The word to the world in your lounge room

How can we share the gospel, let alone study the Bible, with people who don’t even speak the same language? Is it even worth our time and effort? Anne Woodcock thinks it is.

We really do live in a global village. In the past, Christians have had to travel to reach the world. These days, the world comes to us. Now that English has become the international language of choice for commerce, IT, academia, politics and diplomacy, in English-speaking countries we have hitherto undreamed-of opportunities to reach the world without having to move anywhere. In Britain in particular, those flocking to our shores include asylum seekers; educated young people seeking to improve their English language skills; ex-patriots working for multi-national companies; employees from Eastern Europe and countries further afield; and those who have launched themselves on the great adventure of world travel.

In the area where I live (Chessington on the outer edge of Greater London), our church has made links over the last seven years with people from all over Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and even the Middle East—more than 30 nationalities in what is popularly thought of as a ‘white’ area. These contacts came through our ordinary ongoing church ministries (children’s clubs, toddler groups, etc.), regional migrant initiatives (student cafés, refugee drop-in centres, language schools), local institutions (universities, colleges, hospitals) and the wider community (tourists, au-pairs, ex-patriot groups and even British cookery classes).

The Western church has been given great opportunities to reach the world, but this also means that we have great responsibilities—especially in view of the sheer volume of biblical resources that are available in English, compared with the minute proportion of such resources in other languages. God has commanded us to love the alien and the stranger (Lev 19:34; Matt 25:31-40) and loving them must include fulfilling the Great Commission of making “disciples of all nations” and teaching them all that Jesus said (Matt 28:19-20). Many churches may be good at welcoming international visitors, but how effective are they at explaining the gospel in language these visitors can understand? Are they offering adequate opportunities for those interested to find out more? Have you, or has anyone in your church, ever thought of doing Bible study with a group of international people?

“Wait a minute”, you say, “the only language I speak is English. Oh sure, I may have done a bit of Japanese back in high school, but there’s no way I could possibly teach the Bible in it! Isn’t it better that these people learn the Bible in their own language?

There’s no doubt that, even with a high degree of fluency in an additional language, most people understand most effectively what is communicated in their ‘mother tongue’. However, for many nationalities, there are very few (if any) churches, Bible study groups, or even Christians, ministering in their mother tongue. This is true even of major nationalities, such as the Japanese.

There are also other reasons why some internationals may prefer an English-speaking group, even when one in their own language is available. Some want to investigate Christianity away from the watchful eye of others in their community. Ex-patriot communities can be claustrophobic; news travels fast and it might get back to the relatives at home.

Some people that we have met have had bad experiences with Christians in their own country, but they are still intrigued by the Christian message. An English-speaking Bible study group gives them an opportunity to investigate further, free from pressure.

For those from other religions or cultures wary of Christianity, participation in an English-speaking group can qualify as a kind of cross-cultural contact to educate themselves in the customs and culture of their host country. It is much less likely to provoke criticism from family or colleagues.

A Bible study in English can attract students keen to improve their language skills through contact with real locals. Since language-learners are very comfortable with this terminology, we describe our Bible study programme in terms of ‘courses’ and ‘classes’. Learning English may not be the best reason for doing Bible study, but doing so provides an opportunity for God’s word to break into their lives.

In Chessington, we aim to offer an evangelistic course every year (usually in September). In the following two terms we usually like to include part of a Gospel, focusing on the life of Jesus. Other studies have included famous Old Testament stories and characters, the Sermon on the Mount, the birth and story of the early church in Acts, a very popular course on what the Bible says about marriage, and a look at Revelation. Most of the participants in these small group courses have been non-Christians.

“Okay”, you say, “I might be able to do that. But is it really possible to teach a bunch of cultures in one group? How can we study the Bible together when we come from such diverse backgrounds?”

People of various cultures may hold to a different religion; they may have different ways of learning; they may have a different understanding of key concepts such as God, sin, or Christianity; and they may have different national or personal experiences that will affect their responses to the Bible. But there are more things that are common to all of us: we are all human, we all encounter aspects of human nature and emotions every day, and we all go through common human experiences (death, marriage, childbirth, etc.). Remember, even though the Bible was written out of a specific culture, it never confines its message to just one culture.

The key to all this is your relationship with the participants. Friendliness, warmth, interest, humility, gratitude, respect and compassion are easily communicated cross-culturally. Once a relationship of trust is established, cultural differences become a source of fascination and even amusement. Sure, some things will have to be done differently, or more slowly, in a culturally-mixed group, but it’s a great way to learn onthe- job how to listen, respond and communicate effectively with a unique individual.

Discipling people from other countries will probably mean a lot of hard work. Your church may need to change some of the things it does to accommodate their particular needs. Your congregation may feel uncomfortable—or even resentful—because of differences in culture. You may spend long amounts of time and a lot of energy trying to communicate with someone whose English isn’t that great and who doesn’t seem that interested in talking to you. But this is the work that God has called us to do. It is the only work that will last forever and it does bring great joy. God has given us such a privilege to bring the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to all the nations right here on our own doorstep.

Interested in starting your own international Bible study group? Anne has written a detailed step-by-step guide with lots of practical tips and suggestions, and more personal stories (like Andi’s).

Anne Woodcock works part-time as an editor at The Good Book Company in London. She is involved in several Bible study ministries with internationals.

Andi’s Story

Andi joined an international Bible study in the spring of 2004 as a result of living with a Christian British family while looking for work. A young man in his twenties, he came from a ‘Christianized’ background in Hungary, and had read parts of the Bible before but had never done Bible study. He felt rather daunted about joining the group, both because of his limited level of English and his expectation that the Bible would be difficult to understand, but he soon became a regular participant.

Andi has discovered that the Bible is “always surprising” and that to read it often is very useful. “I believe that it is a description of the only way that is able to save us. The Bible has all the information to help us build up a good relationship with our God and with people. My heart and mind have been changed by the Bible. Everything has started to change in my life, slowly but surely.”

Andi’s basic level of English means that he has little chance of understanding everything in an English church service. But he is enthusiastic about the international Bible study that runs concurrently with the Sunday morning talk. He enjoys “having a good time with Christians” and mixing with those of other nationalities. He finds the small groups helpful, and appreciates the opportunity to have his questions answered. In just a few months God’s Word has had a great effect on this young man. He says: “Now I know Jesus was more than an ordinary person. Now I know why he came here. Now I now why we are here.”

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