I realize that my last couple of posts could leave people a bad impression of our church and our bilingual ministry. So let me try and point out some good things.
Abilene is a city of about 120,000 people. (According to Wikipedia, Abilene “metro” is about 165,000) The ethnic makeup of the city includes about 25% that identify themselves as Hispanic.
There are over 30 churches of Christ in the city and immediate area. As far as I know, there are only two which offer a service in Spanish. Only one of those functions within a larger, predominantly Anglo church: the bilingual service at University.
This work has been functioning for over 25 years. It has had its ups and downs but has always counted on the full support of the congregation. The elders have made it clear that the bilingual ministry is an important part of the University family.
The average age of UCC members trends toward the upper end of Abilene’s population. The bilingual group trends much younger. A large percentage of UCC members are longtime members of the Church of Christ; the bilingual group includes many who have been converted to Christ within the last 5 years or so.
It’s only fair that I point out some of these good things even as I’ve mentioned a few negative ones. To refer again to Jason’s analogy from Sunday, our church is working hard to look like a Cliff Huxtable sweater.
Yesterday I mentioned Jason Craddock’s sermon from this past Sunday, talking about the church being like a Cliff Huxtable sweater. In the sermon, he encouraged the members of the main assembly at UCC (University Church of Christ) to not sit and wait for the members of the bilingual group to come on Unity Sunday. He encouraged people to cross the hall and visit the bilingual service.
I went and gave Jason a hug for that one. It’s something I’ve repeated for at least five years now, with little success. I still have people tell me: “I would visit the bilingual service, but I’m not bilingual.” Explanations about how one only needs to know either one of the two languages used seem to fall on deaf ears. (Actually, you don’t even have to know one of the two; we had a Japanese visitor a few weeks ago who only spoke Japanese)
So why don’t people want to visit a bilingual assembly in their own congregation? I have some guesses:
- Habit. People who have been attending one congregation for decades walk from their classroom to their usual seat without even thinking about it. If they didn’t, those who sit around them would be concerned.
- Loyalty. Before we hired our current preacher, one elder was participating in the bilingual service almost weekly. When we made the hire, he felt the need to support the new preacher; he was afraid that people would infer something negative if he weren’t in the main auditorium.
I think many people feel something of the same. I mentioned to one elder an idea about encouraging Bible classes to visit the bilingual service as a group; he said that he couldn’t feel good about encouraging that many people to miss the main assembly.
- Familiarity. This goes with the previous two. In the main auditorium, people are hearing a preacher that they enjoy listening to. They are singing songs that they know. The Lord’s Supper and offering are done in a way that they are used to. Going to another assembly, even in their own congregation, means giving up those things.
- Fear. There is a fear of having to interact with people that you can’t communicate with. I think that fear is overblown, as every one of our Hispanic members is making some effort to learn English and can carry on a cordial conversation. But that fear exists.
There is also a fear of not knowing what’s going on; 95% of what we do is translated, yet that 5% can make people uncomfortable. It can be awkward to hear people speaking a language you don’t understand.
- Cultural differences. One member, who visits the bilingual service fairly often, confessed that his wife goes even though she doesn’t like “all that hugging.” Latinos tend to be much more effusive with greetings than are many others in our culture. And that’s just one notable difference.
Those are some thoughts. It takes some effort to cross out of our comfort zones and reach out to people who aren’t like us. But, in the church at least, it’s definitely worth the effort.
Can you think of other barriers? More importantly, can you offer suggestions as to how we overcome those barriers?
We had a Unity Service on Sunday, joining our bilingual service with the group that meets in the main auditorium. The service featured videos of members who spoke different languages (most of them speaking their native language). The prayers at the communion table were in Spanish, Swahili, and Portuguese, translated into English.
Our youth minister, Jason Craddock, did a wonderful job of preaching bilingually. He compared the church to a Cliff Huxtable sweater, a collection of varied fabrics woven together into one functional unit. The variations in textures and colors make the sweater/church the unique entity that it is.
Songs were in English and Spanish, as were all prayers and announcements. Much time and planning went into this service.
I was one who pushed for us to begin these services, then became worried about them becoming too frequent. (we’re talking about doing four this year) All of the feedback that I’ve heard has been good, and the elders have assured me that their experience has been the same.
I was reminded of reality yesterday, though, when a friend from another congregation mentioned having seen one of our long-time members at their church. When my friend greeted this member, the member smiled sheepishly and said, “It’s bilingual Sunday at UCC.” No further explanation… in his mind, that was reason enough for going elsewhere.
Not everyone wants the church to be like a Huxtable sweater, I guess.
Donald Miller certainly got Christian cyberspace going recently by writing an article about why he doesn’t find much edification in traditional worship services. This post isn’t meant to directly address his thoughts, but I have to admit that all of the conversations on this topic have certainly influenced my thinking.
What I wrote last Friday was on my mind long before Miller wrote his “confession.” I’ve thought a lot about how much hurt comes from our experiences with other church members. I’ve also considered how different things would be were I in charge. (I’ve even written a couple of posts about how I would do things)
It’s easy to say that I’d like to start a new church that will “do things right.” Or choose to withdraw from the gathered body all together, focusing on my relationship with God outside the confines of organized religion.
So here are some tempering thoughts, presented in no particular order:
- Most people can tell stories of hurt from their own families. There are cases of abuse, as there are in churches. Such things leave scars on anyone and everyone involved. And there are the normal stresses and strains of human relationships. How much hurt you carry away from those things often says more about your personality than the events themselves.
- Every human organization will produce stories of pain. School, sports, work, military service, dating… each one of those endeavors have their detractors, people whose memories are more focused on the hurt than the gain. Some of those are justified; others not so much.
- In general, the strongest and healthiest people in society are those that have learned to reclaim the good things from past relationships and overcome the bad.
- Where church is involved, we need a larger perspective. That is, we need to trust more in the church’s wisdom than our own. Here I mean “church” on a grand scale, the body of Christ through the ages and around the world. I have things to offer, things that will hopefully improve the church where I am. But when I start thinking that everyone but me has it wrong, I’m headed down a bad path.
- If I’m a mature Christian, church members will need me more than I need them. It’s hard to phrase that well. What I mean is, I should expect to do more giving than receiving. Think about a family. Parents expect to have more responsibility, to do more work, to put up with more unpleasantness. It comes with the job. Parenting gives lots of rewards, but in a different way. Especially when children are small, parents do more giving than receiving. That’s how the church works. When someone has been a Christian for a while complains about “not getting fed,” I’ll confess to having little patience for that. If an adult can’t feed themselves, something is wrong. If a mature Christian comes to church merely for what they can get out of the service, something is wrong as well.
It’s a bit like group health insurance plans. Younger, healthier people receive less care for their money than the older, feebler ones do. But any plan that only involves one group or the other won’t function very well.
Those are a few thoughts. I’d like to hear your thoughts as well as reactions to what I’ve said.
Here’s an exercise that you probably don’t need to try. You gather a group of people who have been Christians for a long time. Helps if they’re active, but it also works if they grew up in church. You ask them to tell you the traumatic, horrible experience that happened to them that involved other Christians. Or several such stories.
There are websites devoted to such things. I’ve been in gatherings of ministers where painful stories were shared. I’m in a Facebook group with church leaders where heartbreaking anecdotes appear on a regular basis. You can gather similar narratives with groups of women, elders, church secretaries, deacons, song leaders, Bible school teachers, children of church leaders…
Don’t be surprised. And don’t give up on the church because of it. Like it or not, church has always been that way. Read Paul’s letters. Really read them. Read the things that Peter and Jude talk about. Study John’s letters and note that he talks a lot of love because he isn’t seeing much of it! Read about Diotrephes in 3 John and substitute in Brother Jones, Sister Thomsen, or Pastor Davis; the story hasn’t changed all that much.
Sharing our heartaches can be very therapeutic, though we need to careful how we do it and with whom we share. Our therapy can be very damaging to others. Worse, our vengeful venting can destroy the faith of others.
The main thing is, we have to move forward. Learn from those episodes, mainly so that we don’t inflict pain on others. But don’t let them define you nor your experience with the church. What really matters is how we grow because of the things we’ve gone through.
Photo courtesy of morguefile.com