Preaching good sermons with intermediate-level Japanese.
When I was in South Africa I preached fairly often, like once a week at once stage. It took me about 10-12 hours to prepare and I got into a good rhythm with regards to planning, writing, and preaching sermons. I knew my way around commentaries and word study. I knew how to explain doctrines and put big ideas into words that could relate to peoples’ lives. Preaching requires a pretty advanced level of language because it includes a lot of abstract ideas and images, knitted together with teaching, exhortation, application, illustration, storytelling, and other advanced levels of language use. Not only that, but there are also are a number of below the surface cultural aspects to be considered as well. For example, the fact that different cultures listen differently, apply ideas differently and respond to criticism or rebuke differently. This has all played a role in the development of different preaching styles which is tailored to specific groups.
When a missionary begins to preach cross-culturally, they are hit with a barrage of language and cultural challenges which can be extremely discouraging. I thought I would share a few of my ideas and lessons learnt as a new cross-cultural preacher in Japan. Hopefully, it can encourage others preaching cross-culturally, as well as help others understand a bit more of what cross-cultural missionaries go through.
- Stick your pride in your pocket and get ready to eat humble pie
I have only preached about 5 times in Japanese but can already tell that it is a very humbling experience. I remember spending hours and hours working on my first sermon and when I finished, I thought…these poor listeners! This is absolutely normal, especially for those who are adept at preaching in their own language. We want to preach at the same intellectual level we used to but sorry; not gonna happen! My first sermon was one I loosely translated from an English one I preached before and I used very basic level Japanese. In spite of sticking to basics, I had to use the dictionary countless times to look up words that I have never heard before such as Water Jug, Torch, a crowd of people etc. It is normal to get frustrated and it is part of the learning process. Just keep going.
When it came to actually preaching the sermon, I was so terribly nervous. I think I went to the toilet like 5 times on that Sunday morning. During the sermon, I forgot how to read one of the kanji characters and I had to stop the sermon to ask someone in the congregation to help me read it. It turned out to be a funny little joke afterwards that the young people enjoyed teasing me with. Overall, it went pretty well but I can tell you, many parts still felt awkward and embarrassing.
- Being humbled pays spiritual dividends
In my struggles with learning to preach cross-culturally, I have been reminded of the need to depend on God’s Spirit. I often lay out my sermon manuscript and pray over the pages, asking God to help me just read it well; never mind delivery style. I often look at those Japanese characters thinking…Oh God help me! More than when I preached in English, I feel a tremendous need for grace and assistance which has helped to deepen my trust in the power of God’s Word and the convicting work of the Spirit. When I receive any positive feedback, I can only but smile and be blown away again by the Spirit’s work in making those feebly crafted sentences into something meaningful. Be encouraged with those feebly crafted words because God multiples it far more than we can imagine! Also, in the struggle to preach better sermons in Japanese, God is working on YOU the preacher. Making you more humble, godly, and ultimately a better disciple.
- You need the help of others
For those of us who preach, we had to learn from lecturers, other preachers, books on preaching etc. As much as these are necessary, it is not enough to preach cross-culturally in Japan. Those books do not teach you how to preach in Japanese, or to Japanese. Learning to preach in Japanese requires lots of…you guessed it…LEARNING. For this reason, I don’t think it is helpful to straight out translate your English sermons into Japanese (I am slowly weening myself off this method). It’s not that simple. We need to think about what unique challenges Japanese face, what moves them, what interests them etc. And for that, we need to have conversations with them about our sermons and sermon ideas. I have a great opportunity to learn from a great evangelical preacher whom I am serving under in a local church. After I finish preparing a sermon, I send it to him to check. We then spend about 2 hours talking about various parts of the sermon and then I get behind the pulpit and preach to him. After this, we sit down and he gives me more advice about my delivery. This has been a great help to me and I would strongly recommend asking people for help when preparing your sermons. If you do not have a Japanese pastor who can help you, make it a point to ask someone to go through the sermon with you BEFORE AND AFTER you preach it. Get critique; we absolutely need it. (Later I include a few lessons I learnt from my Japanese pastor about how I preach)
- Set realistic goals
We need to be realistic and confess that we are preaching with limited language ability, limited cultural understanding, and strange accents. None of this will go away anytime soon. Therefore; please do not attempt to preach complicated texts or deep theological ideas when you are still a beginner. There is a saying in Japanese: シンプルイズベストmeaning: “Simple is best”. When I preach my objective is to preach for 20-25min, from a simple text, explaining what the passage says and giving one focused point of application. There are many, many things I would love to preach but I feel my current language level is not ready for that. That is something we can surrender to the Lord. Thankfully, there are many wonderful and simple passages that we can use to explain the Gospel message. In my experience, I have found the Gospels and Acts to be a good place to start. Plenty in there to keep us busy for a while!
- Learn from you mistakes
Making mistakes is a natural part of language learning but every effort should be made to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. One way that I have found helpful is to ask whoever is helping me correct the Japanese in my sermon to leave the mistakes and add the correction beside it. This way I can see exactly where I have gone wrong so I don’t repeat mistakes. It is also helpful to read previous sermons and review mistakes before starting to prepare a new sermon. That way the mistakes you tend to make are fresh in your mind and thus more difficult to repeat.
LESSONS FROM MY JAPANESE PASTOR
I really enjoy the time I spend speaking about my sermons with our Pastor. These are a few little pointers I have learned which have helped me a lot in preparation.
- Don’t include too many quotes from other parts of the Bible. These often distract from the main message in your text by demanding extra explanations.
- Don’t expect people to take for granted what you take for granted. For example, in one sermon I referred to the Holy Spirit as 聖霊 which simply means “Holy Spirit”. But in a culture of many gods and spirits, this could be understood simply as a good/clean spirit among other spirits. Therefore, we need to say 聖霊なる神様 meaning “God the Holy Spirit”.
- Be precise in the way you reference. When referencing other passages be specific every time you do it. I would often just say something like “Back at the start of this chapter…” or “In verse 10…” (without mentioning the chapter since I assume the listeners will know it’s the same chapter of the chosen text). Japanese people, however, want to know the specifics and should not be left
- Preach simply with lots of concrete examples. When we preach in the West, we tend to give broad ideas and we then leave it up to our listeners to know how to apply it to their lives. Japanese people listen more concretely rather than abstractly and so the preacher needs to give many practical examples and simple explanations. One missionary explained this to me with a helpful picture. The way Japanese listen is seen in the way they like their steak 😊 In the West we like big slabs of steak and we cut it up and eat it the way we like. In Japan, you hardly ever see big slabs of steak. They like their steak already sliced up ready to grill and then immediately eat as bite-sized strips. When we prepare a sermon, we can’t simply cook a delicious steak, we have to cut it up into bite-size portions.
- Don’t apologize. In my first sermon at our church, I wanted to start off by apologizing for my bad Japanese and that I hope people will be patient with me. The pastor told me to erase that since it is God who places me behind the pulpit and therefore there is no need for an apology.
- Don’t speak too casually. After spending some time doing student ministry my Japanese tends to be more on the casual side. This crept into my preaching which the pastor had to correct. Especially when there are older people listening, polite speech should be used in preaching. It is unlikely that anyone will say anything to you if you don’t use polite speech in your preaching, but be sure that it will put certain people off from listening to you.
- Focus on preaching evangelistic sermons. At first, I did not agree with him but after his explanation it made sense. “As a missionary, you will want to invite Japanese friends to come and listen to you preach right? Well then prepare a sermon as if that is the only sermon your Japanese friend will ever hear. What is it you want him to hear that in that sermon? Preach that!”
I’m sure I can think of more to say but those were the freshest batch of memories in my mind. The important thing is that we need to be humble and teachable as cross-cultural preachers.
And finally, …
Here is a very brief summary of how I prepare a sermon in Japanese.
- Choose a passage that is simple to preach evangelistically.
- Read the passage in Japanese at least 5 times and look up any words I don’t know.
- Read some commentaries (In English) and get a good understanding of the passage.
- Write an introduction with 3-4 outline points (In Japanese)
- Slowly start to fill in content under each outline point (Japanese) and make notes about ideas to use for illustrations (English). (This takes about 10-12 hours to complete over the course of 1-2 weeks depending on what else is happening)
- Finish up the document, read about 2-3 times to double-check for any errors.
- Email to the pastor to check.
- Feedback meeting with the pastor
- Apply pastors’ feedback to the sermon and make suggested changes
- Resend to pastor
- Preach sermon in the church to pastor only
- Receive feedback and make final changes
- Practice preaching sermon about 4-5 times
- Go to bed early on Sat before and don’t look at the sermon again before preaching it at church
- Receive final feedback from the pastor the week after
In total it takes about 20 hours to prepare a 25 min sermon in Japanese.
This blogpost has been an encouragement to me as a reminder that it is normal to struggle with preparing and delivering cross-cultural sermons. It takes many hours of hard work, lots of discouragement is part of it too. Also, there are no shortcuts. The only way to get better in preaching is by preaching. If you are a cross-cultural preacher starting out like me, don’t get too discouraged, keep going, keep learning, God is at work in spite of our weaknesses. And if you have read this blog as someone who does not preach cross-culturally, remember to pray for us. Pray that we don’t get too discouraged, and pray that the Holy Spirit will make our feeble efforts useful and glorious.
This pdf copy of my last sermon should give you an idea of what an intermediate-level Japanese learners work looks like.