The increasingly multicultural context in the United States and Canada poses a range of issues for preachers, especially as the church seeks to be urban, missional, and incarnational. Gabriel Salguero, who serves as senior pastor of Lambs Church of the Nazarene in New York City and also director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary, is familiar with the issues affecting preaching in a multicultural setting. Grace and Peace Magazine asked Gabriel to respond to a few questions on preaching and culture. Fluent in English and Spanish, we’re glad he was kind enough to render responses in English for the benefit of our editor.
G&P: What are the challenges of preaching to a multicultural congregation?
Salguero: Preaching God’s Word in any context is always a promise and a challenge. Nevertheless, Scripture gives us hope, “God has decided to use the foolishness of preaching to save.” I applaud pastors and preachers who week after week open themselves to congregations to share God’s Word. This is both a risk of faith and a deeply humbling privilege.
I believe every encounter on some level is deeply multicultural; everyone has some different narrative or history that informs how they hear what you’re saying. You’ve probably heard it said, “The sermon you preach is not always the one people hear.” Preaching challenges are heightened when you have multiple ethnicities, cultures, and generations in your congregation. Each culture has its own particularity both in worship and in proclamation. If we are not aware of the differences, things, as a popular movie title suggests, can be “Lost in Translation.” In reality, the charge today is not just about preaching to multicultural congregations, but preaching to the multiple identities that congregants inhabit, which include: generation, class, ethnicity, and culture (just to name a few). Quite frankly, some of these other identities, particularly class, have shaped people’s worldviews and the way they hear Scripture as much as ethnicity.
In short, preaching in the multicultural congregation requires cultural sensitivity and intelligence so that God’s Word is delivered incarnationally. Incarnational preaching requires that we preach in such a way that the congregation knows we understand where they’re coming from. All good preaching is incarnational, giving attention to culture, race, class, and generational differences and similarities. That’s part of the reason Scripture was translated into so many languages: to speak the vernacular of the people we want to reach.
The example I use for multi-identity preaching is Jesus. Jesus was a master communicator. Just consider his approaches in two adjacent chapters in John. In John 3 he’s speaking at night to Nicodemus: a man, a Pharisee, and a person of influence. In John 4, he’s speaking in the middle of the day to an unnamed Samaritan woman: a woman, multiple marriages, a Samaritan. His approach to each of them was different, because he took their contexts both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the same time, no easy task.
GP: How does cultural awareness influence or affect how you use sources, deliver your message, and use illustrations or analogies to convey meaning?
Preaching, like any good communication and probably more so, must take seriously people’s multiple contexts.
Salguero: Preaching, like any good communication and probably more so, must take seriously people’s multiple contexts. The regrettable truth is many preachers want to preach as if culture, class, and context don’t exist or impact the hearer, that’s just not true, nor is it incarnational or missional.
The preacher in this context must not only navigate the diversity of Scripture itself, but he/she must be a pedestrian sociologist or cultural anthropologist. My task is to draw deeply from the wells that shape and inform the diverse members of my congregation. If not, I can have a preaching that may result in people feeling as if their life experience was not being taken seriously. Jesus always took people’s lives seriously.
Imagine if I’m preaching to a multigenerational crowd and all of my cultural references are about 1980s music and television shows (admittedly I’ve done this), there’s an entire group that just has no point of reference for what I’m talking about. For me, this is not a question of relevance (relevance has its place) but to paraphrase Len Sweet, it’s missional, relational, and incarnational. I critically engage a wide variety of cultural messages, from popular singers and actors, to popular books, and TV shows. My engagement is not to affirm these sources but to be conversant with them from a Scriptural perspective.
Let me explain. Consider the sources many preachers use in their sermons. How many times do they quote C.S. Lewis, R.A. Torrey, Charles Spurgeon, or Oswald Chambers? All good sources, but there is a lack of diversity on so many levels. What about quoting women, and Asians, Hispanics, or African-Americans? Our preaching would be enriched by the wealth of global Christian thinkers: Sojourner Truth, Orlando Costas, Martin Luther King, Jr. I often ask pastors to look over one year’s worth of sermons and underline the people they quote. They are often fascinated to see the lack of representation of global Christianity in their sermon preparation.
GP: Sermons can tend to focus on a real or imagined majority in congregations. As a pastor, how do you ensure that you are connecting to as many people as possible and not leaving anyone or any particular culture out?
Salguero: It’s true, many sermons can tend to focus on a real or imagined majority in congregations. The call of preaching is to preach the whole gospel to the whole world. Often, we focus on the majority group, because it is most comfortable. As a pastor of a diverse community, in order to ensure that I’m connecting to as many people as possible, I must draw from multiple sources. The idea is not just to exegete the text but also the communities gathered together. In short, if the global community is coming to your local congregation, you must mine the global resources to speak from an informed perspective to what’s going on in the world. In the age of Google, this is not a monumental task. Moreover, the best resources are the people in the congregation: feel free to speak and learn from them, let the life of the community also feed your preaching.
For me, the task of preaching is not to just speak from where I’m comfortable but to be with people. Ezekiel understood this type of ministry when he went down to the river Chebar to be with those who suffered. Preaching to the global church requires moving beyond one’s cultural privilege and engaging a multiplicity of cultures. Preaching is not about homogenizing the congregation and making them all culturally uniform; it’s about sharing the gospel with every tribe, nation, and race.
GP: How important is it to communicate an atmosphere of “welcome” to people of color?
Salguero: Hospitality is a Christian virtue. People must feel more than tolerated; they must feel welcomed and loved. Hospitality includes sermon preparation, music and song selection; it includes showing diversity in our programs, PowerPoint slides, and leadership. Hospitality must be relational and incarnational, it must meet people where they are and invite them into the kingdom of God for the seriously. Multi-identity preaching is preaching to sake of the Gospel. Regrettably, many people of color have felt they were tolerated but not really welcomed or included. God made beauty in every culture, and those elements should be celebrated in the global church and its proclamation.
Christian preaching ought to always be Christ-centered.
Multicultural preaching can draw a lot from the tradition of Black preaching. Black preaching is deeply dialectical. It is filled with hope but does not ignore the tragedies and broken places in the world. This type of preaching celebrates God’s enduring love while denouncing human injustices and weeping over suffering. Since a majority of people in the world also experience suffering but hold on to hope, multicultural preaching often draws from both the pathos and celebration of Black preaching. In essence, this is what it means to have preaching that speaks the language of all people, to understand suffering while proclaiming hope. It is when we are preaching God’s Word to the realities of all people that we are at our most welcoming.
GP: As congregations seek to become more missional, how should this shift influence our preaching? What might that look like?
Salguero: My cousin’s wife, Jennifer, shared a funny story with me about a recent conversation with her son that points to this very question about shift. Jennifer was frustrated with her son Addison, because he kept complaining over and over about the same thing. Finally she said to him, “Stop, already, you sound like a broken record.” Addison said, “Mommy, what’s a record?” A lot of our preaching uses the language of record with a CD or iPod generation. It’s not that this generation is not interested in what we have to say, it’s that they have different cultural and linguistic currency. When we don’t enter into people’s worlds, they can’t and most often won’t listen to us. The Holy Spirit gives us the grace to move beyond our comfort for the benefit of the other. Missional preaching for a global world reflects the understanding that some have vinyl “records” as a point of reference, while others have never heard of them.
Now as to what that might look like, it is varied in different contexts. It would probably look different in South Africa than in Puerto Rico, or in New York City than in a Native American reservation. What I’m concerned about is the idolizing of any form or method. Then, we would have cookie-cutter preaching that does not reflect the life of God in the communities we serve. I’m concerned that we just seek to replicate Bill Hybels, Rob Bell, Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Beth Moore or any other model, just because these work for some. Of particular concern for me is the exporting of certain preaching models from the United States as the normative models for global Christians. Preaching can have healthy models, but when all we have is a one-size fits all, the church is the poorer for it, and entire communities can be ostracized or left out. Preaching must reflect the life of God—and it is like a river that flows. I would caution against following fads for the sake of “hipness” or “relevance.”
GP: How does John Wesley’s statement, “I look on all the world as my parish” affect how you look at the task of preaching?
Salguero: If indeed Christians have a global ecclesiology, we should also have a global homiletics. Preaching for the global context starts with the conviction that the Church has no national or ethnic home. We are the Church of Jesus Christ all over the world. As such, our preaching should celebrate that great diversity and gift.
I do have some thoughts about some indispensable ingredients. Christian preaching always ought to be Christ-centered: the incarnate Christ who meets us where we are and challenges us to be like him. Moreover, it must engage the vernacular of those it seeks to reach. That can be Spanish, Mandarin, English, Twitter, American Sign Language, call and response, visual media, or sitting in silence. Missional preaching must be rooted in a Christ-centered proclamation that is deeply relational and culturally sensitive.
I think the apostle Paul really spoke to global preaching in Romans 1. His thesis of not being ashamed of the Gospel, because it was God’s power of salvation to the Jew, Greek, wise and unwise, learned and unlearned. It was proclamation that had cultural and class sensitivity. To look at the preaching task as an extension of God’s love for humanity is to remove it from parochial hegemony and homogenization. It is only when we see God working in every culture and generation that we can preach the whole gospel to the whole world.
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