Christianity & Language: Why Translation Is Important

Christianity-Language-Why-Translation-Is-Important

Todd M. Johnson is the Paul E. and Eva B. Toms Distinguished Professor of Mission and Global Christianity and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is co-editor of the Atlas of Global Christianity and co-author of the World Christian Encyclopedia and World Christian Trends. He is co-editor of the World Christian Database and World Religion Database.

This post was originally published on The Inquiry and is republished here with permission. 


Ever since the first century, Christians have never spoken just one language, represented just one ethnicity or lived in just one place. Translatability is at the core of Christian history, theology and experience; God became ‘translated’ into human form in Jesus Christ. In addition, Christianity’s primary source documents are in a language different from its founder (Koine Greek vs Aramaic). Due to its translatability, Christianity could move out of its Jewish context and translate itself into endless cultural and linguistic forms, a process that continues today, allowing for a vast amount of diversity within the religion. As a result, all peoples, languages and cultures have a unique contribution to make to World Christianity. New cities, peoples and languages will increasingly represent Christianity, as Christianity continues to shift to the Global South.

The shift of Christianity to the Global South is nowhere more apparent than in the rise of languages such as Spanish (Latin America), Portuguese (Brazil) and Chinese (now fifth in the number of Christians), while major European languages (German, French, Italian) decline. Christians are mother-tongue speakers of 82 percent of the world’s languages, compared with Muslims, the next highest, speaking 25 percent of the world’s languages. Tagalog, from the Philippines, is now seventh, having recently passed Polish and German, and almost certainly will pass French soon. In languages 11-20 one finds Amharic (Ethiopia), Korean, Yoruba and Igbo (Nigeria), Cebuano (Philippines), and Tamil and Malayalam (India). 

In 1900, 82 percent of the world’s Christian population lived in the Global North, meaning they spoke mainly European languages such as Russian, English, Spanish and German. Although these languages are still predominantly Christian (Russian 91.8 percent, English 72.1 percent, Spanish 93.7 percent, German 68.3 percent), more languages from around the world are becoming largely Christian languages or have greater numbers of speakers who are Christians. In 1900 it would have seemed amazing that languages such as Igbo 97.9 percent (Western Africa) and Zulu 91.8 percent (Southern Africa) would become majority Christian languages, yet in 2020 they are. Seventy-three percent of the global Christian population is represented by the top 50 languages. Diversity is also indicated by the sheer number of languages spoken. 


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The southern shift of Christianity also suggests that the dominant languages of Christianity will shift from North to South. Already by 1980, Spanish (primarily in its Latin American forms) was the leading language of church membership in the world. However, Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America worship in numerous other languages. Thus, translation of the Christian message has become increasingly important. Northern and Western scholars, no longer at the Christian center of gravity, should also recognize and seriously consider scholarship in non-English and non-European languages. Consequently, there is a great need for Christian scholarship in Southern languages to be translated into English, French, German, Italian and other languages of the Global North. Language lies at the heart of the Christian message and is the key to the continued vitality of truly cross-cultural Christian experiences.

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FOR REFLECTION

1) What does it mean to say that “translatability” is at the core of Christian history, theology, and experience?

2) How do different peoples, languages, and cultures make unique contributions to World Christianity?

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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