Think On These Things

Two Languages in One Church

In 1976, missionary Jerry Willoughby came to our church and taught a basic sign language class. I took that class because I was curious about the language. At that time, I thought sign language was a way to express English on the hands. Later I learned that the deaf ministry was not about the language, but about the people who used that beautiful language. As I became friends with Deaf people, I saw that they lived in my town, but had a very different perspective on life, right and wrong, the Bible, and more.

Foreign missionaries face challenges of learning a new language and a way of looking at the world. Missionaries minister to people who have a different culture than themselves. This often includes different accepted behaviors, values, beliefs, and world views. It is easy to understand and accept these facts as part of the calling to missions. One of the goals of missions is to lead people to faith in Christ and to a Biblical point of view.

Have you ever considered that hearing people involved in the deaf ministry must also learn a different language and culture? American Sign Language (ASL) is not a written language. ASL is visual language with grammar rules that define the use of the hands, the face (eyebrows, mouth movement, eye gaze), space, body shift, and much more. Most hearing people do not know that when the eyebrows are up, there is a different grammatical meaning than when they are down, or that there are 11 different common mouth movements that help carry meaning on the face. It could be fair to say that ASL and English are very different kinds of languages. Therefore, it may be impossible to have one accurate “translation” of the Bible in any signed language, although there may be accurate “interpretations” into a signed language. (I would love to be proven wrong.)

Just because a person knows sign language does not qualify him to be an interpreter. Skilled ASL interpreters in America must know the spoken language (English), the signed language (usually ASL), Deaf culture, interpreting principles, and ethical principles. Interpreting in church is not a simple task!

One of the biggest and most common challenges in the deaf ministry in a hearing church is the miscommunication between church leadership, interpreters, and Deaf people. Sign language interpreters may have never been trained in ministry. Many deaf ministry leaders have never been to a Bible college. There is a big difference between being an interpreter and being a deaf ministry leader. Also, even though pastors and church leadership know how to minister to people, most do not know sign language. The tendency is to give a leadership position to someone who knows sign language and expect him to know how to build the ministry and teach and train the Deaf group.

Deaf people may love their church and hearing people may love the Deaf members. However, having two languages in the church can be very awkward, especially for the hearing people. Deaf people may never fully fit in the “hearing” world. Hearing people may never fully understand the “Deaf” world. They have different languages, cultures, and experiences. Therefore, church leaders must help build a bridge between Deaf and hearing “worlds.” Deaf ministry leaders must be trained how to build the deaf ministry and how to teach the Bible to Deaf people. As Deaf people grow in the Lord, they can be included in church activities such as taking the offering, greeting guests, singing (signing) in a Deaf choir or other music specials, going on community outreach or visitation, teaching, ministering, and more.

Leadership in a hearing church should not fear leading and ministering to the Deaf. When pastors and church leaders interact with the Deaf, even in a limited way, the results on the deaf ministry can be great. Hearing pastors can be the pastor of the Deaf, even though they may need an interpreter’s help to do so. Deaf people need a pastor to whom they can turn in times of need and a church who loves and supports them, the same as hearing people.

Effective ministry involves clear communication and understanding. Let’s build strong, effective deaf ministries and deaf churches!

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