One wrongly translated word contributed to the atomic settlement of World War II. In July, 1945, many influential Japanese, including the emperor, were prepared to consider the terms of the Potsdam ultimatum. Before responding, the Japanese cabinet felt that they needed more time, so they announced that their policy was mokusatsu, meaning (1) to refrain from comment, or (2) to ignore. Unfortunately, the foreign press translated the policy as “ignore” rather than “refrain” as intended. It was impossible for the Japanese to correct the wrong interpretation. Hostilities intensified. The hope for settlement was lost. Within weeks, the world saw the flames of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russian invasion of Manchuria, and the division of Korea into north and south.

Words are not the only things that are explosive. Proper actions are important in cross-cultural communication. After I preached a sermon as a guest preacher in a Korean church, the pastor stood up to lead the prayer. Before he began, he announced, “That was the best sermon I have heard from someone wearing shoes.” I had forgotten that in Korea, most pastors remove their shoes to preach. Thus, a large portion of my message was lost because I was doing something highly offensive while bringing the message.

When I started preaching in an English-speaking congregation overseas, I tried to learn the basics of cross-cultural communication. Over the years, I have discovered that these principles help my overall preaching impact, whether I am speaking across the generational boundaries to our youth group or across linguistic boundaries through a translator to a group of Koreans.

When speaking to a culture different from your normal congregation

Remember that you are respected. Most cultures respect outsiders. The apostle Paul always gained an initial hearing. It was only after his Athens speech that some called him an idle babbler. When I speak to a new group, I remember that I have an automatic deposit in my respect account. I reciprocate this by thanking them and finding something positive to say about them. It doesn’t help to address the difficulties that I had in traffic or locating the building. It also doesn’t help to spend time correcting or amending the introduction which the pastor has given for me. If I am speaking through a translator, I memorize the most brief form of greeting in the people’s language. A simple hello shows that I care about their culture. Words that erode initial respect are unnecessary comparisons, jokes about things that I dislike, and extensive qualifications of terms.

Write your sermon beforehand. A full manuscript helps to address your questions about message length, topic, illustrations, and overall impact. Recently, I spoke through a translator who received an advance copy. One illustration was ineffective in his opinion, so I dropped it and substituted another.

The full manuscript helps you pay attention to sentence length and vocabulary. Long sentences with dependent clauses may come across as a fog to non-native English speakers. If a word isn’t in the spellchecker, I try to find a synonym. When preaching through a translator, I give an identical copy of the message so that I can point out the place where we are during delivery.

Speak clearly and with sincerity. I teach preaching to foreign students from Myanmar, India, and Korea. Each student must listen to sermon tapes by missionaries and pastors from various churches world wide. The sermons most requested are by Bill Hybels (Willow Creek). Why does Hybels appeal even though he pastors a homogeneous church in suburban Chicago? I asked my students, and they responded that Hybels speaks clearly and is not afraid to laugh. An effective cross-cultural preacher knows how to tell a story, speaks clearly, speaks sincerely, avoids the unnecessary anecdote, and assumes that the audience understands.

Enhance your geopolitical awareness. When Dan Quayle called Latin America a part of our country, he reinforced a common sentiment that most Americans are woefully ignorant of world geography and issues. Checking your geo-political references is important if you are speaking to a particular group. Ask an American where he is from, and he will probably name his state or province. Someone from another culture may only name his country, although he probably belongs to a specific people group within that country. A Filipino group will appreciate your understanding that all Filipinos do not speak Tagalog. Before speaking to a particular group, learn the capital city, the name of the language spoken, the continent where the group is located, the current leader(s), the correct pronunciation of the country, and the name that the people call themselves.

Balance your culturally-bound illustrations. I listened to a pastor who boarded a jet to cross eleven time zones, ate foreign food, removed his shoes to preach, and then spoke through a translator. However, his sermon used American Football as the main illustration. Far more time was spent explaining the intricate relationship between coach, quarterback, team, and spectators than was spent describing the text. I asked a Korean friend who attended the sermon what he had learned. He said, “I discovered so much that I never knew about American football, but I didn’t understand his message.”

Is it impolite to choose unfamiliar illustrations? Not if the illustration connects with the message and helps the listener know more about your culture. If I am using the relationship between quarterback and coach to describe the way we should get our game plan from God, then I might start the illustration by saying that “Americans love technology. One example is the way our national sport, football, has seen its uniforms develop. When the sport first started, the uniforms had little padding and a small leather helmet to protect the person from those who were trying to tackle. Now, dozens of pads and a state of the art helmet is worn by the players. In fact, the team leader, the quarterback, often has a radio connection in his helmet so that he can hear the voice of the coach telling him where to lead the team.”

Giving our listeners some reasons why we think the way that we do can make our illustrations communicate both biblically and culturally.

Be aware of the humor gap. I was sitting in a full movie theatre in Manila, Philippines watching Jackie Chan star in Rush Hour. The main plot was like most action movies where the partners are trying to get along while they attempt to search and destroy the bad guys. About half-way through the movie, I noticed that my American friends and I were often the only ones laughing as the two cops tried to fulfill their mission in a rather bungling manner. Often, the entire theater was silent in the parts that I thought were the most funny. Then, near the end, Chan’s partner expresses that his father died unglamourously while working on the job as a New York cop. It was a very somber moment. However, the entire theater burst out laughing. At that moment I realized that there is a humor gap between the Philippines and the United States.

Sometimes our humor fails because of language subtleties. Scholars say that Jesus was making humor when He compared a rich person’s entrance into heaven to a camel and a needle. I understand the point, but it is not a knee-slapper for me.

Some kinds of humor in the pulpit may erode the initial respect that we are given. Even worse, the laughter may be out of politeness rather than effectiveness of communication. Many cultures know that Americans place a high value on wit and laughter. I once regularly used a translator who would announce in Amharric, “The pastor is telling a joke, make sure that you laugh afterwards.”
My basic rule for humor is that every culture values a story. Few cultures value a English-language pun. No two cultures have exactly the same sense of humor. I have found that the best humorous stories are based on my own experience in adjusting to a biblical truth or cultural difference.

Watch your statistics. Most statistics that pastors quote are bound to a cultural context. One pastor spoke to a group of immigrants about the evils of the media. The fact that most Americans spend seven hours per day watching TV was not a problem to them. The immigrants were watching over ten hours per day because TV was the easiest place to learn English and American culture. Quoting statistics about the American divorce rate may have little effect on a group that sees itself as decidedly outside of the American mainstream.

I am learning to tell stories. Instead of quoting that only 3 out of 10 Americans pray every day, I tell a story about one woman who prayed and one who did not. Most non-western cultures identify more with story than statistics.

Choose a good translation. Try covering the right half of the next paragraph when you read. Even though you see only 50% of the words, you may be able to guess the general meaning. If a vital word is hidden, you may draw the exact opposite conclusion from what was intended. With 50% of the words covered, you are functioning at the level of a person who is learning English as a second language.

If you substitute a tenth of the visible words on the page with new meanings or spellings, then the comprehension level drops dramatically. Songs that speak of sin and error pining and stars drawing nigh can lead the non-native speaker astray. Most updated versions of outdated translations have substituted words like froward with the understandable term, hostile (1 Peter 2:18). It is sometimes humorous to discover that an American church wishes to donate its used KJV collection to a church overseas. Modern English is hard enough already.

Avoid offensive gestures. Along with the initial respect, the guest preacher is often given great latitude in gestures that may be considered rude or disrespectful. In Greece, I learned that the open hand is an obscene sign after I had used it repeatedly to describe five key points in my message. One of the best ways to avoid offensiveness is to observe the actions of others. Note when they bow, pray, remove shoes, cross legs or not, and how they sit. Check your observations with questions. Paul and Barnabas gave the example of inquiry in Lystra.

In your own congregation

Try focus groups. Market research is moving away from the statistical survey into face-to-face customer feedback – the focus group. To bridge the age gap in culture, try meeting with your teens to seek what is helpful in the worship service. When I set up a Filipino focus group in my first church I was shocked to hear that most Filipinos who attended couldn’t understand more than 10% of my sermon. I asked the leader of the Filipino fellowship why so many of them listened so intently to my message. She blushed and said, “I think that they think you are handsome.” We laughed, and then she gave me the feedback I needed, “You speak so fast and use such big words that most cannot understand at all.” The focus group coached me to slow down and use common language.

Lose 25% of your cultural weight. Some of us are culturally overweight by at least 25%. Our sermons consistently advocate a particular political and social doctrine. Would someone from an opposite political party stumble over my pulpit anecdotes? The son-in-law test is an excellent scale to test our cultural weight. If you have a hard time imagining your daughter or son marrying an attender from a different culture or political group, ask yourself why. What is it in the other culture that unsettles you? Could someone tell by your preaching which cultures may be acceptable or not acceptable?

Recently, we invited gospel singers from the States to our English-speaking international church. They were beaming with excitement as they told of the vibrant Korean church that they had discovered in Seoul. As they spoke, they revealed some of their cultural weight, “I am sure that some day Koreans will be sending missionaries to the United States.” Actually, Koreans have been sending missionaries to the United States for about fifty years. There are presently more missionaries from Korea in the U.S. than the other way around.

Stick to your target audience. Many American congregations are happily homogeneous. The few from another culture who may attend our congregation may appreciate it because it is not like their home culture. Most Koreans attending our expatriate-oriented church are more inclined to reach foreigners than other Koreans. They attend our congregation because it is not Korean. If many more Koreans attended, they fear that the church may lose its American orientation.

Keep your target, yet broaden your appeal by becoming more inclusive. One way that works for us is the recognition of special days from other cultures. Most of us forget that Canadian Thanksgiving happens in October. Most countries have an independence or foundation day which is different from July 4th. While it is important to keep up with the recent CNN reports on the Balkans and Middle East, our pastoral prayers should also focus on the groups represented in our congregation. Since we had a large Filipino population in our former church, I tried to keep abreast of the news and events in the Philippines.

Acknowledge the tensions. Paul was not afraid to point out the obvious differences between Jews and Greeks. I have enjoyed having Europeans, Asians, and Africans on my staff. One day, a Ghanaian staff member pointed out the obvious, “Pastor Dave, you talk as if we are one people. We are not. I am African. You are American. We must acknowledge our differences and stop thinking that we are the same. However, we are brothers because we are one in Christ.”

Learning to preach cross-culturally helps your overall communication style. It is not surprising that preachers like Billy Graham, Chuck Swindoll, and Bill Hybels have wide international audiences even though they have never learned a foreign language. They practice homiletical skills which are trans-cultural.

Here is what I have learned in summary:

Be yourself. Robert Kohls studied factors of effectiveness in the Peace Corps and other international organizations. He found that the best cross-cultural teachers know themselves and are able to laugh at themselves. We will all make mistakes when we attempt to speak cross-culturally. I often used the phrase “us expatriates” to describe the large group of international business people living in Seoul. I stopped using that term this month when two Koreans asked me what “a sex patriarch” is and why I wish to be one. Being myself means that I don’t take myself too seriously.

Ask questions. Discover the continent, country, region, language, and family of each of your cross-cultural members. Find out how they celebrate seasonal events like Easter and Christmas. Ask how they perceive America, even if they have been here for twenty years or more.

Practice cross-culturally. Inner city missions, nursing homes, youth groups, and neighboring churches are excellent places to gain experience preaching cross-culturally. When I first began preaching at the DuPage Convalescent Center as a college student, I thought that all seniors play shuffleboard. Needless to say, my “shuffleboard sermon” went over poorly because most had never played the game.

Some of my stereotypes have been broken through cross-cultural practice. Preaching in the inner-city mission in Detroit taught me that not all homeless are uneducated. Preaching in a nursing home taught me that not all residents are over age 65. Preaching at an Ethiopian fellowship taught me that their country is made up of several different tribes. Some have suffered starvation and some tribes have not.

Pick up some resources. Some of the best resources for learning crossculturally come from outside of the church.
Finally, remember that the gospel has explosive power. At best, the crosscultural preacher presents the Stone of Stumbling. Even a mis-translated word can be used by God. Even the most perfectly translated Word may still be rejected by people. That thought humbles me. And if it is culturally appropriate, I take off my shoes.

Seven Tips for Translating Your Message

John F. Kennedy once asked Billy Graham for help with speaking through a translator. Dr. Graham gave him some advice on sentence structure and the pace of the speech. Following are seven keys to effective preaching through a translator:

  1. Choose a translator who is spiritually sensitive and culturally respected. My best translator was a doctor in the Amharric (Ethiopian) Fellowship connected to our church. She asked precise questions before the message. If you do not have an effective translator, it is best to follow the principle of 1 Corinthians 14:28.
  2. Give the translator a script beforehand to help the translator see where you are going. You will have greater flexibility to make changes when the translator understands your overall direction.
  3. Avoid acronyms and alliteration. The catchy outline may sound nice in English, but will not have the same effect in another language.
  4. Avoid outdated Scripture translations. Ask your translator to read the portions of scripture from the most up-to-date translation available in the local language.
  5. Speak in full, short sentences. If you repeatedly use a translator, you may experiment with dependent clauses. However, for a first-time experience, make your sentences complete thoughts.
  6. Look at the audience rather than your translator. Use the time when the translator is talking to gauge how the audience is accepting God’s message. Avoid making large gestures while the translator is speaking. Don’t bow your head or look intently at your notes. Keep your eyes on the people.
  7. When you pray, pray a complete prayer without translation. Then ask the translator to pray his/her own prayer in the language of the audience. If you have chosen an effective translator, the prayer will touch the hearts of the people.
  8. Finally, remember that your translator will benefit from a good message. Billy Kim translated for Billy Graham at the great million-and-a-half Christian assembly in Yoido Plaza, Seoul, Korea, in 1973. It was said afterward that Billy Kim was as powerful as Dr. Graham. That is a tribute to Dr. Graham. Today, Billy Kim is called the “Billy Graham” of Korea. He heads a national Christian radio station and international evangelistic ministry. Dr. Graham could have chosen an accurate and respected interpreter with less charisma. However, his choice of Billy Kim gave the Korean people a lasting leader in evangelism.


Dave Pederson served 12 years as a pastor to English-speaking churches overseas. Currently, he lives in Wheaton, IL where he teaches and preaches.

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