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The Multilingual Church: What Did I Just Agree To?

“What did I just agree to?” You can almost hear the panic in these words. Have you ever said “Yes” to something without hearing all the details? Perhaps you agreed with the gist but upon reading the fine print you began to panic and pulled out. Or perhaps you stayed ignorant only to discover that, on the day, you were not the right person for the work and now people have suffered at your incompetence.

And, of course, you’ve suffered too – your competence has been underused elsewhere while your incompetence can now be plainly seen by all. All because you agreed to something that you did not understand in full. We know what this feels like.

The multicultural church clearly displays the intrinsic catholicity of the gospel and ought to be pursued on those grounds alone. If our community is multicultural but our church is not, we have a subpar gospel. So, multicultural church – yes and Amen! But what about the multilingual church? This is where the multicultural church, if it is also multilingual, must factor in some guiding principles from the apostle Paul, lest it does damage to its congregation. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul refers to the gift of tongues and the principle of this matter has relevance for all earthly tongues, not only for the gift.

“Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:13–17, NASB)

In this passage, Paul exhorted the one who is gifted with tongues to also pray for an interpretation whenever they used their gift in church. For when there is no interpretation, the Christian who is ungifted with tongues cannot say “Amen” to what is being said nor will they be edified by an unintelligible word. One lexicon defines edification in this way: “To help improve ability to function in living responsibly and effectively.”[1] For Paul, this is the difference between an incompetent Christian life and the Christian who has the ability to live in the world in a responsible and effective manner.

This principle for the gift of tongues is relevant for all earthly tongues. If I do not understand what you are saying, whether it be a prayer or a sermon, I will not be edified nor can I say “Amen”. The local church must decide. Will it be a church that is multicultural yet unashamedly monolingual? If so, and if there is a need, perhaps this church can start another service or another church that functions in a different language. Or will it be a church that is multicultural and multilingual? If so, according to Paul, there must be a service of full interpretation regarding all word-based ministries. No one should be left unedified by a word they do not understand, nor should they be wondering, “What did I just agree to?” when they speak their “Amen.” This is how a multicultural/multilingual church might damage its own congregation: having their members say “Amen” to an unintelligible word and thus obligating them to a Christian life that reveals their incompetence rather than their gifts, skills, and ability to live in the world in a responsible and effective manner.

If this seems like an overreaction, here is a closing thought to ponder. Perhaps “Amen” is thrown around today in a manner that is simply too casual. To say “Amen” was a big deal for the apostle Paul – it was part and parcel of the logic to his argument in 1 Corinthians 14:13–17. Perhaps we need to revisit the sacred act, the importance, the holiness of what it means to say “Amen”.

[1] Frederick W. Danker (ed.), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 696.

Joel Ken

Joel Ken - Tabor Alumnus