Christ-centered storytelling

by Sammy Joo, BSCNC Staff
Monday, November 27, 2017 | 19 days old

God has brought the nations to our midst. This is a golden opportunity to reach the lost and the nations for Christ.

In 2011, I started a church for international students at N.C. State University, but about three years ago God radically changed the demographic in my church from international students to refugees.

International students and refugees are similar in that they are internationals who came to the U.S. and live as foreigners. In many ways, however, they are different. International students come from their countries to study in the U.S., and many will go back to their home countries afterward. Refugees, however, escape from their countries and come to the U.S. to settle down.

Language is perhaps the most prominent difference between international students and refugees. Most international students must take an English proficiency test before they come to schools in the U.S., whereas refugees don’t. Refugees can come to the U.S. without basic English skills.

In my church, we have two major language groups: Pakistani and Congolese. Pakistanis are mostly fluent in English, but many Congolese experience difficulties speaking and understanding English.

This language issue became a new challenge for my church ministry. Every Saturday, my church meets for worship and fellowship. We conduct our worship service in English. When international students were the predominant audience in my church, most of them had few issues understanding the sermon, regardless of their different levels of English comprehension.

International students are engaging with English-speaking professors and students on a daily basis, so understanding a sermon in English was not challenging to most of them. For refugees, however, it is certainly a challenge to understand my sermon each week in English. I still remember the first few weeks of them listening to my sermon in English with puzzled looks on their faces.

Soon, I decided to change my preaching style. Before the change, my preaching was verse-by-verse expository preaching. I did not use any visual images or PowerPoint slides. I simply spoke from the pulpit. I used a sermon manuscript without any translation into other languages. One day my wife,Debbie, came to me and said, “Sammy, I don’t think your sermon makes any sense to these refugees. You have got to change something!”

Around this time, I graduated from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and y doctor of ministry project was about “Christ-centered storytelling.” This approach involves maintaining Christ-centered hermeneutics in sermon preparation, while incorporating a narrative style in sermon delivery, which is widely used on the mission field. I realized that God had prepared me to use some of the principles I learned at seminary for my current church ministry. Below are some principles I use to communicate the gospel in a multicultural worship gathering.  

1. Visual
Pictures not only draw attention to a subject, but they also help communicate the message. I started using PowerPoint slides with my sermons that included pictures related to the message. For example, when I was preaching on Job’s suffering, I showed a picture of Job sitting hopelessly with three friends around talking to him. I also included pictures of people who are suffering due to things like  natural disasters or terrorism. Using pictures allows the audience to  see that the message is about suffering even if they do not understand my speech about the suffering.

2. Translation
I have used the Google Translate feature, and while it is not completely accurate, it is better than nothing. I use Google Translate for a word or short sentences, such as the title or main points from the sermon. I also put up a short description of the pictures in English and Swahili. With pictures and the description, the audience can understand the concept of the story. Whenever I read Bible verses, I put up the verses in Urdu and Swahili on the PowerPoint slides. I also let native speakers read those passages in their respective language so the illiterate can listen to the verses in their language.

3. Speech control
I slow down my speech because there is no point to speak fast to international listeners when their language levels are all different. I also use easy and simple words. I do not use difficult theological terms such as “propitiation” or “sanctification.” I use a picture of the Lamb who was slain and the cross of Christ Jesus to show His death to wash away our sins. I try to use descriptive words so that even my motions and word choices are mostly visual. For example, instead of saying, “Joseph became a high official in the country of Egypt,” I would say, “Joseph became a very important person (using my thumb pointing up) almost important as the king (drawing crown in my head) in a foreign country.”  

4. Christ-centered
All 66 books of the Bible point to Jesus, so every story in the Bible points to Jesus. When I share stories from the Bible, whether they are from the Old Testament or the New Testament, I try to help the audience to see that the purpose of the story is to show who Jesus is and what He has done. Even with the visual aids and speech control, without Christ, the storytelling can mislead the audience. I was sharing a story about the temple in the Old Testament. I used a picture of Solomon’s temple and briefly shared about it. Then I transitioned to the story of Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple and pointing to Himself as the true temple through His resurrection in three days. Through this story, the audience could see that the true meaning of the temple can be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

With the change of my sermon style, I began to see some of the looks on the faces changing from puzzled to nodding and from disengagement to engagement. Someone who is more fluent in English can explain the story to the others who are less fluent. Despite the language differences and difficulties, they keep coming each week and participating in worship. Preaching in the mission field should be flexible in styles depending on the audience. It is good to be flexible as long as the content focuses on the Christ-centered message.

Editor’s note: Sammy Joo serves as senior consultant for Asian Ministries with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.