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7 Steps for Preparing to Preach in a Second Language

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

open bibles english thai greekOne of the major goals that many new missionaries want to achieve is learning how to preach in another language.  But as many missionaries can testify, learning how to engage in small talk and buy things at the market is totally different than standing up to preach.  Public speaking can be intimidating your own language, never mind somebody else’s.  

But even when you can preach confidently in your own language, the reality of preaching in a second language enforces a certain humility upon the preacher. You can never be 100% sure that what is coming out of your mouth is exactly what you want to say, or whether your listeners are understanding the point you are trying to make.  If they aren’t getting it, is it a content issue or a language issue?  Preaching in a second language is fraught with the potential for irrecoverable pronunciation errors and poor word choices.  At the very least, the range and depth of what you are able to express in a second language is somewhat less than what you’d be able to do in your native language.  And even if your language is decent, do you understand the culture?  In addition to an intimate acquaintance with the Bible, ability and fluency in both language and culture are essential for preaching cross-culturally in a second language.  But for newer missionaries (or even more seasoned missionaries), knowledge of both language and culture are a work in progress.

With all these limitations in mind, how should you prepare yourself to preach in another language?  Certainly every preach has their own way of preparing, likely formed by how they were taught in seminary or Bible college, or from listening to the preaching of others.  What may work well for one preacher may not work well for another.  But even so, as I talk with other missionaries about preaching in Thai, I’ve found that we are all facing similar obstacles and challenges in preaching in our second language and can learn from each other.

With those conversations in mind, I want to use the remainder of this post to explain how I prepare to preach in Thai with the hope that other missionary preachers might find something useful that will help in their own preparation.  I am in no way holding up my way of sermon preparation as some kind of standard, but merely present it as one way of doing sermon prep that I have found effective. And what works well for moving from English (my first language) to Thai (my second language) may not work well for those with different first and second languages.  If you have experience in this area, or have tips that could help me, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

I don’t always prepare my sermons in exactly the same way, but in general these are the steps that are go through and recommend to others.

1) Choose a Passage Suited to Your Language Ability

When you are just starting out preaching in a second language, keep it simple.  Not simplistic or superficial, but simple.  Initially, it is best to avoid passages that have too many unfamiliar words, or have a grammatical structure that it is hard for you to follow. A shorter passage (5 verses or less) is probably safer and more manageable than a longer passage (10-15 verses and up).  The more your language develops, the more you can handle longer and more linguistically complex passages.  Short narrative passages are generally easier to handle than a psalm or something from Romans.

2) Choose a Passage Suited to Your Listeners

What is the education level of listeners? Are they literate (conceptual) or oral (concrete) thinkers? How familiar are they with the Bible and a Christian worldview?  What cultural phenomenon in the Bible would be readily understandable to them?  Which would be extremely foreign?  You may be preaching to a very different group of listeners than you would find back in your home country.

3) Read, Re-read, and Re-read the Passage in the Local Language

I have been a Christian for about 20 years and have been reading the Bible in English for about the same amount of time.  Therefore, I am fairly familiar with common biblical phrases like “turn the other cheek,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “put on the full armor of God.”  But when I started learning Thai, I was back at zero again in terms of familiarity with biblical expressions.  The word “armor” never came up during the course of my Thai language study.  Likewise, lepers, priests, and Abraham’s bosom don’t figure into my daily life in Thailand.  So before I can stand up and preach from a Bible passage in Thai, I need to take a lot of time to simply familiarize myself with the passage in Thai.  

After deciding on the passage, I read it in Thai.  Then I read it again.  And again.  Sometimes I’ll mark down unfamiliar words as I go, either in the Bible itself or on a notepad nearby, but mostly I am just reading.  I’ll read the passage out loud to hear what it sounds like, and to assist myself in breaking the sentences up in appropriate places.  Listening to an audio version of the passage read by a native speaker can help too in getting the rhythm of the passage.  My goal here is to become very familiar with the passage in the language I will be preaching in so that I can easily refer to phrases, ideas, or sections of the passage without needing to turn back to my notes all the time to see how it is said in this language.  Some phrases and expressions need to just be stuck in my head and easily recalled so that I can concentrate on my message and my listeners, and not get stuck searching for the right word too often.

4) Study the Passage in the Local Language

There is not always clear distinction between reading and studying the passage in the local language because even as I read and re-read, the gears in my head are turning as I think about the meaning of what I am reading.  For both reading and study, I use the same Bible that I will take into the pulpit with me.  I do consult other Bible versions, in multiple languages, but the majority of my study is in the text of the Bible version I will be preaching from.  I want to know the vocabulary used in the Bible I’ll be preaching from, so I can refer to it as I preach.

As study the passage, I note words and expressions I don’t know and compare various versions in the local language, in my native language, sometimes in Greek and Hebrew, and very occasionally in French (because I was a French major in college, though I am quite rusty now).  

On occasion, the local language version(s) and the English version(s) say something quite different that affects the meaning of the passage.  One of the dangers of preaching through translation or preaching without looking at the passage in the local language ahead of time is getting surprised by significant translation differences.  Better to be surprised in your study than in the pulpit.  When there are significant differences, I head over to my Bible study software program to look at the the Greek and Hebrew.  I realize that not everyone has the advantage of having learned Greek and Hebrew, but I can testify that it comes in handy when discrepancies pop up.  English is not the standard for settling the question of what the Bible really says, so the ability to look something up in the original languages can be a great help in taking the edge off of our natural cultural biases.

If you have a Bible commentary in the language you’ll be preaching in, that can help in learning to talk about the background, meaning, and application of the passage.  If that Bible commentary is written by a native speaker of the language you’ll be preaching in, that is even better.  The author may point out particular issues in the passage that are relevant for that language and culture, whereas the author of translated commentary wouldn’t have those local insights to share.

And though it is not inspired, I sometimes take a look at a children’s Bible to see an example of a simple, vernacular way to talk about a particular Bible story.

5) Choose Appropriate Illustrations & Examples

You may have a great illustration for this passage but if local listeners can’t relate, than don’t use it.  A classic example of this is American preachers using an illustration from American football in a country where people don’t play it.  As much as you are able to work in local proverbs, expressions, and illustrations, then do it.  But if you don’t know any that would fit with the passage, then skip it.  Those kind of things come with time.

6) Make Sermon Notes You Can Use

I don’t like to preach from a manuscript.  My eye contact, fluency, and passion trail off when when I can’t find my place on the page or feel locked in by the exact wording of what is written.  I work much better with a general outline or bullet points to jog my memory about the general direction that I am heading in the sermon. But some guys love manuscript preaching and if that works for them, then great.  

One of the particular challenges to preaching in Thai is my ability to read Thai quickly or to skim a page and find what I am looking for.  I have tried bringing a Thai manuscript, or pages of detailed Thai notes into the pulpit but as I get going and glance down at my notes for my next point, I can’t find where I am.  Thai uses a non-Romanized script and I can’t read it very fast, much less skim a page and find my place.  When I am nervous, it is like looking at the Matrix.  As a result, I have shifted to preparing my sermon notes largely in English with Bible verses, and key words and phrases written in Thai.  Next to the Thai words, I often put in parentheses something in English to remind me what the Thai says.  This is particularly helpful for longer passages.  As a rule, I try not to write down words that I don’t know how to say in Thai.  Otherwise I get stuck when I come to that section and can’t think of how to translate something.  

To give an example, here is the first section of my notes from a recent sermon on Hosea

Story of love, but not หนุ่มสาว but of God (but there are หนุ่มสาว in story)
Story of God and Israel
God created people and gave us everything
    life, breath, food, shelter, land, family
People rebelled and disobeyed God
God called Abram to be father of ชนชาติใหญ่ Israel
Israel suffered in Egypt, God delivered them, brought them to land
    gave them everything อุดมสมบูรณ์ in the land, He loved them
    God asked them to love him in return - at first they listened & loved
ในภายหลัง they forgot God’s goodness
ในเมื่อพวกเขาได้รับมากมายจากมือของพระเจ้า  พวกเขาก็ทำอะไรกับส่ิงเหล่านั้น
What did they do with what they had been given?  Were they faithful?

1:4-5     กษัตริย์เยฮู (King Jehu) kill people with injustice จำนวนไม่น้อย
4:1-3     สาปแชง โกหก เข่นฆ่า ล่วงประเวณี
4:6    เพิกเฉยต่อบทบัญญัติ indifferent to God’s commands
4:9     people and priests (leaders) both do evil

The people of Israel ลืมตัว, look for ความสุข from other places, not God
เมิน ไม่สนใจ God the things that God wants / desires

Aside from sermon notes with two languages mixed together, a missionary friend recommended that I try putting my sermon into two parallel columns with the English version of the sermon in one column and Thai in the other.  I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems to work well for him.

7) Trust God

Of course we know that we need to depend upon God as we preach, but it is worth repeating it here because it is easy to become anxious about one’s language ability when preaching in a second language.  Will I remember what to say?  Will it come out right?  Will I be able to get the pronunciation right on that hard-to-say word?  Even though we should be diligent in try to say things well and say things right, we still need to trust the Holy Spirit to use us (and our current level of language ability) as we are to be a blessing to people.  

Don’t let it bother you that you won’t preach as elegantly or precisely as you may be able to do in your native language.  All preachers, especially those preaching in a second language, would do well to listen to Martin Luther’s advice to a discouraged preacher. The excerpt below is from “Here I Stand”, Roland Bainton’s classic biography on Martin Luther.

Luther was constantly repeating to himself the advice which he gave to a discouraged preacher who complained that preaching was a burden, his sermons were always short, and he might better have stayed in his former profession. Luther said to him:

“If Peter and Paul were here, they would scold you because you wish right off to be as accomplished as they. Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk. Do your best. If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour or a quarter of an hour. Do not try to imitate other people. Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honor and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears. I can tell you preaching is not a work of man. Although I am old [he was forty-eight] and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach. You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; secondly, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace. You will preach your very best. The audience will be pleased, but you won't. And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself. So pray to God and leave all the rest to him.” (excerpted from Roland Bainton, “Here I Stand - A Life of Martin Luther”, p.348-349)

How do you prepare to preach in a second language?

What tips or advice would you share with others?

Leave a comment below and share your experience.

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