“Church” translated into Spanish is “iglesia,” a delicate word that makes me think of stained-glass windows. I can’t always translate everything, but when I’m at a service or mass here, at least I know when to stand and when to sit and when to say “amen.”
This isn’t surprising. I’ve been in churches since before I could say “atonement.” I’ve asked Jesus into my heart, I’ve done altar calls and I am washed in the blood of the lamb, thank you very much. I may not be fluent in Spanish, but at least I’m fluent in “church.”
I’ve had to learn a different type of language in Honduras, one made up of adjectives and nouns and those hideous subjunctive verbs. And as I’ve struggled to comprehend church in a different language, I’ve realized how much “church” is a language in itself.
Is it hard to imagine not knowing the hand motions to “Awesome God”? Can you quote the Apostles Creed upside-down, backwards and in your sleep? These things are cultural, and they’re learned.
Depending on how you grew up, a “quiet time” might mean reading scripture or it might be the punishment of a time-out. When you hear “a time of fellowship” you may whip up some jello salad, or you may go looking for “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” Yet these are words we hear constantly from the pulpit, with the assumption of full understanding.
This jargon can seem like the password to a secret club, where everyone inside 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.
Rich vocabulary can beautifully express Biblical truths, but only if people understand it. When priests and pastors let words like sanctification, justification and tribulation roll off their tongues without an explanation, it can alienate the people who might have taken a year or two of this language in high school but haven’t brushed up since.
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. And there really are just two options. When I sat and let a wave of rapid and devout Spanish pass over me, I realized that no matter what I understand, at the bottom of all those prayers, sermons and messages is either Jesus or nothing.
The goal is not simplicity of thought, but simplicity of purpose. 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.