God has brought the nations in our midst. This is a golden opportunity for us to reach the lost among thee nations for Christ. In 2011, I started a church for international students at N.C. State University, but four years ago God radically changed the demographic in my church from international students to refugees.
They are same internationals. They came and live as foreigners. However, in many ways, they are different. International students are sent from their countries and come to the U.S. to study and then go back to their home countries. Refugees escaped from their countries and come to the United States to settle down.
Among all differences, language would be the most prominent difference between international students and refugees. Most international students must take an English proficiency test before they come to schools in the U.S., whereas the refugees don’t. Refugees can come to the U.S. even without basic English skills. In my church, we have two major language groups: Pakistani and Congolese. Pakistanis are mostly fluent in English, but many Congolese are experiencing difficulties in speaking and understanding English.
This language issue became a new challenge for my church ministry. Every Saturday, my church meets for worship and fellowship. Worship is done in English. When international students were the predominant audiences in my church, regardless of their different levels in English, most of them had little issues in understanding my sermon. International students engage with English-speaking professors and students on a daily basis, so understanding a sermon in English was not challenging to most of students.
However, for refugees, understanding my sermons is a challenge. I still remember first few weeks watching their puzzled looks listening to my sermon in English.
I came to the decision to change my preaching style. Before the change, my preaching was typical, verse-by-verse expository preaching. I did not use any visual images or powerpoint slides – simply pure verbal communication from the pulpit. I used a sermon transcript without any translation into other languages. But one day, my wife Debbie, came to me and said, “Sammy, I don’t think your sermon makes any sense to these refugees. You got to change something!”
That was the time right after I graduated from Southeastern Seminary. My Doctor of Ministry project was about, “Christ-centered storytelling.” and how to keep Christ-centered hermeneutics in sermon preparation, while incorporating narrative-style sermon delivery – which is widely used in the mission field. I realized that God has prepared me to use some of the principles I learned at seminary for my current church ministry. Below are some of the principles that I am using to communicate the gospel in a multicultural worship gathering.
Visual: Pictures do not only draw attention, but they also help communicate the message. I started to use PowerPoint slides for my sermon, and I include pictures related to my sermon messages. For example, when I was preaching on Job’s suffering, I put an imaginary picture of Job sitting hopelessly with three friends around talking to him. Also related to the topic, I included pictures of people who are suffering from natural disasters or terrorism so the audience can see the message is about suffering – even if they do not understand my speech about the suffering.
Translation: Right now, I have a godly sister who translates my sermon into Swahili every week. But before she joined, I attempted to use Google translation. It is not perfectly accurate, but it is better than nothing. I use Google translation for a word or short sentence, such as my sermon title or the main points from the sermon. I put up a short description of the picture in English and Swahili. So with pictures and the description, the audience could understand the concept of the story I shared. Whenever I read Bible verses, I put up Bible verses in Urdu and Swahili on the Powerpoint slides and let native speakers read those passages in their languages so the illiterate can listen to the verses in their languages.
Speed Control: I slow down my speech. There is no point in speaking fast to international listeners when their language levels are all different. I also use easy, simple words. I do not use difficult terms such as propitiation or sanctification. I use a picture of the lamb that was slain and the cross of Christ Jesus to show His death was to wash away our sins. I try to use descriptive words so that even my motions and word choices are visual. For example, instead of saying Joseph became a high official in the country of Egypt, I would say Joseph became a very important person (using my thumb pointing up) – almost as important as the king (drawing a crown on my head) in a foreign country.
Christ-centered: All sixty-six books in the Bible point to Jesus, so every story in the Bible also points to Jesus. When I share stories from the Bible, whether they are from the Old Testament or the New Testament, I try to help the audience understand that the purpose of the story is to show who Jesus is and what He has done. Even with visual aids and speed control, without Christ, the storytelling can mislead the audience. Recently, I was sharing a story about the temple in the Old Testament. I put the imaginary picture of Solomon’s temple and briefly explained it. Then I transitioned to the story of Jesus’ foretelling of destruction of the temple, and pointing to Himself as the true temple through His resurrection in three days. Through this story, the audience can see that the true meaning of the temple can be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
With the change of my sermon style, I began to see some of the faces changing from the puzzled look to nodding – from disengagement to engagement. Someone who is more fluent in English helps explain the story to the others who are less fluent. Despite the language differences and difficulties, they keep coming each week and participating in worship. Preaching in the mission field should be flexible in styles, based on the audience. It is good to be flexible, so long as the content sticks to a Christ-centered message.