Sunday, 5 June 2016

Letter to the Churches

We are currently near one of the many places Paul stopped on his missionary journeys and see a lot of references to him around us. It has got us thinking about how churches communicate.

This Sunday we decided not to attend a church and instead had our own reflection, in English, at home. During our travels we have had some wonderful experiences which I have documented here and been very blessed by the services we have attended. But as we have travelled deeper into Europe and have become increasingly challenged by the languages the services we attended have been held in, the more we have understood the barriers churches unwittingly erect for people who do not speak the language.

In all churches the bonus we have is knowing the back story in our own language, so hopefully can provide a little bit of context from prior knowledge. In Catholic churches where Mass follows a similar format there is a sense of familiarity which in some ways is a blessing, but can also increase the frustration by not being able to fill in the gaps in between - achingly close to understanding, but not!

It has made us think about what we should be providing in our own multi cultural church, where one thing we have in common - other than our faith - is that we all have different languages as our mother tongue.

The first and most important gift to us in our travels has been someone welcoming us with a smile. That has not always been our experience, particularly in a couple of cases where we were a few minutes late due to the time our boat docked. What a difference it makes to be made welcome and shown a vacant seat.

Every cathedral or church we attended had super modern sound systems so that the pastor or priest was wearing a microphone and discreet speaker systems meant they could be clearly heard. Well and good, but no good if you can’t connect in anyway with the language spoken.

We have come to appreciate print material. Even in languages using a different alphabet, if we were given some kind of programme of print material we could either look it up on our phone or decode where in the Bible we should be looking and work it out. We were grateful that some ancient cathedrals (ie more than a thousand years old) had electronic signage on the walls with the Hymn number and Bible reading displayed.

However, as I have commented before - a cathedral comes alive when it is being used for the intended purpose and attending a service is the ONLY way to fully experience a visit to a cathedral or church. On every occasion we have been uplifted and blessed by the powerful music led by organs and choirs. And it is still amazing that no matter how wide the language differences, if you know the story being told the cadence and passion of the speaker has the power to bring the message to life.

We have some takeaways for our return home - to a place where we have wifi, data projectors, screens, sound systems and multimedia:

A warm welcome from fellow human beings on arrival is super important.
The spoken word is usually too rapid to translate on the fly and make sense of, unless you could afford United Nations style translation kits for everyone!
Written text is essential. Having the important points in text makes a world of difference. In most cases in NZ this would at the least mean ensuring important text is displayed on screens. This gives people time to try to decode and even to look up in their first language.
It would be nice to be able to provide the most important points in multiple languages, but this is not always possible.
Visual images are very important. They (should) make the message accessible.
We could be using QR codes, apps and all kinds of digital tools to make the services more accessible.
Having ‘No Phones’ signs up around the church is a barrier. We presume they probably mean, ‘silence your phone’ or ‘don’t talk on the phone’. But our phones with translation apps and tools became our communication line and enabled us to participate in the service, not check our FaceBook!

We look forward next Sunday in Toronto to translating a Canadian-Kiwi accent and hopefully a much fuller participation in the service.


  1. We are looking forward to next Sunday in Toronto as well! Although I'm not convinced we will have QR codes in place by then. But we do have some friendly smiles to offer and phones are entirely welcome.

  2. Same! No QR codes will be needed as we expect to be able to interpret the accent and participate fully - no pressure :)