I have yet to preach in Thai, but hopefully soon. Still, I have been preaching once a month at the only international church in Korat, Church of Blessing. The audience is very international. Demographically speaking, I would guess that Filipinos are the majority. But there are people from Thailand, Korea, America, Australia, Cameroon and Singapore. If I left anyone out, forgive me. One thing I’ve learned from speaking is to avoid Americanisms. This happens mostly when I am trying to think of a sermon illustration to use on a passage. Most of my analogies come from my cultural background. For example, if I try to explain the different roles of husbands and wives by comparing it to the roles of quarterbacks and wide receivers in American football, then I’ve just lost about 95% of my audience. Analogies like these work against me rather than for me. Instead of bringing understanding and clarity to my audience, I bring confusion and haze. With such a diverse audience, what is a preacher to do?
One solution can be to work with illustrations that are universal. Taking things from nature can be a good start. Nature is observed by all people and translates well. Jesus implemented such themes, particularly the use of seeds and vegetation. (Matthew 13) Paul refers to creation of the universe as a witness to God. (Romans 1:19,20) Never underestimate the power of God’s natural revelation to speak to hearts.
Another way to find fitting illustrations is to understand the culture you are living in. For me that would be the Thai culture. Even though the majority of my current audience isn’t Thai, they all live in Thailand. They see Thai culture all around them and are growing in their understanding of Thai ways and customs. This has become a valuable resource for me and can only help when I eventually do start preaching in Thai. For instance, one Thai custom is for young men to enter into the monkhood for a short period of time to earn merit for their mothers. While I don’t believe in the practice myself, I can use this observation to help my audience understand the imputed righteousness of Christ. The analogy isn’t a perfect one, but the job of the preacher is to clean it up and demonstrate how Christ’s righteousness is superior to any type of merit we could try to earn on our own.
Learning the culture of the people to whom you are ministering is vitally important. Without this knowledge, communicating God’s truths becomes immensely difficult. It is one place where missions and theology need to interact with one another. While I agree that theology trumps culture, at the same time, we shouldn’t just throw culture away because it is less important. If we use our theology to guide our cultural references, we can create an effective ministry tool for both evangelism and discipleship.