One 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.
I like preaching and I am convinced of its value and necessity, but I rarely find it easy. Preaching is not for the faint of heart. Preachers easily fall into the trap of being overly self-critical or self-congratulatory, comparing themselves with other preachers. For those reasons and more, I found the following bit of advice from from Martin Luther both helpful and encouraging. The excerpt below is from “Here I Stand”, Roland Bainton’s classic biography of 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:
Far too many churches today neglect preaching the Gospel. Well, maybe that is not quite accurate. When it is time to do evangelism, they preach the good news that God will forgive all those who admit they are sinners and accept Christ. But once the evangelistic talk is over, and people have come to faith, that message of sin and grace is tucked away in a drawer someplace until the next time that someone wants to do evangelism. It seems that many Christians, especially pastors and Christian leaders, think that the Gospel is relevant for becoming a Christian, but not all that useful for living the Christian life. Instead of making the Gospel the central theme of their preaching and worship, many churches neglect the Gospel in favor of moralistic pep talks, self-help tips, and shallow praise choruses.“Come on,” someone may object, “how can you preach the Gospel every week? That would be the same sermon over and over again.” If people have repented and turned to Christ, why bother going over the same talk about sin and grace again and again? They’ve got it already. They became Christians. It is time to go on to bigger and better things. The Gospel and grace are fantastic for getting people in the door, in helping them to come to faith in Christ. But once they are Christians already, they need something more than just a simple Gospel outline. They need something that will motivate and inspire them to holy living. They need something that will encourage them when life is difficult. They need something practical for daily living.
guest post by Larry Dinkins There are scores of quiet time books which stress making Bible reading a daily habit: Daily Bread, Daily Light, Daily Guideposts, and a huge variety of other Daily devotional aids for every age group. I've used many of them, so I'm not sure why the title of a new devotional caught my eye - "Once-A-Day Bible". Then it dawned on me. I've been thinking about Brother Lawrence whose "Practicing the Presence of God" is still a classic after 400 years. What if all they had in the monastery was the "Once-A-Day" Bible. Would Brother Lawrence read his portion for the day and then say, "Ok, glad that's finished. Once in the Bible is enough for today." Mind you, a "Once-a-Day" Bible is much better than a "Once-in-Awhile" Bible or "Once-in-a-Blue-Moon" Bible.
I’ve noticed that much teaching in Thai churches focuses on some variation of offering yourself to God or seeking God’s blessings through obedience. Somehow, the Gospel is seen as useful for “getting saved” but not for living the Christian life. Once you’ve heard about grace and “accepted Christ,” the next thing you need is a steady diet of moral exhortation to be good and to give yourself fully to God so that you get his blessings. Or at least that’s a lot of what I’m hearing. Of course, this is nothing unique to the Thai church, as it shows up in some form in every country, every culture, every age.Since a neglect of the Gospel of grace is such an entrenched problem in churches, whether that be Thailand or elsewhere, I found the following passage from Jerry Bridges to be particularly applicable. Even if we don’t think we are trying to live by good works, the temptation to rely on self tends to sneak up on us. Because our hearts tend to deceive themselves, here’s a good reality check from Bridges:
I tried an experiment in a Thai church I was asked to preach at recently. As a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate I always try to prepare my expositional messages well ahead of time and end up spending many hours in preparation. Yet I departed from my usual regimen on this occasion and found myself standing in the pulpit on this particular Sunday saying something I had never said in 40 years of preaching, "Congregation, I have to be honest and tell you that I'm not sure what I'll be preaching on today." They gave me a rather blank stare and then I put a PowerPoint slide in Thai on the screen with the title and references to 15 Bible stories, "You see today I want you as a congregation to "vote" for one of these 15 stories. The one that gets the most votes will be the one that I will preach on." Before they voted, I asked for 6-7 people to tell the congregation which story was their favorite from the list and to convince the rest in just a minute of why they should vote for that story. One Thai lady got so carried away in her appeal that she almost told the entire story. When the votes from the 50 or so that were present were counted, the majority voted for the story of the poor widow who gave her two coins (Mark 12:41-44). Fortunately this was the shortest story on the list. I briefly looked the story over and then for the next 40 minutes I led them through that story in a "Simply The Story" style (www.simplythestory.org). The response was quite encouraging and I promised to return for another "election" in the future.
You’re at church. Maybe it’s your own church, or maybe you’re just visiting. But as the preacher gets going, it becomes obvious that his sermon is going nowhere. Maybe it is just dull. Or maybe he is spouting off his own opinion with the Scriptures as a springboard. Or maybe it is moralistic or allegorical. Or maybe the preacher is simply getting the Bible wrong, twisting the meaning of the passage at hand. There are a thousand variations of the bad sermon. But when you are locked in to listening to a bad sermon, how should you respond?The typical way that I respond to a bad sermon is to sit quietly and stew about how bad it is. Then when we get home from church, I complain to my wife about how bad it was, and list all the reasons it was bad. This elicits empathy from my wife, who also had to sit through the bad sermon (though she is sometimes less affected by it when our kids are squirmy). While I admit that getting upset about how bad it was is my gut level reaction, it is not all that helpful. I go to church to encounter God, to worship Him, to listen to His Word, and to be built up. Meditating on all the reasons why the sermon is bad doesn’t really accomplish any of those goals. There is, of course, a place for critiquing bad sermons (I wrote a whole blog series about this), but there is also something to be said for redeeming bad sermons, and avoiding bitterness. The reason that I can sometimes get bitter about bad sermons is that I am hoping to hear something good from God’s Word and then have my hopes dashed. But it is no fun to live in the gall of bitterness. And it certainly does not honor God.
Not long ago, my family and I were visiting a church and I had the chance to preach in the evening service. During the fellowship time afterwards, someone commented to my wife that she appreciated the fact that I delivered the Word to them. What she meant is that I preached the Bible in a way that fed and ministered to her. One would hope that all sermons elicit such a response, but there is an interesting background to that comment.Apparently this church has had a number of missionaries come through and preach, but not all of them delivered the Word. Instead, the sermon was more about them and their ministry, than about the Bible. Not that the Bible was absent, of course, but the focus was upon what the missionary was doing “out there” rather than feeding the congregation from the Word of God. It is not that these missionaries didn’t know how to preach either, because some of them were ordained teaching elders.
guest post by Larry Dinkins On Saturday I reconnected with a former student of mine who has been a pastor for over 10 years. I shared with him what I had been learning about oral communication among Thai and tribals. He readily admitted that he did not know how to preach a narrative type sermon from the pulpit. I immediately reminded him of the times I've seen him sharing a story from a popular poster set that we use here in Thailand. In such settings I've seen him break into the northern dialect and banter in a winsome and natural way with seekers and others (and without notes). My plea was to focus more on the stories of the Bible and try to capture more of that natural ethos in his communication. My friend didn't seem that convinced, yet was as always very polite and deferring to his "older" mentor.
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
In "Telling God’s Stories with Power: Biblical Storytelling in Oral Cultures,” Paul Koehler identifies and presents a solution to a problem that continues to plague many missionaries and national Christians worldwide. In short, traditional modes of Gospel communication in many so-called developing nations don’t seem to be working. Bible schools are churning out graduates and these graduates are preaching and teaching the Gospel but people are tuning them out. Converts are few. Discipleship and church growth are stunted. What’s gone wrong?
I’ve recently been studying various passages of 1 and 2 Corinthians to better help me understand Paul’s theology of preaching. One passage that has particularly struck me is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 for in it Paul argues that the message of Christ crucified (that is, the content) and preaching (that is, the form) go hand in hand – that they cannot be divided. Indeed, in this passage Paul actually argues for preaching.
In 1 Cor. 1:17 Paul is continuing to address the issue of divisions in the Corinthian church, by minimising his role of baptising, and stating that Christ’s commission to him was to “preach the gospel.” However, for Paul it matters how the gospel is proclaimed. Therefore, he refuses to preach with “eloquent wisdom” (ESV). Literally the Greek of this phrase is “the wisdom of a word,” and refers to the use of Greco-Roman rhetoric. (This was a particular form of oration popularised by Cicero and Quintillian, in which the aim of a speech was to “persuade an audience, the end is to persuade by speech” (Cicero, On Invention 1.6), that is, to create belief. To do this an orator would so adapt and craft his message (content, style and delivery), that it would bring about the desired end with a given audience. Therefore, Greco-Roman rhetoric is a form of speech or proclamation. It is a form that Paul rejects because it would render the cross of Christ void (1:17), since a person’s faith would rest on human skill in oration rather than on the Spirit’s power (2:4-5).
At the U.S. Center for World Missions a group of us mission trainers were asked to brain storm concerning our understanding of an "ideal" cross-cultural church planter. They encouraged us to go ahead and dream, so we listed most all of the skills, character traits and qualities that would make for a successful church planter. Only when this target was clearly defined did we take on the task of designing a training program to ensure our desired result. Recently I've been reflecting on how this same process can be applied to preaching. Clearly defining what you want to happen in the life of your listener by the time the sermon ends (and beyond) will hugely shape how one constructs and delivers a sermon. The typical response I received at the end of my sermons in Thailand was, "Di mak, Ajarn" (Good sermon, Teacher). Although gratifying, I never knew just what they were taking away from my forty minutes of preaching. Now hopefully older and wiser, I am shooting for a more clearly defined target.
With the vast advances in transportation and communication in recent years, it is becoming increasing common for pastors and seminary professors to go on missions trips to teach short-term Bible courses. There is a lot of good that can come from such trips, but also many possible snares. In this post, I want to address just one of these snares, the challenging task of teaching or preaching through translation. Teaching in the local language is far and away the best way to teach but if you must teach through translation, here are some things to keep in mind.
Some people may think that unbiblical preaching is the preacher’s problem, not theirs. However, Biblical preaching is more likely to occur in a congregation where not only the pastor, but also the people want solid Biblical teaching. While a pastor has a big role in helping create such an atmosphere, he is only one piece in the puzzle. If a growing number of people in a church are dissatisfied with moralism, allegory, and gnosticism from the pulpit, then it can push the pastor to up the bar. And of course, the corollary is true as well. If the congregation is not interested in hearing from God, but just wants a pick-me-up to help them get through the week, then it will be tempting for the preacher to go light on the Word of God, giving the people what they think they need.So how do we work towards seeing more Biblical preaching in our churches? I’ve come up with a list of five solutions. The list is not exhaustive, and I am sure there are other solutions that could be added. However, if we are able to put into practice just these five, then it should go a long way in creating healthier Bible reading and preaching in our churches.
Why is there so much bad preaching in evangelical churches? Is the Bible really so hard to understand? Do the majority of preachers intentionally and knowingly play fast and loose with the Holy Scriptures to promote their own agendas? The answer to both of those questions would seem to be “NO”. In this post, I would like to suggest the most probable sources of unbiblical preaching, and then some solutions to address the problem.SOURCE 1: Human Tendency to Self-RelianceThere is a tendency in our fallen human nature to find a standard of moral goodness that we can meet. We want to feel like our own personal success and happiness is in our control. This tendency comes out in people’s demands for “practical” sermons. “Give us something we can do”, say the people. “My sermon needs to be practical”, says the preacher. And moralism rears it’s ugly head. Listeners eat up sermons on “Five Ways to be a Better Parent” or “Three Ways to Have More Joy”, so preachers keep giving it to them. It is a vicious cycle because listeners become accustomed to such a diet of moralistic preaching and preachers feel like they need to keep giving it to them. Listeners develop a distaste for anything that doesn’t readily give them something to DO, and protest that the few Biblical sermons that they do hear are too “doctrinal” or “academic”. Hearing about what Christ has already DONE for us is not enough. In our fallen human nature, grace and the deep things of God are difficult to understand. “Do better” is easy to understand and plays into our desire to control our lives.
Having surveyed three common forms of unbiblical preaching (moralistic, allegorical, & gnostic) in the previous three posts, I want to dedicate this post to the unintended consequences that result when Christians are fed a steady diet of this kind of preaching.I have have no doubt that the majority of preachers who give moralistic, allegorical, or gnostic sermons are well intentioned men who love God and are trying to help their listeners. The majority of Thai pastors whom I have met are hard working, godly men who desire to see people come to faith in Christ and grow as disciples. However, while many try to preach sermons that will help people, they often times miss the mark by failing to tell people what God wants them to know from the pages of Scripture.Undernourished SheepOne of the tragic results of unbiblical preaching is that God’s people fail to receive the nourishment they need from God’s Word. As preachers try to give them something that will help them, they fail to give them what they really need. A while back, my wife told me that a lady whom she is discipling refused to go to the Buddhist temple with her non-Christian boss. She was not being asked to make merit or make offerings but merely accompany her. This Christian woman refused, saying the temple is a wicked place and it is sinful for Christians to go there under any circumstances. In this statement, she not only offended her boss but implied that any other Christians who went to a Buddhist temple under any circumstance would be sinning (It is not uncommon for Thai Christians to go to a temple for the funeral of a Buddhist relative or friend, but not participate in the Buddhist parts of the ceremony).
In the previous two posts, we looked at moralistic preaching and allegorical preaching. In this post, we will look just briefly at gnostic preaching. Another unintended consequence of not preaching what is actually found in a passage is that listeners are given a gnostic view of Scripture. The Gnostics were were a cult group in the early church who claimed secret knowledge that gave them their unique understanding of Scripture - a knowledge to which others were not privy. I have not studied how the gnostics in the early church preached but would like to appropriate the term “gnostic” to describe a particular preaching abomination that I have often witnessed. Gnostic preaching happens when a preacher uses the text of Scripture as a springboard to preach about something that is not actually found in the passage. His listeners are left with the impression that if they didn’t have the preacher to tell them the meaning of the passage, then they could never have understood it for themselves. The preacher must have some special knowledge that enabled him to pull THAT meaning from THIS text. Here is Thailand, it is often assumed that the preacher must have gotten that special knowledge from his classes at Bible college - knowledge to which the common man does not have access. Therefore an unhealthy dependence on the preacher is fostered. People are lulled into thinking that they NEED the preacher to understand the Scripture because the Scripture itself is not clear enough taken on its own. At the end of a gnostic sermon, the listeners say, “Wow! I would never have figured that out from reading this passage of Scripture if the preacher hadn’t told us what it meant.” At the end of a Biblical sermon, the listeners say, “Wow! I don’t know how I didn’t see that before. What the preacher said is all there so clearly in this passage of Scripture!”
In my previous post, we looked at moralistic preaching and now we turn to the second of three common forms of unbiblical preaching - allegorical preaching. At a retreat for pastors and missionaries, we heard a sermon from a pastor who is serving on the leadership board for a certain Thai church denomination. He preached on 1 Samuel 17 - the story of David and Goliath. After the reading of the passage and giving a winding conversational introduction, he started going through the passage, telling us what was there in the story. Each part of the story of David and Goliath was used allegorically to emphasize some spiritual or practical truth that is needed in order to be successful in ministry.
In my last post, we began to look at the problem of preaching that uses the Bible but misses the point of what the Bible is saying. In the next three posts, we will look at three common forms of unbiblical preaching - moralistic preaching, allegorical preaching, and gnostic preaching. There is a lot of overlap between these three but they are distinct enough to put them in separate categories - even though they may all show up in a single sermon. In this post, we’ll take a look at moralistic preaching.Moralistic Preaching and BuddhismMoralistic preaching is all about getting people to be good. Thai Buddhists believe that the point of every religion in the world (including Christianity) is to teach people to be good. And if they listened to the sermons in many churches on Sunday morning, their belief would be confirmed. Instead of telling listeners about Christ, the cross, and the drama of redemption which winds through the whole of Scripture, moralistic preachers tell people, “Be good and God will bless you.” The need for forgiveness is not emphasized nearly as much as the need to try harder to be a better person. This type of preaching is familiar to people from a Buddhist background because it is the same type of sermon that Buddhist monks give.
I’ve lived in Thailand for about five years and have heard a fair share of preaching in Thai churches. I’ve heard local pastors in small congregations, specially invited preachers at large evangelistic events, and top church leaders at national gatherings. And while there are some fine godly men preaching good Biblical sermons, the majority of preaching that I’ve heard in Thai churches has been very disappointing. It’s not that they don’t use the Bible. They do. It is not that they are preaching blatant heresy. They are not. More often than not, I find sermons to be disappointing not because of what is there, but what is not there.