Comings and Goings is a blog written by Theology, Formation, and Evangelism Director Charles B. "Chip" Hardwick as he travels throughout the church. God is on the move out and about in the world, working to redeem all things in Jesus Christ. As we join this mission, by the power of the Spirit we see God on the move. This blog contains glimpses of how Chip finds this to be true in his comings and goings.
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Seminarians all over the world learn a new language when they go away to study theology: the words used by the academic community to wrestle with the matters of faith, such as hermeneutics, soteriology, pericope, and ontology.* This new language must then be shed in order to communicate effectively with the people in the pews, only a few of which might be interested in mastering this esoteric vocabulary. (The concepts behind the technical words, of course, are often valuable for ministry.)
The students at the Protestant Institute of the Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS), the seminary which Presbyterian Rwandans attend, takes this challenge a step further. The language of the streets and homes in Rwanda is called Kinyarwanda, which is related to Swahili. The official language until four years ago, however, was French. In 2010, however, the government switched it to English. This means that all education above 4th grade (including, of course, PIASS) must be undertaken in English.
The challenge is that the students, who have only been learning English since the transition, typically speak very poor English. I spent time helping to lead a small group during the conference I attended and many were unable to fully participate because of their language struggles. The students were bright and engaged but frustrated that they couldn’t join in as they wanted.
Like seminarians all over the world, the students learn preaching, mostly from PCUSA Mission Co-worker Kay Day, who works hard to help them to contextualize the passages on which they preach, and encourages them to live into the African propensity to tell stories rather than deliver ideas. However, they learn all of this in English, and they preach in English. All of their practice sermons are in a language they will rarely use at the church they serve after graduation.
In a number of years, as English becomes more and more established, an increasing number of congregations and parishioners will speak English. Even now, urban congregations often have an English service, and it was very encouraging to meet PCUSA mission volunteers Boyd and Shirley Edmondson in the Gitarama region and Meg Knight in the capital city of Kigali, working to help church leaders learn English . Yet it seems unlikely that pastors serving the denomination’s many rural churches will do ministry in English any time in the near future. Meanwhile seminarians are struggling to learn as much as they might if they learned in their native tongue.
Years ago I traveled to Ethiopia with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and learned of the importance for all people groups to have a church on their own turf, both linguistically and culturally. It is intriguing to think about how the government’s regulations to teach in English undermine this desire.
It also makes me think more clearly about how theological education in America might unwittingly be widening, instead of narrowing, the gap between the academic culture of the seminaries and the people in the pews. Like God who came and took on (regularly criticizing but always inhabiting) our culture as Jesus Christ, everyone joining Christ’s mission to the world needs to take on the culture of our place of ministry. Speaking the same language is only the beginning.
*hermeneutics = the lens by which we approach Scripture; soteriology = the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ; pericope = passage of scripture; ontology = the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence.