I am constantly reminded that what we say and what others hear are rarely the same thing. That is especially true when preaching in a multi-cultural context. Rayners Lane Baptist Church is in Harrow which, I was told by the Chief Superintendent for Harrow (Police), is now the most racially and religiously diverse council area in the UK.
Therefore we have to work even harder than usual when it comes to communicating the good news about Jesus to our local community. Since the most common immigrant group locally are Tamils, my church generously sent me off on sabbatical to Sri Lanka and India last summer. Then Kevin at South Asian Concern was really helpful in linking me up with contacts near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh – the Hindu heartland of India.
The Sunday I was in Uttar Pradesh I was asked to preach at the service in Kachhwa. The congregation consisted of hospital staff and over 150 people from the local villages. Their church was working its way through Ephesians and so I had to preach on the passage for that week – Ephesians 5: 21-33 – about wives and husbands! My heart sank when I heard that; marriage is just about the most complex cultural issue for anybody to tackle.
What really struck me through the process was that we all notice different things when we read the Bible. As I prepared my sermon I was wrestling over how best to explain and apply the phrase, “wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” That is the phrase that leaps out at us as we read the passage in a Western context. However, the villagers of Uttar Pradesh didn’t even blink at that point. That was pretty much plain vanilla for them. Yet when I read, “… a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife …” there was palpable shock. Leave? Leave! Surely the husband has to stay with his parents where his poor wife will be governed by her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law?
After the sermon I had a really good discussion with some of the leaders. We talked about rampant individualism in the West – where words like ‘submission’ or ‘sacrifice’ are disliked in any context; and then about the idolatry of family in the East where conformity to the collective can crush everything – especially women. Our culture and our background shape the questions that we bring to the Bible. Most of the time they are so ingrained that we do not even spot them. Throughout my life I have noticed that talking to people from other nationalities helps me to understand my own culture better.
The whole experience was both challenging and encouraging. It was so exciting to see people engaging with God’s Word with that freshness that comes when ideas are new. It also exposed many of my blind spots – parts of scripture where my culture tricks me into missing what God has actually said. One wonderful aspect of working at RLBC is that we all notice different things in the Bible. This keeps us on our toes, and rightly so. The gospel challenges all of us, all of the time.
One thing I’ve done to help me with this is buy a copy of the South Asia Bible Commentary. Whatever passage I’m preaching on I will always skim through the SABC as part of my preparation. I’m deliberately looking out for any issues that South Asians will see differently. We have lots of nationalities in our church as well as South Asians but the discipline is slowly training my brain to look at the Bible with non-Western eyes. Rather than blunting God’s Word, I find preaching in a multi-cultural context exciting. As we engage with the scriptures through different cultures God’s voice is heard more clearly.
Article by Rev John Smuts, Rayners Lane Baptist Church