Culture At Large

Sunday-morning multiculturalism

Jonathan Downie

[Editor's note: In a recent TC post on Black History Month, Kimberly Davis talked about the segregation that still exists among churches on Sunday mornings. In this follow-up, Jonathan Downie, a translator and researcher based in Scotland, points to a church in Germany that has found one way to embrace multiculturalism.]

While you are sitting in church next Sunday, look at the people around you. How many of them were born in another country? How many of them have a first language that isn't the same as yours? How many of them have a different skin color?

On Monday, try the same experiment in work, school or college. Take a look at those who share your office or classroom and see how many people have a different first language or skin color than you. Do you notice any differences between the two places?

Sadly, it is very likely that you will. We talk a lot about integration but few of us have any idea of how to live it out.

In the United Kingdom, a typical attempt at integration is to create a kind of “mini-church” by providing services entirely in another language. You buy Bibles in another language, find materials in another language and so on. On the surface, this seems like a good approach. After all, who better to preach to people from a different country than their fellow nationals? Who better to lead them in worship than someone who already knows all their songs?

On the other hand, it is difficult to call this approach integration. How much will the people from the mini-church take part in the life of the church as a whole? How can the leadership team of the wider church give any help to people whose language they don't speak?

In Bonn, Germany, there is a church called Centrum Lebendiges Wort which has chosen a different approach. Rather than set up a mini-church, they offer interpreting, free of charge, at every Sunday service. The English speakers attend the same service as the German speakers, as do the French speakers and the Chinese speakers. The pastor still preaches in German, but while he preaches, four interpreters at a time interpret his sermon into other languages. They have even gone as far as having multilingual worship: at CLW you find yourself worshipping in German, English, French and even Chinese, all within the same service. Of course, there is much more to a church than Sunday services, but let's stop there for just now.

What are the drawbacks of this approach? Well, it isn't cheap. Simultaneous interpreting equipment (sound-proof booths, transmitters, receivers, microphones, headsets) will set you back a good few thousand pounds (or dollars, or Euros). Similarly, interpreting is not an easy skill to master, even for people who speak two languages fluently. Worship in three or four languages takes more effort than worship in one.

Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that this approach is much nearer to integration than creating a mini-church or, worse, not bothering to reach people from other cultures at all. It also seems a lot nearer to what we see in Acts 2, where people from all over the world heard the gospel in the same place, at the same time.

The route taken by CLW is expensive, but their pastor has judged it a price worth paying. This leaves us with a question: In our increasingly multicultural societies, what price is worth paying to bring a community together? Is it worth churches and individuals spending more money, giving more time or taking extra training to become more effective in reaching their community? For followers of the one who paid the ultimate price and crossed the ultimate cultural divide, I would say that it is.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Evangelism, The Church, Worship, News & Politics, World