Do you approach preaching as a missionary approaches interaction with people from another culture? Like a missionary, are you sensitive to the cultural context? Do you intentionally attempt to connect with people who are different than yourself in your preaching?
Even if our congregation members look similar, there are varieties of culture residing in the church. People visit our churches with marked visible differences and foreign accents. We also see the reality of our multicultural world as we keep current with the news and when we travel across an international border. From the example of missionaries, we learn how to understand people among whom we minister, be culturally self-reflective, and to preach in the cultural context.
Understand the People
If you have had the opportunity to preach in another country, address another ethnic group, or speak through an interpreter (lovingly called an “interrupter”), you know what it’s like to think twice about what and how to preach. You just don’t pull an old sermon out of the file and preach it generically without revision. You consider cultural factors for preaching. Even if you are preaching to your own congregation, the temptation is to speak to the majority – whether or not the majority is the main age group or level of spiritual maturity. However, the lingering question is whether the minority can understand and connect with your sermon.
Of course you aim to “preach the Word” (
Awareness of the culture of a group (ethnicity) is only one area in our understanding of people. A common occurrence is for male preachers to use illustrations that stereotypically reflect their own interest in sports or action (war illustrations). Alice Matthews evoked a standing ovation by the women in the audience when she used sewing as an illustration and then offhandedly said, “This was my sweet revenge for all of the football stories I have heard over the years.” More preachers are gaining sensitivity to gender in their illustrations and application.
They also can grow in sensitivity to the ethnic backgrounds in the congregation and backgrounds of those that exist beyond the four walls of the church. In fact, awareness of ethnicity will help you be sensitive to other areas, such as age and those physically and mentally challenged.
Understanding people requires observation and listening. What ethnic groups are represented in the congregation? Who are the people in the church’s neighborhood? What people live and work beyond? Conducting surveys using various categories can prove helpful, but leave room for the way people want to self-identify themselves. This is particularly true for children of mixed ethnic heritage.
Stephen Farris offers an “Exegesis of the Situation” that I have modified and use in my preaching class to help budding preachers better understand their congregation, the class members. The preacher makes visits to homes and workplaces of the congregation. He or she detects the sights, sounds, and scents of the neighborhoods surrounding the church. Prayer walks and drives often are conducted. As Leonora Tubbs Tisdale has encouraged, we preachers must be “amateur ethnographers” when viewing one’s ministry surroundings.
Understanding the people in and surrounding one’s ministry locale resembles a missionary who spends time prayerfully considering and seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance to approach a community. It is as important to exegete people as it is to exegete the text.
Be Culturally Self-Reflective
Those of us with a pastoral heart tend to focus on the ministry to the congregation rather than carry out much self-reflection. Both an “Exegesis of the Self” (Farris, pp. 36-38) and personal questions on the “Personal Socialization of the Preacher” (Van Seters, p. 265) are important tools for preaching in a multicultural world. We often are unaware of our own cultural baggage that we bring to preaching; we tend to preach out of our own cultural perspective. For most of us, this is from our Western, North American, middle-class perspective. It is quite natural for sermons to reflect the experience of the preacher, whether that is stages of parenting, common daily activities, or travel. Thus, a sermon is not culture-free but reflects the predominant culture of the preacher.
It is important to reflect on one’s social background and how it influences preaching. The temptation for the preacher is to rush to look at others through audience analysis without looking into the mirror. Important questions are: What are my prejudices (often masked as preferences)? How am I perceived by the congregation? Does my appearance or accent influence how I am initially received? We do not want to be overly self-conscious about these issues so that it paralyzes us, but we need to be aware of the issues.
As a missionary enters another society, that person is conscious about cultural practices, attitudes, and speech that might offend the host culture. Humor is often “lost in translation.” One must consider timing and approaches to preaching.
Those of us who are visible minorities have more of a heightened awareness. Amidst a sea of majority colored faces, we look for those similar to ourselves. We are conscious how we are seen and perceived. Even seeing my photo attached to this article, you may assume I would have a Chinese accent. You may be surprised that my accent reflects my birth in California, as a third generation American-born Chinese.
It would help that we ask those we know well in our congregation or outside the congregation – such as a mentor or friend – how we come across to the ethnic minorities. Are we unwittingly condescending or prejudiced, or do we talk about and treat others equally? Such self-understanding reflects the best practices of a missionary and a culturally-sensitive preacher.
Many preachers have taken steps to increase their cultural awareness in our multicultural world. This is to become more intercultural, gaining attitudes and skills to bridge cultural barriers. This is done by taking courses or seminars in cultural anthropology, involvement in cross-cultural mission trips, international travel, visiting pockets of ethnic diversity, and tasting various foods you never before have seen or smelled. These practices enlarge our vision and heart and convey to the congregation that we are stretching ourselves to see a broader world than our own.
Preach in the Cultural Context
How do you actually preach amid all of the multicultural factors surrounding yourself? The preacher not only needs to understand the people in the congregation and be culturally self-reflective, but also needs to approach this preaching in a particular manner. This involves preaching in the cultural context like a missionary. This approach is specifically incarnational, involves partnership and preaching with the appropriate use of illustrations, application, and style.
An Incarnational Approach
The incarnate Jesus Christ is our example of intentionally and humbly setting aside His prerogatives as God to become human – specifically an ethnically Jewish male (
Haddon Robinson suggests we sacrifice what comes naturally to us – like calling minority groups by names that make sense to us – for the sake of the other. We curtail our freedom and identify with others for the sake of the gospel (
A Partnership Approach
Preaching should not be one-way communication but involve various partners for preaching; there is collaboration. This involves input before the sermon, monitoring the pulse of the congregation during the sermon and drawing appropriate feedback after the sermon.
When I was a guest preacher in a church that was noted for its diversity, I aimed for collaboration. I asked my former student who was a member of the pastoral staff to gather a group of people who were varied in ethnicity, gender, and age for me to meet. We met in advance of the preaching to discuss my chosen passage,
During the sermon, they made notes on feedback sheets on how I connected ethnically with the congregation plus answered standard feedback questions. After the usual post-service formalities, I met with them to review their written and verbal comments. This exercise was highly instructive for me. It provided insight, illustrations, and application to the text beyond my usual way of seeing.
We cannot always follow such an extensive procedure for weekly preaching. Alternatively, I have asked a few people to email me their insights and questions about an upcoming preaching text and also to provide feedback. I have telephoned others. The more we involve others, the better. This reflects the body of Christ in action.
There are times we speak to the people and other times we speak for the people. I find that those who supply the perspective are the most attentive and the most prayerful during my preaching. Whether or not I use their specific insight, I always thank my contributors. They enhanced my view of the passage and the preaching occasion.
We may not overtly choose passages that speak about ethnicity or peer only through the lens of ethnicity for our preaching. We should at least consider the ethnicity issue along with other factors as we preach in context.
Illustrating and Applying
Preachers usually illustrate out of their own life situation. As the preacher moves through various life stages like parenting, empty nesting, and retirement, these are reflected in the illustrations. It’s not that these are wrong, but do they relate to the congregation? What about the immigrant experience – the challenges of being a visible minority struggling with language? What about a teenager who cannot express to a parent what she thinks or feels because she doesn’t have the adequate vocabulary in the “mother tongue”? These may be life situations in the congregation that are not in the life of the preacher.
While one cannot address every member’s situation in every sermon, how about touching on something that resonates with each person in the course of a month? I have found a helpful grid to track the use of sermon illustrations and references by Joseph R. Jeter Jr. and Ronald J. Allen (Jeter and Allen, pp. 179-81). On the vertical column are different categories such as Anglo Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Native American and other cultures. On the horizontal column are different generational categories. You check off each category used over the course of a month. You need to construct your own grid based on your own congregation. The categories can be more refined. It is instructive to see which groups are included and which are excluded after a month of preaching.
An illustration I have used in a church with a sizeable Caribbean membership is the movie Cool Runnings about the Jamaican Bobsled team in Canada. For a Chinese congregation, I queried about the first question your parents ask when you bring home a 90% on a test. It is “Where is the other 10%?”
I have conveyed my own experience as an immigrant. I received a shout through an open window of a car saying, “Welcome to Canada!” I instinctively started running after the car, to explain to the driver that my relatives have been in North America for more than 100 years. I am the same as him except I am a visible minority and perceived a certain way. Such illustrations draw resonance from the ethnic groups in the congregation and for anyone who has had a minority experience.
Use of illustrations and application require a lot of sensitivity. Missionaries are adept at using appropriate ones the longer they spend time with the people and live in the cultural context.
We all have a default speaking style for preaching. For most of us it is conversational, reflecting our common speech. Have you analyzed this for preaching amidst ethnic diversity? We re-examine our use of slang, buzz words, acronyms, and humor. Missionaries do this when speaking in their native language or in the language of the host country.
For example, while English is the communication medium of my preaching class, it makes a difference when more than half of my class have English as their second or third language. I opt to use more PowerPoint to display words. This is helpful for those whose first language is not English. They can read better than listen or speak in English.
The sermon doesn’t need to be dumbed down but it does need to be accessible. Some churches are “seeker sensitive” – I advocate being “ethnic sensitive.” In many congregations there is not only the presence of “unchurched Harry and Mary” but also “Mohammed” or “Singh” from a different religious background rather than Christian or having no religious background.
Today’s preaching emphasizes metaphors and images. These are good for the visual component. Care must be taken to be sure the metaphors are culturally transferable and relatable. Some patriotic symbols may not be as familiar for those who recently came from another country.
We can include terms that draw connection with parts of the congregation. For example, Koreans use “1.5 generation” to speak of those who came to North America when they were young and yet are bilingual and bicultural.
Verbal style with word choice is an important growth area when preaching in our multicultural world. Like a missionary, through experience we use our growing vocabulary in apt ways and connect with the people.
Preaching and Beyond
Preaching effectively and appropriately in a multicultural world is a tremendously challenging task. It requires additional analytical and communicational skills, and intercultural sensitivity for the preacher in our rapidly changing world. Such preaching is appreciated by those in the margins who have often been overlooked in the today’s sermons.
Beyond preaching are aspects of ethnicity that can be infused in other aspects of the worship service such as music sung in various languages and use of different musical instruments. While a story may be told of a person’s experience in another land, how much more powerful would it be to hear from that specific person? Even if interpretation is needed for the testimony, the person’s visibility and voice are powerful. Pulpit exchanges or speakers from other cultural groups enhance the congregation’s perspective on what God is doing in the world.
I like the way Leslie Newbigin describes the cultural incident of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. He says such encounters will profoundly change the missionary and the community to whom that person brings the gospel. The preacher is transformed, as well! Here is a straight-laced Jewish preacher who is called to broaden his cultural category due to God’s inclusion of the other, the Gentiles. So many preachers and missionaries continue to be transformed as they develop culturally sensitive hearts, lives, and preaching.
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Newbigin, J. E. Lesslie. “The Bible and Our Contemporary Mission.” Clergy Review 69:1
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