I had only one semester of Mandarin under my belt (and most of that only half-remembered) when I moved to Taiwan after college to do mission work. My job was to teach English and Bible classes at Concordia Middle School in Chiayi, Taiwan—a school with more than two thousand students, all Taiwanese, the vast majority of whom are not believers when they begin learning at the school.
My teaching position required only English, while Taiwanese faculty did Mandarin-language chapel, small groups, and other Christian ministry. However, small-town Taiwan had very little English signage and few comfortable English speakers, so learning Mandarin was a definite priority. In weekly lessons with my tutor, I carefully repeated the phrases I needed for daily communication. “I am American.” “Where is the bathroom?” “I want passion fruit green tea, less sugar, less ice.” (That one was crucial!)
Line by Line: Learning the Creed
At the same time, a couple of co-workers and I began studying with two Taiwanese women from our church—older women who came to our dormitory once a week to teach us the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, line by line, Chinese character by Chinese character. Few of these words were familiar to me in Chinese, and almost none were words I could use in daily conversation. (Almighty and Pontius Pilate don’t come up too often!) But I was determined to be able to speak the Creed together with Taiwanese Christians in the pews of Salvation Lutheran Church on Sunday mornings. At a time when life had been turned upside down, there was great comfort in the familiarity of worship—liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, creeds, even familiar hymns—and even more comfort in having a place to be where I belonged and where there was more that united us as Christ followers than separated us by language and culture.
The first thing that caught my attention as I learned the Creed in Mandarin was simply how much more I focused on each word as I was struggling to learn new vocabulary. Flipping word order to create Mandarin phrases (e.g., Father Almighty becomes Entirely Able Father) and thinking about individual Chinese characters (e.g., Communion of Saints becomes Holy Followers One Body) made me think in new ways about church language. It was not so much the meaning was different in Mandarin as it was fresh to my ears.
Touching on the Practical
The words I did know from my basic Mandarin study also caught my attention and drew my mind to the ways our Christian confession of faith touches on physical, practical, and daily things. Father, 父, is a basic word for family relations and also a title for the Almighty. Earth (or ground or soil), 土, is one of the most basic elements of our surroundings and also the work of God’s creative power. Born, 生, is a key character to recognize so I could put my birth date on a form and also the key to the coming of our Messiah. Sit, 坐, and right, 友, are important directional words for daily life and also a picture of Christ’s heavenly reign. Flesh (or meat), 肉, is a character I read all the time on menus (cow flesh, pig flesh, chicken flesh) and also a description of the mortal body we each have that will someday live again! (Literally translated, the phrase “the resurrection of the body” is “flesh body again live”!)
Connecting to Christians across Language Barriers
Learning the Creed in Mandarin caused me to slow down and think about familiar words again. It was a first step in gaining a basic theological vocabulary that would allow me to share the Gospel with Mandarin speakers. And it connected me to Christian brothers and sisters on a small, tropical island 7,460 miles from my Iowa hometown.
But it doesn’t take learning the Creed in another language to experience these things. Studying the Creed helps you slow down and think again about familiar words. Digging into the Creed gives you a theological vocabulary and a framework for sharing the Gospel with others. And confessing the Creed unites you with believers across every continent, culture, language, and two thousand years of human history.
After all, we are holy followers one body.
The quotations from the Apostles’ Creed are from Lutheran Service Book, copyright © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Study the Apostles’ Creed with a small group to see the beauty these words show for professing your belief in the one true God.