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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Learning the language

Some years ago one of my friends accepted a position teaching at a Lutheran seminary in Namibia. He found that many of the hymns of the Namibian church were Finnish in origin and were sometimes sung in Finnish, as were parts of the liturgy.

The Lutheran Church had been planted in Namibia in the 19th century by the Finns and was a product of that great missionary effort which brought Christianity to many places, but sometimes with the understanding that before the “natives” could learn Christianity, they would first need to learn to speak Finnish (or Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, English, etc.).

A more powerful time of expansion came when the missionaries dedicated themselves to learning the “native” languages, translating the Bible into the native languages, etc. Those are the missionaries we celebrate today. They learned to witness in the language of the people, rather than expecting the people to learn the European languages first. Now we look at that and say, “of course.”

Every now and then we see interns (and new pastors) go out in a manner similar to that of the first missionaries. Their primary goal is to teach the members of their congregations to speak “Seminarian.”  The idea is that these poor struggling folks would be better Christians if they could use words like “justification” and “substitutionary atonement”; if they could differentiate between “transubstantiation” and “consubstantiation”; if they knew that “apocalyptic” was not the same as “apocryphal.”

Now I do not necessarily believe that learning these theological intricacies would be injurious to people, and in every congregation there will be a handful of people fascinated by such things; usually just enough people to encourage the intern eager to share what she/he has learned in seminary to keep on with it. But the vast majority of the people will have bigger fish to fry.

To put it simply, I hope you won’t succumb to the temptation to simply go out into the congregation regurgitating the vast knowledge you have accumulated in seminary. Indeed, I do not think the purpose of internship (or ministry, as far as that goes) is for you to teach the people to speak your language; I think it is for you to learn their language; to be able to communicate the essence of your faith to high school dropouts and overworked moms and unemployed dads and the fading elderly in a way they can understand, without trying to wow them with the impressive range of $2 words in your vocabulary!

As an intern you will have occasion to teach.  But your primary task is to learn!

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