When English is the second language, who comes first?


globe-flagsAt our recent new Members class, one of the issues that struck me with great force was how many of those present did not have English as their first language, although it was the language we all had in common.  Apparently this is a global phenomenon: while English is not the most widely spoken language (think Chinese) it is the most widely spoke second language. The question of the language(s) we use on Sundays is suddenly a big one.

Do we need to run a service in another language?

Where I used to live there was a sizeable Korean population, and it was quite common for a church to have a Sunday afternoon service which was rented out to a Korean-speaking congregation.  Looking under the lid of it, what was actually happening was that couples were coming across to work in London, short term; the husbands had quite good English, which was why they had received this promotion, but their wives did not: hence the need for something language-specific.

Where I am now, we have a Spanish-speaking congregation in the afternoon.  This is not because there is a large hispanic population in the immediate area, but because there is a pastor who has the vision to reach and disciple Spanish speakers across north London.

In fact, the second language of this part of town is neither Spanish nor Korean, but Polish.  But when I asked one of our mission societies whether we needed to address that need he said that we didn’t need to worry: most of the Christians would be Catholic and heading into London for those churches, and in any case there was a strong desire to work in English.

While the media see it as an issue of refugees and riots, we have to see it through a gospel lens.

Our part of London claims to be the most multicultural part of the city.  I don’t know if that’s true – as far as I can see, every London borough seems to claim that.  But London’s now the most multicultural large city on the planet, so this issue is not going to go away.  And while the media see it as an issue of immigration, refugees and riots, we have to see it through a gospel lens.

What about those who have English as a second language?

This is what has hit home.  There is no single national grouping around here, but there is a significant number of people who have learnt English.  Yesterday I met Iranian and Chinese speakers, for the first time.  The week before it was French and Japanese. Before that, Turkish.

Now, this is wonderful.  Many of these people come from countries where the churches are small, and often struggling.  We think we are going through an arid time in the UK, but really, by comparison, we are stunningly blessed and free. We need to obtain some leverage from that. I spoke to someone yesterday about identifying a corner of the building where he could provide simultaneous translation for a particular language group yesterday.  That’s good news.

It also should remind us that we are temporary residents here too.  It’s not that other people are foreigners and I am not: I am a stranger and alien in this land, and my fellow sisters and brothers and I need to huddle together for safety and companionship

So this makes for a serious and long-term challenge.  We are going to have to review our publicity to make sure it is clear and straightforward.  Our sermons and services are going to need a careful look.  And I’ve just put up a poster about the best Bibles to buy if you’re learning English. From now on, we are going to have to watch our words. And, coincidentally, it should help us with the large number of ordinary English speakers who struggle with graduate-level language.

Deep down, it makes us wonder just how hospitable we are willing to be

Obviously, we can run English as a second language classes, if that’s appropriate.  That’s happened before. And we can run international evenings – the usual range of social events.

But deep down, it makes us wonder just how hospitable we are willing to be.

Think it through

  • What proportion of your congregation has English as a second language?
  • Would that have been the same answer ten years ago?
  • What resources do you need to offer, if there is a large population of a different language group in your area?
  • What changes do you need to make if there is a significant number of people who have learnt English?  What skills and tools do you need, and to make available?
  • What have you learnt along the way to help me?  Pile in!

8 comments on “When English is the second language, who comes first?”

  1. Hi Chris,

    It’s not only language we have to think about. If we truly want to welcome people from other cultures we have to think about music and every other aspect of our church gatherings. In order to value people we need to value their cultures. We need to think too of the added cultural dimension others can bring which both enrich us and expand our vision of Christ. Paul tells us in Ephesians 3:18 that we need all the saints in order to fully grasp the height and depth and length and breadth of the love of Christ.



    1. True, Richard – but the language point is more hidden, at least to me. Music, certainly in this part of N London, is a common point. At least, if it’s done excellently (our shared idolatry…)

  2. Hi Chris, A large proportion of our congregation are now English as a second language. We are also running a service in Spanish on Saturdays would be good to make links with yours. WE also offer translation on Sundays and include some spanish songs For some language I’ve resorted to printing off notes via Google translate. Also I am now writing long hand versions of sermons though I still preach from notes. We have ESOL classes as well. These changes plus also changes in terms of literacy expectations even for 1st language English speakers coupled with the NIV revision proved the catalyst for a Bible review and so we are now using the NLT. This again has refreshed long term Christians in their Bible reading

    1. Oh and Richards point about cultures is true. We’ve been enriched by the Hispanic love of food, community and hospitality. But different cultures also stretch us pastorally bringing their own forms of idolatry. Just because it is cultural does not mean it is right but nor does it mean it’s wrong. And across all cultures you still get pride and power struggles , gossip, consumerism, marriage breakdown etc

    2. Thanks Dave. Our Spanish congregation is because of the vision of its founding pastor, not because there’s an obvious hispanic bloc. Translation is an issue, because there isn’t a dominant language once English is removed. We’re looking at English classes, and I’m open to NLT – I think it’s a v good translation for its level of dynamic equivalence (given that all translation is dynamic equivalence!).

  3. Chris, you mention your new members course. Out of interest, what do you cover at your new members course? And how formal is ‘members’? Thinking things through down in Bromley. thanks, Matt.

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