Church in Mission: Translation and The Bi-Lingual Community (Pt.3)

This is the third part of the Church in Mission series where I am attempting to appropriate some of John Howard Yoder’s thinking in direct relationship to the mission of the church in our culture today.

Series contents | Introduction | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

So far we’ve look at the church in relationship to the question of how the church is to remain “relevant” to our culture, and secondly the question of how Jesus interacted with his own culture.  Another way of thinking (that is complimentary to what’s been said) about the mission of the church as something over and against commodified relevancy can be seen this  in Yoder’s primary missiological text, Jeremiah 29:7:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

For Yoder the Jews’ being scattered into the Babylonian empire is not a sidetrack of their history, but a new beginning. “It was rather the beginning, under a firm, fresh prophetic mandate, of a new phase of the Mosaic project” (For the Nations, 53). Dispersion is now the calling of the Jewish community of faith (52). And within this dispersion, YHWH calls the Jewish people to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

Yoder, and many other scholars, sees Jesus as carrying out and working within this exilic identity of Judaism as he begins to gather a community to himself. In this light the church is also to be seen as a community in exile. In other words the church is always the people of God on the move, in a foreign country or culture to our own.  We are “resident aliens,” to borrow the old image from Stanley Hauerwas. This is a much different understanding of the church’s identity then the one offered by Christendom, where the church is the one who exiles, the one that scatters. Rather, a more “Jewish” way of reading the Bible and the mission of Jesus is to see that the church is always on the go, being scattered, and gains its identity within exile (a majority of the Old Testament was gathered  and/or written during the exilic period). In other words, setting up shop, absolutizing community is exactly what God does not want (The tower of Babel can be read as humanity trying to absolutize community, Yoder calls them the first foundationalists).


In terms of seeking the welfare of the city, Yoder explains that the Jews in exile had no choice but to learn the language of their host country, if they want to survive they had to know the language, customs and culture of the Babylonian empire. Thus, in some sense we’re always doing the hard work of translation but not translation out of a primary concern for relevancy, rather the primary concern is the vocation God gives to God’s people: the welfare of the city we are in. The exiled Jews were always a bi-lingual community.

Jeremiah does not tell his refugee brothers and sisters to try to teach the Babylonians Hebrew [were we teach them our culture – or do the “Christianizing”], rather they set out to make where they live a better place. Yoder says:

The concern to learn goes in the other direction. Jews will not only learn the languages; they will in a few generations (and for a millennium and a half) be serving the entire ancient Near Eastern world as expert translators, scribes, diplomats, sages, merchants, astronomers. They will make a virtue and a cultural advantage of their being resident aliens, not spending their substance in fighting over civil sovereignty. Their conviction that there is but one God – creator, sovereign, anikonic, historically, active, able to speak — enhances their cultural creativity over against the polytheistic, superstitious, tribally structured, fertility-focused popular religious of their neighbors” (71).

Knowing How To Navigate Ends and Means

Above we see that in terms of translation and mission – the church is two be at least bi-lingual (while we may want to argue that in a global society such as ours to be multi-lingual), but often the question of translation is where we stop.  Translation is only a means toward some end, and is done within the context of some particular community’s framework, mission or project.  When we translate the message of the Gospel in a way that makes sense to, say, Jr Highers we don’t just translate, but we translate for a reason.  However, we often abandon the ends and get stuck in the means (this is in fact a diagnosis on modernity as a whole).

The abandonment of the ends for the means is a problem that is created when we seek first the kingdom of relevancy. Consumerism blinds us to its own ends and catches us up in its means, so we may find ourselves saying something “who cares where we’re going as long as we look good getting there.” We often forget what we are doing (trying to stay faithful to God’s calling – seeking the welfare of the city as a piece of our vocation) as the church and where we are headed (seeking the kingdom of God) so much so that we end up getting caught in the how (the question of relevancy) ought to do it. How often have we seen our churches get paralyzed by these questions?  I have seen people get so caught up in trying to have all the pieces in place that needed ministries never get off the ground, I have also seen a lot of unnecessary ministries pursued in the name of relevancy while needed ones are neglected.

Don’t get me wrong it’s not that how doesn’t matter, but rather that the how can’t be answered until the the what and the where are firmly in place. Yes, this is an unabashedly teleological (i.e. purpose) and contextual (i.e. location) approach to missions. But translation only works, is only faithful, when it it rooted within a teleological and contextual framework.  The focus of the church and where it is headed should always be on the kingdom of God as it was enacted by Jesus Christ. When relevancy becomes the main concern then we trade our end goal for the means of how we achieve that end. The view that we should build bigger, better buildings, sing faster hipper songs, shout or cuss from the pulpit, have expensive programs and even more expensive staff, argue for abolishing old categories and ways of thinking for new ones, and continue to think that as long as we mirror our culture we are being faithful evangelists is to assume that the means are more important than the ends, and misses just how closely connected means and ends are. As I stated in a comment from part 2, in Jesus the medium and message are perfected.

Thus I think we can misunderstand what it means to be “sent out.?? We are to leave our enclaves behind, whether they are Suburban Christendom (as John Caputo calls it) or our Christian bubbles, and be among the people. The modern world with its creation of the secular and sacred spaces has led us to believe that we have a choice of whether we are “in the world” or not. On the contrary, biblically we have no choice but to be a part of the world as an exilic community. Because we are already a part of the host culture, in order to survive we have to know the language of that culture but we can never give in to the ways and the values of that culture, that is idolatry. Rather, as a light within the darkness, we show a way forward within from the inside. The church is already making a witness whether we know it or like it, the question isn’t relevance but whether we are seeking the welfare of the city of which we are a part. In other words, does the medium and the message of the Gospel as it is played out within our churches pertain to the culturally specific needs of our neighbors and the city around it?

For The World and In It As Well

Thus I believe we are always in the world, we breathe the air of culture. I don’t think we have a sacred and secular space like we’ve been led to believe, I think that is a false dichotomy.  I think we want it that way so that we can exercise our modern obsessions with safety and protection.  We are all always in the world, yes, even the Amish.  The Amish are a part of the same world and culture as the rest of us, they speak the same language as us, they are accountable to the same laws, they reap the same consequences of our political system, they live off the same capitalist economy as the rest of us.  They have just chosen to engineer their own culture by attempting to filter what parts of American culture to not participate in.

And frankly, that is the role of the “bi-lingual” church, we are to always carefully choose what we will and will not be implicit in.  Some of us will continue to have TV’s, some of us will resist the urge to allow Television to shape our “family time?? but in both cases the church chooses, and much more important than choosing is resisting to be overcome by the choice. We choose in light of our vocation and purpose as the people of God.  In both instances of the television we must resist being overcome by our choice.  On the one hand (owning the TV), we must resist allowing TV and media to determine what it means to be human, a family, and the church (relevancy as commodity), and on the other hand (rejecting the TV) we must resist believing that by not having a TV we have now arrived at holiness or faithfulness – that we have somehow cut off culture.  The latter example, points to the continual temptation to allow one practice, rejecting the TV for instance, to be our defining critique of culture, while we forget that in almost every other way we are still swimming in the same water as everyone else.  There is no anti-cultural position, just alternative versions of culture (cf. Duane Friesen, Artists, Citizens and Philosophers; chapter 3).  I May not have a TV, but that doesn’t mean that I am no longer bound to be influenced by culture, on the contrary, my chances of being overtaken by my choice increase because I am distracted by the belief that I am now “safe?? from the world.  Safety is also a commodity in America, in fact, safety and relevancy are two side to the same coin.  We want to be relevant because that makes us culturally safe, yet on the other hand our desire to be safe is exactly what the media and modern culture sells to us.  Safety is a value of modernity, not of the Gospel.

Finally, this could all be summed up simply. I, through Yoder, am advocating a much more positive, pro-active stance toward caring for the world around us.  I believe that insofar as we become relevant we are irrelevant, because relevancy isn’t static it’s always on the move and once you have it in your hands it is now yesterday’s model (I’ll touch on this in the next post more).  Secondly, insofar as we become relevant out of safety, we become irrelevant and useless for the Gospel.  The Gospel continues to calls us out of our enclaves, to be that alternative community of Jesus people, the light in the darkness, the sheep among the wolves, the bi-lingual community always on the go, and sometimes on the run. Translation is risky business, living out those differences can be even more costly.  I wish I could tell you that the Gospel meant we’ll be comforted and accepted, even among other Christians, but unfortunately Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword of division and that is what I think he meant by that.  Those who look out for the welfare of the world, whether it is blatant or clothed in Christians structures, are those who accept the way of the “powerless” people in exile.