical to conclude, not only from the standpoint of current social circumstances but also from the standpoint of biblical principles, that the multilingual local church is a viable church development option, and that it should continue to be so in the foreseeable future. It is a local church that has simply become Walmart-smart. Or better yet, Pentecost Day-smart.
JUAN VAZQUEZ-PLA is Adjunct Professor, Modern Languages Department, at Southern Nazarene University
1. Found at censusscope.org/us/chart_language.html, accessed on August 8, 2010.
2. Kathleen Garces-Foley, “Multiethnic congregations,” an online PDF paper (Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2010).
3. Enciclopedia de la Biblia [Encyclopedia of the Bible], 2nd Ed. (Barcelona, Ediciones Garriga, S.A., 1969), 6:718-721.