All these years I thought it was only the pastor who could understand what God was saying. But now I’m reading it, and I can understand what God is saying to me.”
A woman speaking the Moba language of Togo
A Christian leader in a large association of churches here in Ghana once told us a whole series of stories about how people had misunderstood the songs they were singing in church, sometimes even singing nonsense.
When we launched the Jesus film in three languages in the town of Isiro in the Congo, the audience was live with whispered comments in the language in which the film was being shown. They were saying:
“I can understand everything!” and “It is perfectly clear!”
Why? Because it is not an unusual experience for African Christians to not understand what they hear in church. The Bible reading, the sermon and even the songs may be in a language they do not understand, or understand only partially. This circumstance creates strong metamessages.
A metamessage is an unspoken message that comes alongside the spoken message. It can be true, or it can be false. The person speaking may or may not be aware of the meta-message he or she is creating. They may be intentional or accidental. If I speak in public using fancy vocabulary, I may create the meta-message that I am snob, or my hearers may think that they are unintelligent. I may intend that, or I may not. If I read a older Bible translation, some who hear may think that Jesus himself spoke with archaic language. We create meta-messages almost every time we speak and when we hear; it is a normal part of life.
When a Christian sits in church year in and year out understanding only partially what is being preached, that person will create meta-messages which fit that reality. For the Togolese woman mentioned above, it was “only pastors can understand what God is saying”. Others will create the meta-message that preaching is magical, or that the Bible is magical – the words have power whether they are understood or not, like abracadabra. They may come to believe that Pastors are necessary intermediaries between them and God. Interestingly, when the Bible was first being translated into the languages of Europe including English, the translators were trying to dispel lots of wrong metamessages which had been created by the use of Latin in the church.
Translation of the Bible into the heart language, the language people really understand, dispels false meta-messages. It returns faith to a personal level, assuring each person that God speaks to them, cares for them. We hear the testimonies of that all the time.