May 4, 2009

“Have You Ever Heard of Anyone Being Converted in English?”
By Pastor George Van Alstine

Some of us have fond memories of the time Dr. Virgil Olson and his wife Carol spent as part of the ABC family. Now Virgil lives in retirement in the Twin Cities area, and he does quite a bit of research and writing on the history of our denomination, which used to be Swedish Baptist.

In a recent article, Virgil reflected on the time of transition (the late 1930s and early 1940s) from exclusive use of the Swedish language in worship services, to bilinguality, and finally to the loss of Swedish-speaking altogether:

“The language question was very difficult to resolve in some of the churches. Because some of the churches refused to make accommodations to the demand for more services in English, there was a sizable exodus from these churches to American Baptist churches and other evangelical groups.

“In fact during this period it appeared that the people in the Swedish churches could tolerate differences in theology much easier than they could make concessions over their cultural heritage, especially in giving up the Swedish language. In a heated debate in one of the St. Paul churches, whether or not English should be introduced into the Sunday morning worship services, one saintly Swedish lady spoke up and declared with a kind of divine authority, ‘Have you ever heard of anyone being converted in English?’ To this dear saint God seemed to speak in a special way in Swedish to move people’s hearts to salvation.”

This seems kind of quaint, even trivial, to us in our cosmopolitan potpourri society. But every ethnic group has experienced a kind of shock in confronting the reality that God can speak persuasively through any cultural grid. Every ethnic group seems to have jokes about theirs being the language spoken in heaven, or about how the Apostle Paul originally wrote his letters in their language. And language is only one aspect of the cultural framework in which each of us first experiences faith and which we tend to feel is an essential part of that faith.

So imagine how Jesus’ disciples, all of them good Jews, felt when he said to them before he ascended into heaven: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all Gentiles.” (Matthew 28:20)

The phrase literally is “all nations,” as our English translations have it. But it is also the term Jews would normally use to refer to “Gentiles,” who were equivalent to “Sinners” in the view of good Jews. Gentiles were to be avoided. Eating at a Gentile’s table would pollute a Jew.

Jesus was asking his followers to jump over all their cultural walls and embrace those who were ritually unclean. That was a problem to the Early Church, as we can see from Paul’s letters. It was a problem to Swedish Baptists seventy years ago. It’s a problem today to older more traditional church members who don’t believe drums should be played in church. It’s a problem to younger, “post-modern” believers who think hymn books belong only in museums.

We heard about a wonderful example of how some people are struggling very hard to overcome such cultural barriers through our Missions Sunday guest speaker, Kamalakar Duvvuru, from South India. She explained how the 2.3% of India’s people who are Christian are trying to move away from the image of Christianity as a foreign religion established by former colonial oppressors. In order to fulfill the Great Commission in their time and place, they are developing indigenous Indian expressions of the Gospel, which to us may seem quite risky and theologically questionable, but are very meaningful to modern citizens of India.

Seeing this through the lense of another culture can help us understand that we need to struggle just as hard to make sure that the saving Good News is proclaimed effectively by us to the varied “Gentiles” of the USA in 2009.