How pastors can bridge language barriers in preaching

April 20, 2018

Sammy Joo was no stranger to preaching to people from around the world. As the pastor of a church near N.C. State University, many of Joo’s regular attendees were international students. But four years ago, the demographic of his church shifted. Along with his regular crop of international students was a sudden influx of refugees.

God was bringing the nations to his church steps.

“While they may look the same on the outside, refugees and international students are very different,” explains Joo, who serves as senior consultant for Asian Ministries with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. “International students are sent from their countries, come to the United States to study and then go back to their home countries. Refugees escaped from their countries and come to the United States to settle down.”

Joo quickly learned that the language barrier between the two groups was greater than he anticipated.

“Most international students take an English proficiency test before they come to schools in the U.S., but refugees often come here without our basic language skills,” he explains.

Since Joo’s worship and sermons are taught in English, he was running into a problem. International students – regardless of their English levels – had little issues understanding the messages he needed to communicate. They were, after all, used to engaging with English-speaking professors and students on a daily basis. But Joo noticed while preaching, the refugees in his church often looked puzzled and confused by his sermons.

It took a nudge from his wife to see how God had already equipped him to handle exactly the situation he was now experiencing.

“Before, 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,” he says.

“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’ve got to change something.’”

Joo had just recently graduated from Southeastern Seminary, where his doctor of ministry project was focused on “Christ-centered storytelling” and how to keep Christ-centered hermeneutics in sermon preparation, while incorporating narrative-style sermon delivery – a method widely used in the mission field.

The method includes using various visuals and translations, adjusting the speed of speech and complexity of words to more simply point to how all stories in the Bible ultimately point to Jesus.

“For example, if I’m preaching about suffering, I can include pictures of terrorism or natural disasters on my PowerPoint slides so the audience can visually see what I’m preaching about,” Joo says. “I also slowed down my speech and tried to use very simple words. There is no point in speaking fast to international listeners when their language levels are all different.”

For pastors that don’t have the luxury of having a translator to help, Joo recommends using Google translation.

“It is not perfectly accurate, but it is better than nothing,” he says. “I use Google translation for a word or short sentence, such as my sermon title or the main points from the sermon. Between the pictures and the description, the audience can usually understand the concept of the story I shared.”

Joo also includes Scripture verses translated into the languages of his listeners on the slides to allow native speakers to read those passages in their native languages. With those changes, Joo began to see engagement and understanding from the refugees in his audience. They continue to come back week after week to worship Jesus.

Even with all the differences in language delivery, the most important thing, Joo emphasizes, is connecting all the Bible stories back to Jesus.

“All 66 books in the Bible point to Jesus, so every story in the Bible also points to Jesus,” he says. “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.”

by Caroline Barnhill  
/  Contributing Writer

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