February 11, 2012

Preaching the Truth Across Cultures


Every Sunday morning I face people from 20 to 30 nations as they gather for worship. Some are in church for the first time in their lives. Others have grown up in church in diverse places. A significant number speak English as a second language. A few don’t speak English much at all. Almost everyone present is seeking to find out about “the God.”

Several years ago the pastor search committee from Kowloon International Baptist Church, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong contacted me about serving as their pastor. I knew nothing about the church. I did not know they knew anything about me. After initial talks we visited the city and the church. My own heart was filled with mixed emotions. Two of my children were in universities. One was married. Hong Kong is a LONG way from Texas.

No sense of direction came to me until after I told the church “no” in response to their invitation to come. Then God became very clear in his communication with me. We accepted the call with confidence. We arrived in Hong Kong the day the health authorities discovered the index patient for SARS. We had no idea the scope of the panic we were soon to encounter.

Kowloon International Baptist Church is located in Kowloon Tong on the peninsula across from Hong Kong Island. Our area of the city was once the home of many British residents. Our church is located between two separated sections of Hong Kong Baptist University. We are one block from Hong Kong Baptist Hospital. Across the street is an old British army camp that today houses a token presence of People’s Republic of China soldiers.

Our forty year-old church facilities are built for a little over two hundred people. In each morning service chairs are added to the aisles and usually an overflow room is opened. I have seen two people sitting in one chair. From time to time we have people standing in the foyer and even on the front steps to listen.

The music of worship is strong. Time after time I have watched “self-made” atheists slowly learn to mouth the words of the hymns and praise choruses. One can almost trace their journey to faith in the confidence level of their singing.

My heart has been lifted through the prayers of our people. A Chinese man may pray with perfect British English. Later a Filipina may marry strange sounding verbs and nouns in an humble offering of her heart in prayer. An Indian may share a stirring testimony of faith’s struggle on the streets as his Pakistani friend prays for him. A white South African laughs with a black Liberian. God seems to enjoy these gatherings of his people.

God uses differences to expand our understanding. Some parts of America have enjoyed living in a monoculture. Others are like a patchwork quilt. Hong Kong is a hot pot of blending cultures. Differences do not label one better than any other. Learning to work with diversity creates the setting in which God’s symphony of humanity can audition.

Preaching to such a crowd is demanding. In one corner sits an unassuming Greek scholar recognized around the world. Behind him sits a man who cannot read. English idioms are lost on Chinese ears and confusing to Indonesian thought processes. New Zealanders twist a different meaning out of the Aussie’s English words. The Brits and Americans do not even spell English the same.

One of the great joys I have is working with translators. Our early service is translated into Mandarin, the language of mainland China. The late service is translated into Cantonese, the native language of Hong Kong. I preach in English with a Texas accent. Each week I meet with a mainland Chinese translator from Hong Kong Baptist University to go over the sermon notes line by line. These translators are often pre-believers. They speak English as a second language. Each wants to learn to translate. In my sessions with them we discuss the sermon. When a verse of Scripture or a quote or a story I use is somewhat like something they know in Chinese, they tell me the story of the likeness. The way they word their thoughts gives me insights into patterns I need to process in my thinking and speaking. I often assign my translators readings in biblical passages in order to help them better understand what I am going to say.

Sunday, we have an excellent Mandarin speaker listen to the translators by headphones. This listener is a wonderful Christian who also helps the translators better understand any biblical or theological nuances they may need to clarify. The translation process has become a multi-dimens-ional witness.

Some of my people know the Bible better than I do. Many have a good understanding of the Bible. And even more have little familiarity with the Bible. In fact, one of the frequent questions I face is, “How do I read the Bible?” Almost all scripture verses used in sermons are put on PowerPoint. Most are also included in the study notes which accompany each bulletin.

At times English words have been translated into Chinese and the meaning is similar but different. One Sunday, I used the word “sin” in a message. A pre-believer with a PhD in Chinese medicine and a MD in western medicine was visiting the church. She whispered to the woman who invited her to church, “What is sin?”

The Chinese word makes the “sinner” a “criminal.” Often people are troubled by this Chinese translation. In order to maintain integrity with the Bible and work with the culture, I have found wisdom in allowing the Bible to give meaning to problematic words. For instance, Psalm 51 uses several words to define “sin.” Most people can identify with these words. “Blot out my transgressions” (v. 1) addresses the “rebellion” in most of us. “Wash away all my iniquity” (v. 2) puts a holy hand on the “crooked” or “warped” nature inhabiting our hearts. “Cleanse me from my sin” (v. 2) reminds us we have all “missed the mark of God’s best.” And “done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4) admits “wrong.” I have yet to meet anyone who cannot identify with all four of these definitions of the word “sin.”

The art of preaching often requires repetition of a thought with slight changes. Certainly, this process was common in biblical times. The Psalmist wrote “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you” (Psalm 102:1). His expression communicates the same thing in two ways. In preaching cross-culturally, the speaker often needs to make use of repetition with slight changes. Like Isaiah, we want people to “seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). Rarely, does one respond to what one fails to understand.

The education level of our congregation is advanced. On any given Sunday we have people with degrees from top universities in most continents of the world. Yet, we have people who have not had institutional advantages as well. Simplicity carries power when the issues of the heart and mind are marinated in the Scripture. Sometimes something as simple as the search for the meaning behind a name brings out the fragrance of many cultures. Education levels do not escape the normal ebb and flow of life. Cultures may handle the tides differently but people still wrestle with being people.

I arrived in Hong Kong at the same time SARs arrived. Fears about this disease brought on citywide panic. When seven million people located in a small area fear being with other people, strange things happen. People were afraid to come to church. When they came, they wore masks and did not want to shake hands. Pews and hymnals were cleaned with disinfectant between services. Some wanted me to preach wearing a mask. Any preplanned preaching program for the new pastor was quickly abandoned. The people needed assurance and comfort. Together we sought to trust the Lord. The Psalms gave great guidance to our worship times.

Life issues awaken needy hearts around the world. The life issues people face in Hong Kong are similar to but different from life issues people face elsewhere. One segment of my people comes from the Philippines. These ladies are domestic helpers. They live in a small room or cubicle in Chinese homes and do all the domestic work. They have one day off a week and it must be spent away from where they live and work or they will have to work. Most of these women are married and their husbands and children live in the Philippines. They are in Hong Kong because they can make ten times what they could make in the Philippines. They are hoping to provide for their children to have a different way of life than they have.

The ladies return to the Philippines once a year or once every other year for two weeks. The rest of the time their family time is telephone time. Preaching on family issues to this group is very different from preaching on family issues to the employers whose children are cared for by these ladies. And both are likely to be in the same service.

Some of the people I preach to own or work in factories in China. They spend most of the week in China. Cultural mores and business expectations can bring their own set of temptations. Other people do business in Euro-Asia each week. For the most part, our people are found in the various levels of the socio-business world of Hong Kong. Diversity dominates everything we do.

One of the underlying issues penetrating most of the cultures we face is education. Hong Kong people live in relentless pursuit of education. And their pursuit is not simply to acquire a degree. The people here want to be the best. Preschoolers are enrolled in multiple language classes and arts classes. Students are expected to excel. Parents are also involved in continuing education.

Another factor we work with is the work hours. Many businesses are open until seven or eight o’clock at night. Stores rarely close before ten o’clock. And the workers work five and a half to six days a week.

Materialism reigns in Hong Kong. Every subway station is under a shopping mall. People can buy the most expensive of labels or copies of whatever they want. Having or appearing to have is a part of the way people seem to want to define themselves.

The interest in sports is much more international than in the United States. However, western movies are as popular as Asian movies. And people are current on international politics and business.

Illustrations from these areas of life are usually understood by most of our people. Due to the education level, historical references and allusions to literature are understood. However, the mixture of English traditions makes terminology an interesting challenge.

In spite of life’s demands, the newcomers we encounter are trying to figure out if there is a God behind life’s waves and what the meaning is if such a one is or is not real. Could the God they have been told all their life does not exist, really exist? Does the Bible say anything I need to know? What does it mean?  Fortunately, God brings another group of people into our midst. Many Asian people have strong family ties. When a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, that person wants the family to come to Christ. Baptisms are occasions for families to share in the celebration. Baptism testimonies share the transforming power of Jesus in the personal story and words of the baptismal candidates. The sermon is given the privilege of introducing the gospel to virgin ears. Often such services are followed by family meals at which time the baptized share further with family members.

Earlier I mentioned preparing study notes for the Sunday bulletin. With the difficulty in hearing and understanding a second language, I do not leave any blanks to be completed. However, recent years have introduced us to another phenomenon. Our people love to discuss the sermons in small group Bible studies. Recently, I prepared a study guide for a sermon series on The Ten Commandments. As I did my preparation work, I noticed marked differences in the way such a series would be preached in Asia as opposed to the western world. For instance, many homes here have household gods. Hong Kong culture fights the idea of rest and reflection. Abortion has been a way of birth control in China for some time. The study guide gave an overview of the sermon and discussion questions for small groups. People invited friends to study these commandments and talk about them.

For the pastor, one issue in preparing study guides and discussion questions is time. Making time to prepare such in the middle of a pressing schedule and without a secretarial infrastructure presents no little challenge. Every time and culture has its peculiar set of issues in the middle of which God’s spokespersons are called to function.

Kowloon International Baptist Church in Hong Kong differs considerably from other international churches. All overseas churches are not the same any more than all American churches are the same. Some international churches are made up primarily of ex-patriots who are looking for a faith community on foreign soil. Many have varying degrees of mixed cultures within the congregation. Congregations react to cultural differences and class structures differently.

Every church in America has her own culture. The same is true around the world. My venture into Hong Kong carried me into an Asian international church where I became the first non-missionary pastor. Previously, all pastors had been missionaries under the Foreign Mission Board or the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Before I came to the church, official affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention entities was discontinued through a peaceful decision. The church has been clearly connected with the Hong Kong Baptist Convention since then.

Our church culture stands on her heritage but enjoys the cross pollination of people from diverse Christian backgrounds.  When God works outside the framework of cultural Christians, the denomination is not nearly as important as one’s commitment to Christ. And the little issues that often divide congregants in “Christian” lands are swallowed by the things that unite us in Christ.

One of my concerns as a western preacher in an Asian world occurs at the point of my fear of westernizing an Asian gospel. My thought processes, my educational background, my ministry experience and my heritage all lead me to interpret the Bible with a western mind. My questions then become what is Bible and what is my culture? Certainly, salvation transcends cultural differences. Yet the interests related to salvation may differ as much from culture to culture as they do from age to age.

In the United States I worked with children who were afraid of dying and young adults who were ashamed of what they had done. Both had real desires to get their hearts right with God but their motivations were very different. In Asia, a personal relationship with God may be felt to be more important than salvation from damnation.As I write these words the pianist who lives above me has started his morning practice. I am quickly reminded that my efforts to preach the gospel free of western restraints occurs in a service held in a worship center that is distinctively western and usually follows western hymnody in a predominately western liturgy. I have much to learn as the focus of the gospel shifts to this part of the world.

Harry Lucenay is pastor of Kowloon International Baptist Church in Hong Kong. This article first appeared The Window: Ministry Resources From Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology, vol. 12 and issue 1.

[Image • fangol on sxc.hu]

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