Lost in Translation: Lessons from Language Can Help Us Share the Gospel

Every generation has to figure out how to engage and reach people in culture. Translation and immersion are key ideas that will help..

In my leadership role with World Methodist Evangelism, I frequently am in international environments, depending heavily on the skills of translators and interpreters. These are gifted people!

I recall teaching on evangelism in Vladivostok, Russia a few years ago. I was trying to make an important point, which in English is not difficult to understand. It’s the idea that in evangelism, no way is the way, but each way, by God’s grace, can become a way. The emphasis is on the word “the”(which implies a sense of singularity) and the word “a” (which implies a variety of possibilities).

The point is that there is never only one way to evangelize; rather, there are a wide variety of fruitful approaches, depending on your environment.

What I didn’t realize is that in Russian, there is no easy way to translate “the” and “a,” especially to make the point I was trying to make. It took a few minutes of discussion with my interpreter, along with a much longer explanation in Russian, to finally make that one sentence clear.

In our life of faith, translation is critical.

How do we understand this good news of Jesus Christ? How is it that we make it known to others? How do we translate this news that is at one and the same time something that inspires silent awe, joyful praise, tearful repentance, ecstatic utterances, or quiet prayer?

How do we make known a gospel that is at one and the same time something that moves us to a life of personal piety, acts of mercy, or public activism? How do we provide a channel for the Holy Spirit to make this deeply mysterious yet magnificently understandable news real in all places and for each successive generation?

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