English: The Language of Heaven?

Our bus driver navigated the Himalayan switchbacks as we ascended the first eight-thousand feet of this majestic range in northern India in February. A native of the flat fields and woods of Indiana, I sat looking in awe at the heights above and in terror at the depths beneath. Amazing as God’s creation was, I was more amazed by re-creative work I heard in the seat behind me. One Indian student discipled another Indian student who was a new Christian in the ways of the Lord. I was with a church group of about thirty college students going for a hike in the mountains. Remarkably, I could understand what I overheard. Why? This native Hoosier could understand because these two men who were from different parts of India shared only English as a common tongue.

Why should English speakers around the world care about this one conversation I overheard? Because it represents a golden opportunity English speaking Christians possess today. English speakers today need to understand the value of the linguistic currency they have inherited. It is the lingua franca of today’s world. Who knows how long it will be true? But it is today, and India is the second largest English speaking population in the world, second only to the United States of America. In the next few years, India will almost certainly be the largest.

In at least two other junctures in history, the Lord has used one particular language to change the whole world. The first was in the days of the New Testament. God used the Greek language to spread the gospel rapidly through the tongue and pen of the Apostle Paul and others. Next, the Lord used Latin as the lingua franca of scholars in the late middle ages in Europe. The likes of Hus, Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin gleaned from one another’s writings, even though their mother tongues were all different. Europe and the world were forever changed by the reformation that followed.

Do we stand at the cusp of such radical spiritual development again? English is the trade language of the world. It drives the digital world. It is the language people the world over are seeking to learn. And now, more than ever, it is driving gospel advance the world over. Who knows what fruit the sovereign Lord may bring in this generation, but he has put harvest-reaping tools in our hands.

In India, seventeen of the nation’s twenty-two official languages are written on Rupee notes, as seen in the picture above. Hindi and English are the two most widely spoken, but it seems that English is quickly gaining ascendancy, largely through the influence of commerce with the West. English was introduced and imposed on India by English colonists. Though colonialism created many problems, the introduction of the English language to Indian education has, in the Lord’s providence, equipped India for the global marketplace of the twenty-first century. Correspondingly, India is also ready to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Historically, the gospel has been most eagerly received by India’s poorest; this has been a great blessing to them. Missionaries with hearts of love wanted to put the Scriptures in the mother tongue of these who were often uneducated. William Carey (1761-1834) gave himself to translating the Scripture into Bengali because he wanted people to hear and read the truth in their mother tongue. However, because the poorest tend to be the least educated, when the truth is put in their native tongue, the language barrier prevents the gospel from spreading quickly to the next language group.

Carey’s contemporary, Alexander Duff (1806-1878) took a different approach. He sensed it would be better to teach Indians English because, among other benefits, it would open a whole storehouse of theological treasures to Christians of the Indian subcontinent who would have access to hundreds of thousands of volumes of Christian books that had been written in English or translated into it. Today, the Lord is opening the hearts of many Indians who are more educated and mobile. Often, English is their primary or even first language. Facilitated by the internet, these are feasting on classic theological works, taking online theological courses, enjoying blogs from the West, are interacting with saints around the world, and are contributing to theological studies themselves.

Catholics, Pentecostals and nominal mainline Protestants make up the majority of the church in India at present. Those churches are weak because of a lack of Biblical teaching. Their influence in the wider Indian church is far more significant because they make up such a huge percentage of the church. But solid biblical and reformed thinking is finding a foothold among younger Indian Christians. For many, growth comes as they read works in English. They are proficiently sharing their spiritual growth with brothers and sisters across the nation in this common tongue. I was able to fellowship with relative ease with many brothers and sisters in India. One married couple with a beautiful Christian home hosted us for a meal; they spoke English not only for my sake but also because neither understands the other’s mother tongue!

One of my greatest joys during my visit in India was to hear one reformed English-speaking pastor tell how he and three others are meeting with eighteen Indian pastors for discipleship in English in the city of Bangalore. Those eighteen each then meet with two to four other Indian pastors to train them theologically and practically in their native languages. These men are reaching language-locked groups within the city or out in the villages on the fringes of the metropolitan area. Because of this discipleship dynamic that leverages the English language, the village pastors have access to far deeper theological training than would otherwise be possible. The end result is that more people are hearing the gospel and responding, and more saints are becoming grounded in the whole counsel of God.

How should English-speaking Christians of the world respond? A few suggestions:

  1. We cannot be arrogant but must humbly make use of this tool God has given. God scattered the nations at Babel. He miraculously allowed the disciples to speak in other tongues at Pentecost to be a blessing to people. As we teach English, we should seek to learn other languages. The mission is not to serve ourselves but to serve others. Discerning what is best for those we serve may not always be easy or easily agreed upon, but this must be our motive.
  2. Learn English. Learn to use it rightly. Language changes and different regions use it differently. Still, focused effort to rightly use the language will enable us to be a blessing to others.
  3. Give it away. Thousands of people come to the United States, to India, to England, and to other English-speaking lands seeking to learn English. Preserving language is a bit like preserving the gospel. The only way to hold it fast is to intentionally give it away (though unlike language, the gospel will never change!). Have compassion on and patience for those seeking to learn what you already have. Help with local ESL (English as Second Language) classes. Welcome non-English speakers into your home. Love them. Patiently show them Jesus through the open door of the English language.
  4. Support theological education in English around the world. Strategically support those training to teach in English speaking seminaries abroad. Some may insist that the church in the West should spend more time learning the languages of the world. No doubt that method has its place. However, having seen India for myself, I think Alexander Duff had the right approach for getting not only the gospel basics but sound doctrine to the most people most quickly.

English is not the prettiest language in the world. Because of its increasingly global nature over the last few hundred years, it does strange things. For instance, my six year-old son’s baseball team, the Indians, played the Bengals a couple of weeks ago. Both team names have very different meanings on the other side of the world. The English language will continue to change, and it will not be the lingua franca forever. Those from Dutch-heritage churches often say that Dutch is the language of heaven. Maybe. But at this point in history, English is the best language for getting people there. As English speakers wherever we live, let’s make the most of the opportunity.