Sharing the gospel overseas: it's just a matter of learning the lingo, right?

Anna Read

In Hungary, people often feel less positive towards those from ‘the West’. For most of my life I’ve smiled at people to help them relax when we chat. In Hungary, that doesn’t often work! However, learning the language has been instrumental for me in breaking down social barriers. But to learn Hungarian is more than just grasping the vocabulary - it means actually understanding their language.

The Hungarian language is a key to their culture, their national treasure and a key feature of their identity. To quote one native writer, ‘To Hungarians… their mother tongue shapes and maintains their identity more than anything else.’ Words ‘ring bells’ - they contain memories, beliefs and customs. If we want to understand who Hungarians are, we need to understand and use their language - and this is more than just vocab.

It is easy to assume that my words mean the same to me as they do to a Hungarian. The word for ‘sin’ in Hungarian is ‘bűn’ and is commonly used to describe a crime. To a Hungarian, a sinner is someone who is a criminal. So if I describe us all as ‘sinners’, the Hungarian reaction is, ‘Well, I’m not!’ The word has a different meaning and is complex even for a Hungarian to explain. Care is needed to make it clear that ‘sin’ in the Bible is not only about legal offences.

Once, I was attempting an informal translation of the evangelistic tool ‘2 Ways 2 Live’, which begins, ‘God is the loving ruler of the world.’ However the Hungarian word for ‘loving’ means little to a Hungarian ear - you get the reaction of shoulder shrugging: ‘Loving? Ok, fine.’ Similarly, the word for ‘ruler’ conjures images of distant kings and oppression - because of countless negative examples of bad rulers in Hungarian history. Therefore, a Hungarian will hear, ‘God is some kind of god who apparently loves and also oppresses the world.’ When time is taken to find a better translation it speaks more accurately into the culture. ‘Isten a szeretteljes jó törvényadó és uralkodó a világban’ is understood as ‘God loves with the genuine affection of a father and as such governs and rules the world well.’

I’ve also learned that I need to distinguish between ‘teaching the Bible’ (i.e. in an expository way) and ‘teaching on topics’. The average youth leader would assume these two things are the same. They hear: “How do we teach the Bible?” and think, “How do we look at a topic and find a bible verse to support it?” Understanding this shapes the approach we take in training youth leaders.

Learning the language shows that we love people and their culture. Hungarians know how hard their language is so when someone takes time to learn it properly it speaks volumes.

This blog is taken from an article in the Crosslinks magazineAnna Read works for Acorn Camps. Acorn Camps aims to support churches in Hungary with their youth work – both helping them reach out to non-Christian teenagers through evangelistic camps and also by offering biblically-based training and resources to local youth leaders.