Bilingual Preaching: Know Your Audience

"Audience." Image by Jonas Bengtsson via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

On the day of Pentecost, when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, they suddenly had the ability to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4).

This moment of inspiration made it possible for the crowds to hear God’s deeds of power in their native tongues (Acts 2:11).

It was from this multilingual, multicultural crowd that the first converts to the way of Jesus organized themselves into a church, a glimpse of the promised city of God where the leaves of the tree of life would be for the healing of the nations (Acts 2:37-47; Revelation 22:2).

At a time when rhetoric about immigrants is harsh, the call to be a place of healing may feel urgent in some faith communities, especially those communities that find themselves in relationship with immigrants. Congregations that have found creative ways to connect with immigrant neighbors through service and fellowship may struggle with how to make their worship spaces welcoming to people who do not speak or understand the congregation’s primary language.

I serve a community that is facing this reality. I was sent as a missionary to establish a Spanish language ministry, a chaplaincy that provides spiritual support to Latinx immigrants and activists in our neighborhood. As a result of the work, a number of individuals who only understand Spanish started attending an English language service. The congregation embarked on a variety of experiments to make the liturgy bilingual so that everyone present could participate. Because we have preachers who are fluent in both languages, we are able to offer a sermon prepared for a bilingual crowd. After some years of trial and error, we are still trying new things. We have also found ways to address some challenges that might help congregations whom the Spirit is calling to preach in the native languages of their people.

Tending to what the people hear

Knowing the audience is an essential skill for every preacher. When preaching to a bilingual congregation, this charge may feel even more acute. In these settings, the life experiences of congregation members differ not only because of age, profession, or economic status. People who grew up in another country are also likely to have a different perspective on history and world affairs. They may or may not have experienced war or extreme poverty. Regardless of the factors that drove them to leave their homes, they know what it is like to be a stranger in a foreign land.

  • Illustrations

    Sermon illustrations are particularly challenging to translate when preaching to a crowd of both immigrants and natural born citizens. Immigrants may or may not be plugged into the mainstream culture of the host nation. Films, books, historical events, and political movements require a lot of explanation. Stories and metaphors will not do as much heavy lifting in one language as in the other. Thus, preachers must decide whether to use a certain illustration or not. When an illustration is included, you might choose to provide more explanation in the language where it is not at home. You might also opt to use two different illustrations to fill the same function in order to accommodate cultural differences. Regardless of what you choose, you can show respect for your congregation by clueing them in that you are taking liberties with the translation for the sake of a clearer message.

  • The meaning of words

    It is also important to tend to connotations of particular words or phrases. For example, the word “liberation” means different things in different contexts. White Americans with a mainline protestant background are likely to think of an individual experience of liberation from past hardships. People from other cultures or theological traditions might hear a communal experience of liberation from political oppression or they may think of liberation from demonic possession. When choosing words or phrases that carry a lot of theological weight, be sure to choose the proper translation as opposed to the first option in your dictionary. Additionally, if a word might signal something different to different people, explain clearly what you mean when you say that word.

  • Rhetoric

    How a preacher uses rhetorical elements is just as important. An alliteration or lyric turn of phrase will not carry the same weight in one language as in the other. Some ideas might be better communicated through straightforward explanation in one language while a more poetic approach works better in the other. In bilingual preaching, it is essential not to rely on wordsmithing to carry your message. Rather, focus on the message you hope the people will hear and how best to communicate that in each language.

An opportunity to deepen relationships

For those who have never experienced a bilingual sermon, there might be fear of losing something. Perhaps there is a perception that a bilingual sermon is only half of the message and that it is awkward and disruptive to hear preaching in two languages.

On the contrary, I have found bilingual sermons to be theologically and relationally generative. The bilingual preacher has a unique opportunity to translate faith experiences of individuals and cultural groups within the congregation. Prepared with care and trusting in the power of the Spirit, a bilingual sermon can be a small step toward deeper understanding between people who struggle to communicate with one another.

By sharing the stories and perspectives of your community, explaining what is heard and what is meant when certain words are uttered in sacred spaces, your bilingual congregation plays a small, but profound role in making room for the healing of the nations.