How to Start a Multilingual Church

Sep 28, 2021 | Podcast, Season 4

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CL: Hi everyone, this is Chris Lim with the TheoTech podcast and today on the show, I have pastor Chris Sicks from One Voice Fellowship, which is a very unique congregation that includes people that speak many different languages. We’re going to go ahead and kick off our conversation by hearing the origin story.

Pastor Chris thanks for joining us on the show! Thank you for the work that you do to build up the body of Christ in its language diversity. Can you go ahead and share with us the story of the origins of One Voice Fellowship?

CS: Sure and thanks for the chance to talk about this. I’m so grateful for spf.io and the things that’s allowing us to do with this new church.

I was on staff at my previous church right outside Washington, D.C. for 20 years and we had a lot of refugees and other recent immigrants at the church and really was noticing how challenging it was for them to connect not only with God’s people but with the word of God when their English was still improving and so we did audio translation, simultaneous audio translation with a human translator.

We did that for a few years into French and Spanish, but really found there were a lot of limitations with it. So the translation was one issue, but then just also wanting to start a different kind of church where the needs and preferences of our new neighbors really took front seat; that they weren’t always having to adapt to the majority culture, but that the majority culture would actually flex and bend and accommodate our immigrant brothers and sisters in significant ways.

So that was kind of the big picture and we just started weekly worship eight weeks ago. So we spent a year and a half preparing and building, laying a foundation, but we’ve just started the weekly worship and it’s been really fun.

CL: That’s fantastic. So basically the pandemic year was laying the foundation for what you’re now able to do every single week.

CS: That’s right and I think it was God’s wisdom and I mean it’s always God’s wisdom, his timing, but it allowed us to build relationships deeply with the leadership team, which is from 12 different countries. And so if we were going to lead a church together, we needed to really know and love and appreciate each other well and so that 18 month preparation period really allowed us to go deep.

CL: What did that look like? How did you get connected to those 12 leaders in the first place?

CS: Three couples came with me from the previous church, all immigrant couples from the Philippines, Togo and El Salvador and then one of the benefits of doing full time ministry in the same area for more than 20 years is I just know a lot of people.

And so I just built a lot of relationships and as I would talk to people about this, they would say, “oh, you should talk to this Ethiopian couple” and “hey I’ve got this Egyptian friend” and just a lot of prayer. I mean we would spend time praying.

I’ve been praying recently for an Afghan leader with all of the Afghans who already live in the D.C. area and more coming and the Lord’s providing in ways that I could never do in my human wisdom, but God knows what we need.

CL: Yeah what was the way that you cast vision for One Voice Fellowship with these different couples and the different people that God brought in your path?

CS: I think the component, I mean the core of the vision I should say really it best is from Romans 15:5-7.

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.”

And so in there the idea of living together in harmony not human-horizontal-made harmony but harmony in accord with Christ Jesus.

So I believe that God has already made the church diverse. The body of Christ already contains people of every tongue language and tribe around the world but we don’t experience the diversity of Christ’s body because language and culture too often separate us. And so we will worship for eternity with people from all around the world and I want more of that now.

So that’s one idea is that just that we experienced some of that harmony today. And then also that we worship with one voice that we would be united in worshipping the same Jesus with the same understanding with the same commitment.

And then also in that verse 1:7 says, “welcome one another as Christ welcomed you” and so that means Christ has an accommodating and proactive welcome.

Jesus did not sit up in heaven and wait for us to figure out how to get to heaven on our own. But he came to us, he moved proactively, he accommodated our needs. He came in a human form and spoke the language of the people he was ministering to. And so we want to be proactive and accommodating to our new neighbors that they might experience that unity in Christ that he died to create.

CL: Thank you for sharing that vision and it is so much at the heart of what we do and why we created spf.io was for that same foretaste of God’s kingdom that we believe is a witness to the hope of the gospel. If we don’t have that in worship our witness is impaired, that Christ really is Lord of all.

And one thing that I want to learn more from you about is kind of the two sides of that, where you already had an established monocultural congregation… And I grew up for a long time in an ethnic Indonesian congregation and I always had that dream that, you know, as a young person, second generation, you know, Asian-American that we could have more of that cultural diversity because it’s a part of my own experience and identity.

But it was really, really, really hard either way.

You know, if I went into a monocultural white congregation, I might assimilate with my American identity more strongly. If I stayed in the Indonesian one, there’s not really space for this Asian American identity, it’s just kind of more Indonesian and I’m wondering like, what is it about? How did God move these leaders that you spoke with the leaders you spoke with from your former church, such that they instead of the comfort of being in that monocultural setting, they wanted to strike out and to try this approach that you’re you’ve been sharing.

CS: Yeah. You know, I think I’ve heard different motivations from a number of the people who have joined us. Some of the ones that came with me from the previous church had been there as an ethnic or linguistic minority for a long time–they loved the church, they felt like they were part of it. But as a majority culture church, they didn’t always accommodate other valid worship preferences.

I remember one brother from Congo told me, he said, “when I’m singing in church, if my body is not moving, it doesn’t feel like worship.” You know this mostly white, you know, very conservative church, just…the music didn’t lend itself to dancing in the aisles. And it’s not that it was bad music and it’s not that his preference for dancing when he sings is bad, but his valid worship preference was left at the door each Sunday as he walked in. And that just made me sad that he had to set aside what is a custom for him in worship.

So that was one is just some people who wanted to be in a church where different expressions of worship or prayer would be accommodated. The other would be like Korean-style prayer or I’ve heard it actually called “one voice prayer” in some countries where we all pray out loud simultaneously.

And for a lot of Caucasian-Americans that sounds, that’s very strange that everybody would pray out loud at the same time. But that’s how we usually pray now at One Voice, I’ve come to love it and it’s the preferential way of prayer for a lot of our brothers and sisters. So we want to let that lead.

Another reason some people have joined us is they’re from an unreached people group or a group that there’s very few of here in Northern Virginia.
So they don’t they don’t even have the choice like our brothers and sisters from Pakistan, there is no Pakistani church here.
So they can’t go to a church that shares their culture and language even if they wanted to.
So they need a home, a church family. And then an Ethiopian brothers said to me–there’s a lot of Ethiopian churches here–but he said he just always felt like he was missing something being in the Ethiopian church.
He wanted to know what it was like to worship with other brothers and sisters.
And so when he heard about what we were doing, he immediately signed up.

CL: Well, that’s that’s fantastic.

Do you think, do you believe that that planting a new church is probably one of the most effective ways to be able to have that multicultural/multilingual DNA from the beginning?
Did you see a path where let’s say, a congregation that has a heart for refugees like yours did could have accommodated more and being able to adapt.

CS: You know, I have seen churches that will make accommodation for their new neighbors for the refugees who come in or other people groups.
There have been examples of churches that were mostly white that become more black and white or hispanic white.
It takes real vision from the leadership from the beginning and you will lose people who joined the church when that wasn’t the vision and now say, “hey, why is this the vision?” or are going to misunderstand why the changes are being made.
They might think that it’s putting race or ethnicity first rather than putting the gospel first.

But I do think it’s easier to, I mean planting a church is hard, but I do think it is easier if you begin with this from the DNA level.
Someone has said that, “You know, when you’re starting a church, whoever the first 20 people are, that’s who you will have when you’re 200”, you know, or the first 50 whatever the demographics of the first 50 are is what the demographics of the 500 will be.
And so that’s why it was important to us that we begin with that diverse leadership.

CL: Yeah, that’s such an advantage because everyone is on board and experiencing the vision every single week or every single time you gather, which is amazing.

Could you share now more about the old ways that you’ve approached providing translation and why translation is important in this setting. It’s not simply a matter of everyone can speak English. Can you share about that?
And then we can talk about how Spf.io has helped to fulfill this vision that you have.

CS: Yeah. So the old way, that we would do is I would um, provide my sermon manuscript to a translator who would translate the audio into a headset.
But I really felt like one downside of that was the translator has to be extremely bilingual to be able to listen to me speak and then translate simultaneously.
And even though I gave them a manuscript, I didn’t stick to it.
So, you know, they’re trying to keep up, you know, maybe they don’t know the French word for sanctification or some complex logical term.

And then the other problem was there was nothing–you had no product afterwards.
So if you do an audio translation simultaneously at the end of the service, I mean, I guess you could record the audio translation, but you don’t have a document.
And so you, you went to all that effort and you don’t have a French or a Spanish manuscript and I really wanted to have that.

And then I think the biggest disadvantage is scale.

So I know of one church in the Netherlands that does simultaneous audio translation every Sunday in seven languages, which is incredible.
It still has all the limitations I mentioned and then it has the challenge of finding seven people every week.

CL: Who are really good. Yeah.

CS: And I just knew we weren’t gonna be able to do that and we weren’t gonna be able to set up seven sound booths in the back of the sanctuary. And so I was looking for a different solution. And I found a Spf.io.

CL: That’s a great segue. So how did spf.io make a difference for all the things that you talked about?

CS: I think theological accuracy was a key for us was, making sure that whatever was translated, we were communicating it well and clearly. An example would be with the Lord’s supper.

You know, Paul says that if you eat the bread and drink the cup without discerning the body of Christ you eat and drink judgment on yourself. It’s a very sober warning to say: “don’t participate in the sacrament if you are not a follower of Jesus”

And we have, you know, brothers and sisters from around the world who are followers of Jesus and have been admitted to the table and can participate, but we also have visitors who don’t yet know Jesus and they don’t speak English.

And so if I’m explaining to them in English, “don’t participate in the sacrament” and they don’t understand what I’m saying, they might eat and drink judgment on themselves and I don’t want them to do that.

So that’s just one example of why it’s, it’s very important that um, they would be able to understand what I’m saying, Not only during the sacrament, but you know, during the sermon, so they can understand the gospel, so they could hear and understand and believe.

And so, I write out my whole sermon, I finish the manuscript on Wednesday usually, so we can upload it to Spf.io.
But then we get it translated to 10 languages. Our translators tell us that it’s about 90-95% accurate, which is amazing. So much better than Google translate. And then I have human editors go in and check the translation and you know, if there’s any idioms or words that were missed or just didn’t come out quite as I intended, they can fix that.
So we’re then delivering a really high quality translation to everybody on Sunday.

CL: Mm hmm and then on Sunday you have somebody who is helping to release the slides and the manuscript lines into all these different languages. Is that right? You have an assistant or are you doing yourself?

CS: So my son does the slides, so he’s doing all the slides because I create a lot of slides to go with my sermon; just visuals to help non-native speakers follow where I’m going.
So my son does the slides and then I released the lines of the sermon myself. I just, I read my sermon from my laptop and I just read it sentence by sentence, word for word. So that the sentence I’m saying appears on the screen for the users at the same time.

CL: And so you recently bought a bunch of tablets or something I think right–so that people can be following along in their language.

CS: We did, the phone would work and we do make that an option if people just want to pull up Spf.io on their phones, but we wanted to be able to have a little more real estate so they could also see the slides. So we got a kindle fire tablets and we can get them refurbished for like 50 bucks. And so we bought 25 of those and so if somebody wants translation when they come in we hand them a tablet, they choose from the 10 languages were currently offering and then they can follow along.

And it’s really cool, when we first started doing it, there was one woman who had been coming for six months, is not a believer but loved the way she was loved–she just really appreciated being prayed over.
But she didn’t understand a whole lot of what was going on until the first time we did Spf.io and the whole time I was preaching, she was like elbowing the person next to her and smiling and nodding and pointing at the screen and at the end of the service she said, “this is the first time I felt included.”

And so that’s really gratifying when I’m preaching and I look out and I see people nodding and smiling at the right times. And I know they don’t speak any English they’re smiling when I said something funny and so I know they’re getting it and that makes me happy.

CL: Wow, that’s such a, it’s so gratifying to hear that for me too as the creator that, “ah-ha moment”.
Actually, this is a little segue, a silly one. Spf.io, is a very weird name and when you look at it on paper, you don’t know actually how to pronounce it even, and that was actually by design because we wanted that feeling of “ah ha! I understand now” to be the thing people got what they heard how he pronounced it. Like “oh, spf.io, okay, I get it!”
And it was just a little mimic of the really meaningful one that you just shared about this person at your church. Yeah, that’s, that’s amazing.

So let’s talk more about the thing where you said you wanted to have, you know, an asset afterwards after translation. Now you have a manuscript in these different languages that have been vetted by humans and done in a sustainable way because I’m guessing it’s easier to find volunteers who can help with this work than it is to have a real time translator.

What do you do with the scripts once you have them?

CS: One thing that we’re beginning to do right now, is to upload those uh, the utterances to use the spf.io term.
Each utterance in each language we upload them to Youtube as subtitles.

And what’s beautiful about that is we have like I mentioned a Pakistani family.
Their parents back in Pakistan are saying, “Tell us about this church you’re going to, this American church, like what is this place?” you know.

But they’re going to be able to watch the sermon online and read the subtitles in their language and I have a friend from a closed country who has said “if you put your sermons up on Youtube with subtitles, there are hundreds of people in my country who will follow every week”
And I don’t know if that’s true, but what he’s telling me is that there are many underground Christians who are starved for good content. Good theologically sound content. Because unfortunately sometimes the, you know, the false teachers, the Prosperity Gospel teachers are the ones who are better at getting their content out around the world, but we really want to provide good Bible based teaching in multiple languages.

So the manuscripts allow us to do that. And then we can also just post them in a PDF.
So if somebody just wants to read it, so we haven’t done that yet, but are planning to. You know, just download the manuscript in that language and just stick it up on a PDF in on the website.

CL: Mhm Yeah. And then some other things that we’re hoping to help with is like, so that you can localize that Youtube video, so the title and description are translated. It means that when people search for content about God, your videos might show up and they can watch it with that subtitle in their language.

And also some cool things that you may not be aware of is, as you have your translators reviewing and editing the translations every week and marking all lines reviewed in the manuscript, that is going to a translation memory.
And so the next time that those corrections, those phrases show up, it chooses the correct translation based off the edits they’ve already made.

So it kind of gets a bit smarter and smarter saves them work over time.

And what we’re hoping is that, you know, with enough data with churches that want to contribute their translation edits and stuff like that, we could continue to improve the translation engine for all other theological content, you know, other cases where people are trying to do this.
And so you become part of a bigger movement to help create AI that’s for the Gospel.
So that’s that’s some of the stuff that’s happening just as you’re doing your work every single week.

CS: That’s really encouraging.

CL: What’s been the reaction that you’ve gotten from not only people in your church, but also other pastors and other church leaders that you’ve shared this with?

CS: Yeah, I mean every time I show it to somebody, especially if I actually do a live demo. So sometimes when I’m meeting with a small group telling them about our church asking them to support us.

For example, I’ll just pull up Spf.io and I’ll ask them to go to the, you know, to our page and then I live demo it on their phones. And they’re stunned as they see what I’m saying, appear in Spanish or French or whatever on, on their phones. And I’ve talked to a number of pastors, I don’t know at least two dozen in the last year who have people who don’t speak English as their native language in their church. And they’re trying to figure out how to serve them.
And so more and more churches who want to be able to use this kind of tool.

And so I’m really hoping that we can just, you know, kind of mentor other churches in how to use it and use it well.
Because this is something that wasn’t really available.
I don’t know when your company started, but I mean 5, 10 years ago, I don’t know that the technology would have been sophisticated enough for this. But we’re now at the point where, you know, it’s kind of like Pentecost, that we can be doing something that was never possible, apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit and I think it has the potential to spread quickly through the church.

I hope it does.

CL:CL: Yeah, we pray the same. We have, we have an initiative called Project Pentecost, projectpentecost.com. We’re going to share this podcast there. We’re going to share One Voice’s story there.

You guys really are pioneers figuring out a new way of being the church that we believe reflects the Gospel.
It reflects Pentecost like you said, the church was Multilingual from day one. And we find ourselves in a strange place now with Covid and just, you know, monocultural church and stuff.
It’s like, “huh, maybe the Spirit is working to kind of blow us into a direction that is reflecting the Kingdom and can reap the harvest among the nations.”

Well, thank you so much for joining us today Pastor Chris, it’s been so encouraging to hear all these stories and I look forward to interviewing you again in the future where we can be a witness to more of what God’s doing both through your church and through Spf.io.

CS: Thanks brother. Thanks for all you do. Really grateful for your work.

CL: Thank you to our patrons for making this episode possible and to you. Thanks for listening to the Theotech podcast.
If you’d like to hear more stories about how God is using technology for the Kingdom, you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Youtube, Facebook, and other places where podcasts are found. Until next time!

What does it really take to start a multilingual church? Hear the story of One Voice Fellowship, a church plant in Northern Virginia using spf.io to translate worship services into 10 languages. Discover why immigrants, refugees and people from many nations choose to worship in this multilingual community and how it reflects God’s heart in Scripture. What are the challenges and how can technology help?

Here’s one choice quote from Pastor Chris Sicks:

There was one woman who had been coming for six months, is not a believer, but loved the way she was loved, she just really appreciated being prayed over, but she didn’t understand a whole lot of what was going on until the first time we did spf.io. And the whole time I was preaching, she was like, elbowing the person next to her and smiling and nodding and pointing at the screen and at the end of the service, she said, “this is the first time I felt included”.

Languages spoken at One Voice include: English, French, Farsi, Amharic, Arabic, Spanish, Punjabi, Uyghur, Chinese, and Urdu

Join the Project Pentecost movement helping multilingual churches: www.projectpentecost.com

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