A Word About Language in Worship

Bishop Michael Rinehart

language in churchWhat does worship look like in a multicultural, multiethnic society? How do we handle worship when the community consists of people who have several different first languages? How can we honor the diversity of the body of Christ in ways that people from different backgrounds can worship together?

The Department for Theology and the Studies of the Lutheran World Federation developed a statement on worship and culture. This statement says worship is transcultural, contextual, cross-cultural, and counter-cultural. The church is called to recognize that worship proclaims more than our culture, to give serious attention to the local context of worship, to welcome cross-cultural sharing, and to boldly proclaim the counter-cultural gospel that challenges our parochialism.

The church is a global communion. We are a community of people from every tribe and race. We worship in every language on earth. Here in the United States, we are a nation of people from everywhere. As Christians and as Americans, we are not united by one culture or language. As Christians we are united by our baptism into Christ. As Americans we are united by an ideal: that all people are created equal, and endowed by our creator by certain inalienable rights…

In the geographic area of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, we have more people from more places than anywhere else in the United States. Houston is the most multicultural city in the United States. New Orleans has long been a melting pot of cultures. In the Gulf Coast Synod we have congregations that worship in English, Spanish, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Swahili. Some congregations have occasional services in German. Having worship in these languages allows people to worship in their first language. While many of them worship at first in their native tongue, they usually learn English rapidly. Their kids learn English in school. The second and third generations often speak the language of their parents less and less. Many of our churches that worship in languages other than English find themselves teaching Sunday school in English, so that the children can understand.

Today immigrant communities learn English at an astounding rate. My ancestors worshipped in German for over 100 years before switching to English. If you ever see the word “English” in the title of a church, as in “First English Lutheran Church,” it means that church was one of the first to hold worship in English. The Texas Synod newsletter, Der Treue Zeuge, was written in German until 1925. Even after that, it was not uncommon for some congregations to hold weekly worship in German until WWII.

In congregations that worship in English, other languages are often heard. Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy,” and other phrases from the Latin mass are still beloved. “Alleluia” and “amen” are heard nearly every week. At Christmas most congregations will sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Some will sing a stanza of Silent Night auf Deutsch: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…”

Congregations located in communities with a growing number of people whose first language is other than English, will often start to incorporate that language in their worship as a sign of welcome. Nothing touches the heart like phrases from your mother tongue. One song, one prayer, or one reading in Spanish, for example, will signal to newcomers that they are welcome here.

Church choirs will sing from the grand repertoire of the church from every time and place. Anthems may be sung in Latin, French, Spanish, German, and many other languages. We have ELCA hymnals in several languages. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW has hymns in English, Spanish, German, French, Swedish, Swahili, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and other languages). ELW also has an entire setting of liturgical songs in Spanish (setting seven).

Pentecost was a multicultural event. People from all over the world were gathered: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Cappadocians, residents of Rome, and so on. The Spirit brought them together as one. The apostle Paul had but one consideration. Things should be done in an orderly fashion, and in a way that everyone can understand.

To make it possible for everyone to understand will mean different things in different places. In some immigrant communities, if worship is in English, no one will understand. In some places, worship is held in two languages. This can be done by doing everything in both languages. Another way is to have a bilingual bulletin, so whichever language is being spoken, people can follow along in their language.

Whichever method is chosen, experimentation is encouraged. Try different things. See what works. Most importantly, if something is done in a language that some cannot understand, it is most helpful if the words are available in their language. If a lesson is read in Chinese, and English speakers are present, print the lesson in English in the bulletin or have an interpreter. Likewise, if a lesson is read in English, and Chinese speakers are present, print the lesson in Chinese in the bulletin or have an interpreter. All things should be done for understanding.

Here in the United States, English is the dominant language. Immigrants are eager to learn English. They want their children to speak English. It is nearly impossible to find a good job if you don’t speak English. A bilingual bulletin helps people learn the language, connecting words from their language to words and phrases in English. Good hospitality is not only welcoming, it also helps newcomers assimilate and find their way in their new home. There is nothing that touches the heart so much as hearing the gospel in your birth languages. Nothing is quite so welcoming. Just a little bit goes a long way. This is the very heart of evangelism.

Above all, we do not use language as a means of degrading others. Language can be an expression of power. It can be used to create classes, to lord it over others, and to put people in their place. As Christ taught us to welcome the stranger, followers of Christ are eager to welcome newcomers, treating them not as enemies, but with honor, as friends.

Some Best Practices

  • Do some homework. What languages are spoken in a 3-5 mile radius around your church?
  • Identify the primary language in your area, other than English. If there are 20% or more, that is a significant community. If 50% or more speak another language as their first language, then that is a mandate for the gospel.
  • Make available some materials in that language.
  • Use that language in worship (a prayer, a lesson, a hymn, for example).
  • As a best practice, when you use a language other than English for a choir anthem, hymn, lesson, or prayer, provide an English translation in the bulletin or on the screen.
  • Print in your bulletin a welcome in that language.
  • If the number of non-English speakers approaches 50% consider a bilingual bulletin or bilingual projection. This means, when the prayer is in Spanish, for example, have the English in the bulletin or on the screen. When the prayer is in English, have it in Spanish in the bulletin or on the screen.
  • Work to have representation on your council and leadership teams in the same proportion they are present in the community (Race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.)
  • Do everything in your power and in your imagination to welcome the stranger.


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