Faith in a Second Language
by U.P. Maria
The demand and curiosity about English has increased among all generations. In many instances, this creates a chance for English-speaking missionaries to serve within the framework of tentmakers, camp counselors, business people, or teachers. Through their work and witness, they have an opportunity to expose unbelievers to the gospel and bring people to the saving knowledge of Christ.
WITH ENGLISH SPREADING QUICKLY around the world, a growing trend has developed among many English-speaking missionaries being sent to the field, even to countries known as “creative access countries.” According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, as of 2010 the United States sent over 127,000 missionaries. Add to this number 15,000 overseas workers sent from the United Kingdom and 8,500 from Canada and the numbers account for about half of all missionaries sent around the world (Center for the Study of Global Christianity 2013, 76).
The demand and curiosity about English has increased among all generations. Parents are sending their children to English summer camps, teenagers are growing up watching English television programs, college students are gaining their education from native English speakers, and adults are expanding their English knowledge through various programs in order to get better jobs.
In many instances, this creates a chance for English-speaking missionaries to serve within the framework of tentmakers, camp counselors, business people, or teachers. Through their work and witness, they have an opportunity to expose unbelievers to the gospel and bring people to the saving knowledge of Christ.
Many of these unbelievers function primarily within their first language context. They may know English well, but their primary language is their mother tongue. This is how they communicate, solve problems, function, and approach the world around them. What happens within their metacognition when they are exposed to the gospel message in their second language? How do they grow in faith? Do they truly understand the concept of salvation when it is presented in a foreign language?
Growing in faith through the second language poses many challenges.
Many factors constitute part of the answer to these questions. Based on the little research done in this field, it is difficult to predict if and how the person who accepted Jesus in his or her second language is going to grow as a committed believer or engage in Christian ministry. However, some considerations can be made when addressing this issue.
#1: Culture plays an important role. When one thinks about people accepting the gospel through their second language, it is important to notice that most of these cases happen in the context in which an English-speaking missionary is preaching or teaching to a group of nationals, with limited translation, in a context in which he or she is not familiar. Sometimes, the “altar call” happens and the missionary sees many people come forward.
However, how can this field worker know that the gospel message is fully understood? Would the response be the same if this happened in the people’s first language? In some cases, unbelievers are put in situations where they are pressured to make a decision. Many times, they agree to pray the sinner’s prayer because they do not completely understand the concept of the Christian faith or because they do not want to go against the missionary’s ideas and desires.
This sociolinguistic issue is very important as it brings up questions as to what would have happened if the gospel was presented in the first language and how this would have affected the decision.
Thirteen years ago, I went down on my knees before Jesus and accepted him as my Savior. This happened at a Christian camp in Poland, where, at that point, evangelical Christianity did not exceed one percent nation-wide. I was born Polish and grew up in a small town where there were no known evangelical believers and the closest Christian church was almost two hours away by three different modes of transportation.
I was born Polish and grew up in a small town where there were
no known evangelical believers.
The camp attracted newcomers by offering English practice with native English speakers. One of the American counselors at the camp led me to Christ. My journey with Jesus started in a second language. Even though I did not fully comprehend what was happening at the point of belief, I could sense the Spirit of the Lord and had no doubt I was making the right decision.
I stayed in contact with the counselor who led me to Christ (who eventually became my husband), as he was able to answer a lot of my theological questions. However, I also followed up with a long-distance course offered by the camp, completed in Polish, which clarified a lot of misunderstandings I had because of the language barrier.
After returning home, I was disappointed to learn that a group of friends who also made the decision during camp fell away from their commitment to Christ. They either were not sure what was happening when they were making the decision and only said “yes” to be a part of a larger activity with the foreigners, or they did not have any follow-up opportunity in their mother tongue to have a deeper understanding and a greater chance to grow.
#2: Similar outcomes take place in many settings. According to an interview with Cindy, a Chinese believer who came to Christ through the use of English, “It is important to have follow-up in Chinese.” Even though her English was quite advanced at the time of conversion, she recognized the need for her mother language in her spiritual growth. For many like Cindy, it is important to check the comprehension of the gospel message within his or her own personal context. Without this follow up, the Christian faith might seem foreign to the new believer and he or she may never fully embrace it. Arne Fjeldstad explains that,
…as communicators we know that only sending the message, or giving out information, is not enough….Our goal must be to penetrate to the very core of the human being, the heart. We need to establish knowledge, or maybe even better, an integrated understanding that can be transformed by the Holy Spirit to a growing, vibrant faith. (2008, par. 3-4)
Penetration of the heart is an important factor in true acceptance of the gospel message. If the message does not resonate with the true self, then the gospel will seem like a foreign myth or a factor that has influenced one’s life, but does not change the heart. Therefore, even when it seems hard, the new believer should be enabled to move into his or her first language to grow in faith.
Penetration of the heart is an important factor
in true acceptance of the gospel message.
Cindy also mentioned that while she was in a discipleship relationship with an American woman, most of her Bible studies were done in English. Every time she read the Bible, she used a bilingual Bible in which she could read the text both in English and in Chinese. Cindy explained, “Reading the Bible in English was good. But it is better in Chinese. I can understand more.”
The concept here is about “heart language” or the language that is most important in a person’s life. In the article “About Bible Translation,” Wycliffe Bible Translators explains this in more detail: “History documents the Bible’s profound impact on individuals and societies. Its impact is greatest when written in the ‘heart language’ of a people. Barriers to understanding the gospel are reduced. People grow spiritually. Strong, healthy churches result” (2013, par. 3).
In most cases, the “heart language” equals the mother tongue, which a person uses from birth throughout his or her lifetime. This is the language that is best understood and provides the deepest connotations. John, a Mongolian Christian, living in Inner Mongolia, sheds light on how important it was to read the Bible in his heart language for the first time. When he first became a believer, he did not have a Bible in his own language; however, when the translation became available, the words of the Bible read in his first language touched his heart.
At that time, we don’t have a Mongolian Bible so we have to read a Chinese Bible. And sometimes we don’t understand it. It’s strange because it’s not modern, it’s kind of old Chinese so… but we don’t have a choice until two years ago. Two years ago first time we have the whole Bible in the Inner Mongolian Mongolian language, the traditional script. The first time I got that, I almost cried when I was reading the Bible in our own language.
Even though he was a believer for many years, when he received a copy of the Bible in the Inner Mongolian, the words spoke to him more than ever before. All aspects of his faith came together into a unified whole.
Some new believers divide their lives into categories
that separate their Christian faith from the rest of their lives.
#3: It is easier to express various ideas and concepts through the mother tongue than through the second language, especially when it comes to biblical terminology. For example, it is very difficult to take the idea of sacrifice and translate it into a language of a culture that does not have any concept of sacrifice. Would the concept have the same meaning in the mother tongue? Would the concept speak to the person’s heart in the same way? Unless the person is fluent in the second language, understanding is going to be very limited. It would be much better for the person to refer to translations of the Bible in his or her own language so that there will be words and phrases that will help clarify these difficult concepts.
#4: For a new believer whose faith journey starts in a different language, it is important for the person to do his or her personal Bible reading and devotions in the mother tongue. Many times, missionaries are placed in positions of “everlasting Bible study leaders.” They have the same group of national believers coming for their seeker and discipleship studies for years and years. This happens because the group of believers either wants to practice English through these studies or finds it embarrassing or shameful to study in their own language. Many times, they refuse to study with their peers because they consider their Bible study a different part in their life.
Unfortunately, some new believers divide their lives into categories that separate their Christian faith from the rest of their lives. Their faith affects their lives but does not completely change them. They do not fully own their faith and are not able to establish their identity in the old environment.
For Rachel, another Chinese believer who was exposed to and accepted Christ through the second language, this has been a struggle. She talked about her American friend (who is now her husband) leading her to Christ:
At first, it was exciting to share my belief with Jim only. It felt like a secret. My friends at college didn’t understand me. Jim was the only one who was a believer that I knew. But later, it was hard because I didn’t have people who could be my Christian friends here. I was alone. People thought that I became a Christian just to practice my English and marry Jim.
In many situations like that of Rachel’s, those who accept Christ through their second language compartmentalize their faith. However, if the belief is true, it will encompass all aspects of life, including the language.
#5: Continual development in faith is crucial to spiritual growth. This should be supported by daily Bible reading and devotions in the mother tongue and through becoming a member of a local, biblically-sound community, such as a small group or a local church. How many times has a person studied the Bible exclusively in his or her second language only and later fall away because his or her second language coach had to leave? Many times, this concept of growing in faith through the second language fails because the discipler has to leave the context and the new believer is not equipped to study the word by him or herself. At the same time, he or she is not involved in a small group of same language speakers or a church because he or she did not see the value of it at that time.
However, the situation changes when a person who became a believer through English (or any other second language) moves to America (or the country where this second language is spoken) and becomes involved in the English-speaking church or receives biblical education from an English-speaking institution.
Many of the Christian resources are written in English, and therefore knowledge of biblical English is needed for those studying in various seminaries around the globe. Cheri Pierson and Will Bankston explain that,
An ever-increasing number of students, to whom English is a second or foreign language, are entering theological institutions of English-based instruction. For instance, Christian seminaries and universities in native English speaking countries continually enroll significant portions of international students, while seminaries like Asian Theological Seminary in the Philippines have established English as their Lingua Franca. (2013, 37)
In this case, the person might subconsciously adjust his or her heart language into the second language because the more biblical input the student receives in the second language, the more encompassing it becomes in all disciplines of life, including the spiritual.
Zonia, a believer who accepted Christ through Cebuano (a language in the Philippines), explained that even though she still felt as if Cebuano was her heart language, it was difficult for her to witness using it. All biblical terminology she had learned so far was through English, and she did not know Cebuano equivalents for many biblical words.
The same situation happened to Fan, a Chinese believer who currently lives and studies in America. She confessed that even though praying using English seemed like reaching another level of religious freedom, it was still difficult to transfer biblical terminology from Chinese to English and vice versus, as some of the expressions did not even have words in the other language. Fan also mentioned that because there are more theological materials available in English, it is difficult to find explanations of all terminology in her mother tongue.
For believers like Fan or Zonia, the second language becomes the language of the Bible and the use of their first language in any biblical context becomes difficult to handle. However, it does not stop the believers from having an ownership of their faith and acquiring more knowledge from the Lord.
Growing in faith through the second language poses many challenges. It might seem easier to switch to the heart language in order to comprehend biblical terminology or be more persuasive during witness. However, these instances do not stop believers from worshipping, developing in their Christian life, or praying. Instead, the second language may give opportunities for the believer to serve in two different contexts. It may open doors for him or her to be the salt and light to people of different ethnicities and languages. God stands above every language and he will work in a believer’s heart through their first, second, or even tenth foreign language.
Center for the Study of Global Christianity. 2013. Christianity in Its Global Context, 1970-2020. Boston, Mass.: Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
Fjeldstad, Arne. 2008. The Concept of HEART Language. The Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life. Accessed September 1, 2014, from www.ocrpl.org/?p=34
Pierson, Cheri and Will Bankston. 2013. “English for Bible and Theology: Understanding and Communicating Theologu Across Cultural and Linguistic Barriers.” Teaching Theology and Religion 16(1): 33-49.
Wycliffe Bible Translators. 2013. “About Bible Translation.” High Wycombe, U.K.: Wycliffe, UK. Accessed September 1, 2014, from wycliffe.org.uk/wycliffe/about/bibletranslation.html.
U.P. Maria (pseudonym) is originally from Poland, was educated in America, and now resides in China, where she has taught English to university students. She is a teacher trainer and spends her time engaging others in the TESOL field.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 30-36. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.Penetration of the heart is an important factor in true acceptance of the gospel message.