Cross-cultural Guest Speaking: Helping Those in the West Make the Greatest Impact

(Editor’s note: Although this topic has been touched upon a number of times in other publications and our hope is that these guidelines are second nature to those speaking cross-culturally, nonetheless we feel it important that all of us remind ourselves from time to time what a biblical, effective, humble cross-cultural servant looks like.)

It was hot, as usual, sitting in the international church service in South Asia. Fans above us swirled the heat around in circles as we sang choruses. The congregation represented several different countries. Most of those present knew English as a second or even third language.

The guest speaker approached the pulpit and began his sermon. He gestured and paced, raised his voice, and then gave a flamboyant illustration about a mayonnaise and tomato sandwich that he had been trying to eat while driving, which, when he turned a curve, ended up with the tomato flying out of the sandwich onto the window.

To this day, I couldn’t tell you what his sermon had been about. But I will always remember that story, given to a room full of people who did not know what mayonnaise was, much less a sandwich, who would never hold food with the left hand while driving. And even if the story had a vital point, the people wouldn’t have been able to understand it because the speaker was talking so rapidly.

As tragically funny as the whole situation was, I couldn’t help but think that something good had been wasted. A church in America had spent a great deal of money to send this man to the mission field, and he had good things to teach. But futility reigned due to a very simple, easily-corrected problem.

Following general guidelines can help cross-cultural
teachers to be effective in their presentations.

Although he had likely spent hours preparing his sermon, the guest speaker had spent little time preparing for the fact that he would be speaking to people of another native tongue.

Soon after the tomato sandwich incident, I started collecting pieces of advice that could have helped that man have a successful, impacting experience in a different cultural setting. (Many of the following originated from the preparation manual of my missionary colleagues in South Asia, to whom I give thanks for their insights.)

These tips are not just for those in missions, but for any situation in which you find yourself speaking with someone to whom English is not their first language. Below are suggestions for English speakers who are cross-culturally guest speaking.

Speaking in English to Audiences Who Do Not Speak English as a First Language

  1. Speak slowly and clearly. Use small sentences and pause often.
  2. Humor that your audience can identify with is appreciated, but jokes often fall flat in a different culture; it may be best to leave them out.
  3. Beware of gestures that might offend. If you are visiting where there are established missionaries, ask them what gestures are considered rude (e.g., the thumbs up sign, okay sign, pointing, pounding the pulpit, gesturing with your Bible, placing your Bible on the floor).
  4. Avoid negative statements about other religions. You are there to lift up Christ, not tear down other’s beliefs.
  5. Use a translation of the Bible that non-native English speakers will understand.
  6. If you sense you are not being understood, do not just keep repeating yourself louder and louder. Likely it is your words or your accent that are not being understood. It would be best to pull aside a missionary in that culture, and ask what you can do to be better understood. This is an exercise in humility.

Speaking through an Interpreter

As you prepare:

  1. Remember that with an interpreter you will speak only fifty percent of the time. If you are given twenty minutes for your message, prepare for ten.
  2. Avoid plays on words, poetry, alliteration, and clichés. (For example, “Jesus, the SON, is the SUN that shines in our lives” will not translate well, because in other languages, those two words will be totally different. Also, using clichés such as “I put my foot in my mouth” will completely lose your audience, as they will all be wondering why you would do such a disgusting thing.)
  3. Use stories. Jesus used them to great effect. Often stories connect with people across cultural barriers much better than other teaching methods.

Your interpreter:

  1. Get together with your interpreter before you are to speak. Have a time of prayer. Then go over the general outline of your message.
  2. Go over illustrations and stories you will use, asking the interpreter if they are appropriate and the audience will understand them. (In many cultures, it is not polite to correct a respected person, such as a guest speaker, so you will need to reassure your interpreter that you want to be as effective as possible and really want his or her help.)
  3. Many cultures do not speak freely about certain subjects, and you will cause your interpreter great shame if you insist on their translation. (For example, in some countries, words like divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and child abuse are shameful concepts not to be spoken of in public.)
  4. Show honor and gratitude toward your interpreter, as he or she is serving the Lord and you.

During your message:

  1. Although you will be using child-level language, remember that you are communicating to adults who think deeply.
  2. If you find yourself uncertain during your sermon, better to stop and check quickly with your interpreter than to continue and cause shame. This may feel embarrassing to you, but will show that you value his or her culture, and will earn you respect.
  3. When you want a passage of scripture read, just have your interpreter read it in his or her language. This will save time.
  4. At the end of your message, ask the interpreter or pastor to close in prayer in his or her own language.
  5. Above all, pray. Ask the Holy Spirit’s help for you and your interpreter.

Your labor is not in vain in the Lord, and taking these few, small extra steps will not only show honor to those you desire to serve, but will give access to your words, and impact to your message.

Kimberly Rae Thigpen and her husband served as missionaries in closed (or restricted access) countries until health problems brought them back to the United States. They now live in Ohio with their two young children.