“Church” translated into Spanish is “iglesia,” a delicate word that makes me think of stained-glass windows, or maybe icicles. Though the Conquistadors got off on the wrong foot in Latin America, massacring millions in the name of the God of love, they left behind more than their language. In their wake they built cathedrals of astonishing beauty.
Sometimes on Sunday nights, I go to Mass with my Honduran mother. The sanctuary is breathtaking, with ornate paintings and a gilded altar. But when the priest speaks, his voice is carried away to the high ceilings, or lost in the people murmuring the prayers along with him; and I don’t understand.
It’s a little easier at the Evangelical churches. They’re recent imports. Ten years ago, Protestants were almost invisible – now they’re close to 40% of the population. Their churches are smaller and poorer. We sit with a dozen or two others on folding chairs and listen to the pastor preach in her booming voice that I still don’t always understand.
In the sanctuary, in the folding chair, I stand when the others stand and sit when the others sit. I try to steal glances from the coveted few hymnals to sing along with songs I don’t know. I bow my head when we all are led in prayer. What’s left when you don’t understand the words? Letting a wave of rapid and devout Spanish pass over me I realize that at the heart is Jesus – or it’s nothing.
I’m not used to feeling lost in church. The church was my third parent, my sixth sibling, or maybe just a doting great-aunt who had me over twice a week and spoiled me with toys and candies. And along with the root-beer-barrel candies that they must have bought in bulk in the 1970s because they were ancient and sticky and as abundant as the loaves and fishes, I grew up with the taste of the Christian language in my mouth.
Going from my Baptist church to my Christian Reformed college, I hit a little lurch. It was like moving to England where I could make myself understood, but I couldn’t quite figure out which were cookies and which were biscuits, or stop myself from giggling when someone said “loo.”
I learned that when the Scripture reading’s done, the reader will say, “This is the word of the Lord,” and I’ll say, “Thanks be to God.” I learned the subtle art of hand raising, which is usually on the second chorus right as the guitar drops out; and I learned that when you shake each other’s hands you say, “Peace be with you,” unless you want to be extra earnest, in which case you grasp a hand in both of yours and simply exhort, “Peace!”
With this under my belt, I was prepared to tackle the “iglesia.” I may not understand the homily or the main points of the sermon, but when someone takes me by the hand and offers, “Paz,” I can figure it out. But as the people rush around me and snatch the hymnals that I reach for, I realize how much less I’m learning without the Spanish language.
My mind wanders when it isn’t caught by words. I count the gilded ceiling tiles. I wish that someone would come over afterwards and explain to me what everything means. And picking at a string in my dress with my eyes accidentally open because I didn’t realize it was a prayer, I realized two things:
First, if someone wanders into your church who doesn’t speak your language well, they’d greatly appreciate your help. Printed sermons are phenomenal, but outlines work. The words to unfamiliar songs are essential. Ask if they have any questions. Be patient enough to answer them. But second, and maybe more relevant to our churches back at home, “Church” itself can be a language.
Is it hard to believe that not everyone knows “Awesome God” or “Amazing Grace”? That people may not know a VBS from the NIV? If Church isn’t their native tongue, they might not. And while they may have learned enough about “Jesus” or “love” to get the gist of the message, when the message is on reconciliation or tribulation or sanctification without an explanation, people can leave without any better understanding when they walked in.
Jargon can also be dangerous. It lends itself to empty prayers. It’s easy to say things automatically that you don’t really mean, disguising a lot of nothing in stained-glass wrapping paper. But it’s more than that. This jargon can seem like the password to a secret club, where inside everyone sounds like each other. The truth is it should never be about sounding more like each other. It should be about sounding more like Christ. Being fluent in “church” should never be a prerequisite for being welcome in one.
The goal is not simplicity of thought, but simplicity of purpose. And this purpose is not potlucks or discernment or love offerings – it’s a gospel that transcends language barriers. When the pursuit of Jesus Christ becomes the focus of the Church, there might be very different accents; but in the end, regardless of the language in which it’s spoken, “church” translated will still be church.