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Lost in Translation: Lessons from Language Can Help Us Share the Gospel

Translation and immersion are key for every generation as they engage people in culture.
Lost in Translation: Lessons from Language Can Help Us Share the Gospel
Image: Pixabay/RJA1988

In my leadership role with World Methodist Evangelism, I frequently am in international environments, depending heavily on the skills of translators and interpreters. These are gifted people!

I recall teaching on evangelism in Vladivostok, Russia a few years ago. I was trying to make an important point, which in English is not difficult to understand. It’s the idea that in evangelism, no way is the way, but each way, by God’s grace, can become a way. The emphasis is on the word “the”(which implies a sense of singularity) and the word “a” (which implies a variety of possibilities).

The point is that there is never only one way to evangelize; rather, there are a wide variety of fruitful approaches, depending on your environment.

What I didn’t realize is that in Russian, there is no easy way to translate “the” and “a,” especially to make the point I was trying to make. It took a few minutes of discussion with my interpreter, along with a much longer explanation in Russian, to finally make that one sentence clear.

In our life of faith, translation is critical.

How do we understand this good news of Jesus Christ? How is it that we make it known to others? How do we translate this news that is at one and the same time something that inspires silent awe, joyful praise, tearful repentance, ecstatic utterances, or quiet prayer?

How do we make known a gospel that is at one and the same time something that moves us to a life of personal piety, acts of mercy, or public activism? How do we provide a channel for the Holy Spirit to make this deeply mysterious yet magnificently understandable news real in all places and for each successive generation?

There is nothing new about these questions. The Jesus movement faced them from the beginning as the Good News spread from its first century Jewish roots to Greek towns and cities and on.

The idea of faith seeking understanding has driven theologians in every place and in every age to wrestle with how to translate the mysteries of the Jesus way both to the church and to the culture at hand.

Over time, there have been moments when our translation has so watered down our truths for the sake of being understood that those truths have become only shadow representations. At other times, we have held our truths so closely that it seems impossible to catch a glimpse of their beauty, let alone grasp the depth of their meaning.

At our present juncture, it feels more important than ever to find a balance between these two approaches. Without such balance, I fear the voices of our cultures will begin to translate for us. It may be that they already have. When Christianity is defined more by who you vote for than by your faith in God the Father who sent the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, it may be that something significant has been lost in the translation.

As you have probably already guessed, I have never been very good at foreign languages. I’m envious of many of my friends who can speak multiple languages. What these friends tell me is that to learn any new language, it is important to have translation resources like a good dictionary.

You can’t learn a new language without that element. And yet, good resources alone are not enough. It is also important to be immersed in the language—to be surrounded by it so that you hear it all the time. In fact, many people say that translation alone will not make you fluent. Just having the language verbally explained isn’t enough for the language to become your own. In a very real sense, you have to live the language in order to make it yours.

How much more might this be the case for following in the Jesus way?

If translation and immersion go together, then those beyond the boundaries of our churches must not only hear us speak of it, but also become immersed in it through our relationships and through the life of our Christ following communities.

Generations of preachers have sought to make God’s grace known, but how much more would those descriptive words come to life if the deepest meaning of God’s grace was made known through lived relationships of love and compassion?

The language of God is not only verbal, it is not only written, it is lived. When we become immersed in the language of God – reading it, speaking it, living it – we make it our own and are better able to translate and interpret it to others.

When through our relationships, through our communities of faith, through our daily living, we enable others to become immersed in the language of God – to hear it spoken, to see it lived, to feel it within – that is when the Holy Spirit is given room to move and work, and others are able to make the language of God their own as well.

Kimberly Reisman, Ph.D. is Executive Director of World Methodist Evangelism, a ministry that equips the global Methodist/Wesleyan family of Christians for the work of evangelism. Kim is a frequent speaker, focusing on evangelism, spiritual formation, women’s ministries, leadership development and the intersection between faith and culture.

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