I received this suggestion for a WorshipGod09 seminar from Mike:
I am on the leadership team of a new church here in Harare, Zimbabwe. We have combined two congregations – one of which used to worship in Shona and the other which is more comfortable in English. In the new combined congregation, we have some who are mono-lingual. How do I agree with a spontaneous prayer if I do not know if they are praising His glory, interceding for the nation, or praying for Maria’s sore toe? Many of us, even if mono-lingual in speech, can sing in three or four languages! But how meaningfully? We are considering having bi-lingual projections on screen for this purpose. But will need some seriously “together” operators when spontaneous worship occurs!
Rather than build a workshop around that idea, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here and invite comments from those of you who have experience serving multi-language groups.
When Paul is talking about the gathered church in 1 Corinthians 14:9-12, he stresses the importance of everyone understanding what’s going on. Although he’s talking about the gift of tongues in this passage, the principle can certainly be applied to normal languages. The question is, how do we make sure everyone understands what’s being said?
One option is wireless headphones for translation. That’s what we did for our Hispanic guests and members until a few months ago when we finally started a Hispanic congregation.
If there are a large number of people who speak one of two languages, another option is to have two people up front who translate everything that’s being spoken. That obviously limits spontaneous contributions in their number and speed, but everyone at least can keep up with what’s happening.
Another approach is to sing songs in two languages at the same time, projecting both versions simultaneously. To allow for this possibility, we’re currently working on Spanish translations of Sovereign Grace songs that not only communicate the original content, but are also close to the original melody. A challenging task, since it usually takes 30% more words to say something in Spanish…
None of this means that someone can’t be meaningfully blessed when listening to someone speak in a foreign language. Years ago I attended a conference and heard a gentleman from China pray in Chinese for his country. I was moved to tears by his obvious passion for the people of his nation, even though I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That being said, a constant diet of prayers that I couldn’t understand wouldn’t help me. God intends for us to understand what others are saying.
One thing we should avoid is restricting ourselves to the simplest of songs to make translation easier. Content doesn’t have to be sacrificed for unity. We are still commanded to “let the word of Christ” dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). God’s greatness, the glories of the gospel, and the variety of appropriate responses require thoughts and expressions that at times will stretch us lyrically. And that’s a good thing.
Recently, a friend made me aware of Proskuneo Ministries, led by Josh Davis, that focuses on designing and encouraging meetings that are multi-lingual. This is their mission statement:
We exist to glorify GOD and promote unity in the Body of Christ through multilingual, multicultural worship gatherings, worship resources, and training of believers in order that lives be transformed and nations come together to worship God.
Multi-language congregational worship isn’t applicable to every situation, but ministries like Proskuneo help us appreciate more clearly what every believer in Jesus Christ is headed for:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)
Whether in one language or many, may our churches increasingly reflect the unity, joy, power, and focus of that day.