Back in 1991, I went on a mission trip to the former Soviet Union. Twenty-or-so of us arrived on a snowy November day in Samara, a city of more than a million people located on the Volga River. We were there for about ten days, and our mission was to help start a church.
During the day, we would go door-to-door, visiting people in their flats. Each of us went with two other people: one of them, a local church member, and the other, an interpreter. My partners were an older man named Nicolai and a younger woman named Irené. As we met people, we invited them to an evening rally at a nearby theater, or cultural center, as it was called--kind of a hold over from the days of Communism.
There were three pastors on the team, and all three of us were Presbyterians. We would take turns speaking at the nightly gatherings.
I remember the feeling of looking out from the stage and seeing the theater filled with people, most of whom had never heard the gospel before. In the middle of the auditorium were two huge pillars, supporting the roof. On each of them was emblazoned a hammer-and-sickle, the graphic emblem of the now deposed Soviet regime.
Since I did not speak Russian, I needed an interpreter when I preached. I no longer remember the name of the woman who translated my words into the language of the people, but I do recall that she was very skilled. I would say a line or two, and she would render it in Russian. Imagine: sermons preached in a setting like that take twice as long! But no one squirmed or yawned. People were spiritually hungry, and they listened as we shared the Good News.
I remember preaching one night, and, of course, I was talking about Jesus. And I wanted to stress the fact that, as a man, he was the template of true humanity. He embodied what the Father intended when he created us. So, the way I was going to do this was to say: "Jesus was not just a man; he was the man."
Guess what! You can’t do that in Russian! There I was, up on the stage of the cultural center, and I was preaching away. And my interpreter was following me phrase by phrase. Then I came to this part. I said, "Jesus was not just a man," and she gave her translation. Then I came back with my 'two-punch:' "He was the man." And then there was silence.
I looked over at my interpreter to see why she wasn’t saying anything. She was staring at me with a confused look on her face. I gestured for her to tell the people what I had just said. But she just stood there, perplexed and frustrated. And then it dawned on me. My little verbal subtlety, meant to emphasize a point I wanted to make, was useless in the language of this people. It was a very humbling moment.
Of course, even when preachers speak the same language as those who are listening to them, they often fail to connect. I shudder to think how many times I may as well have been speaking in another tongue – not because my listeners weren’t intelligent but because I was inept, unable for whatever reason to communicate.
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