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the tag team: preaching with an interpreter – george wieland

language translator1

Scotland, land of my birth, is out of the top ten! The 2013 census reveals that more NZ residents were born in South Korea than in Scotland, whose former number 9 place is now held by the Philippines. These all sit below Samoa, Fiji, South Africa, Australia, India, China and England.

This diversity brings a proliferation of languages, reflected in NZ’s Christian population. Alongside English speaking churches there are hundreds of congregations operating in other languages. We face the challenge of realizing unity in Christ across barriers of cultural and linguistic difference, with all of its exciting potential for growth in the knowledge of the God, life as the family of God, and partnership in the mission of God.

To participate in this as preachers, we need the skills of preaching with an interpreter, whether to meet the needs of groups within our home churches, to speak to congregations that use different languages, or to participate in ministry overseas through relationships with immigrant groups here. Some reflections on what that involves.

When a sermon is interpreted God is speaking through two people. Translation can’t be exact, it always involves interpretation for different thought forms and another context. Embrace it! The interpreter is a partner in the task of bringing the message from God – tag team preaching!

When you share in such contexts a relationship is being built. The invitation to you to preach almost certainly represents a desire for a deeper relationship, not only with you but with the church or denomination that you are perceived to represent. Grasp the relational opportunity.

The privilege of opening up Scripture with people whose life context is different to your own opens you up to fresh insight. For example, my appreciation of reconciliation in Christ was deepened when I preached to an Auckland congregation of refugees comprising combatants from opposite sides in their civil war.

 Non-verbal communication is hugely important. Even if people cannot understand what you say they can pick up a lot – for good or ill! – from your facial expression, gestures, what you wear, how you hold the Bible, etc. Be intentional about it.

Help the interpreter. Interpreters vary, of course, but the following often help:

  • Provide something in advance: a summary of your message; Bible references; the sermon outline (headings or summary statements); any key phrases; details of illustrations.
  • Talk with the interpreter before the service/occasion. Check that he or she understands you (don’t ask, “Do you understand?” – start talking and gauge the response); check that your key phrases work; explain anything that’s unclear, and adjust if necessary; pray with them.
  • Articulate very clearly. Speak more slowly and pronounce words more deliberately than normal. It feels awkward but it does help! Appreciate that Kiwis can be difficult to understand for people who learned English elsewhere.
  • Use short sentences that contain complete thoughts. Translation is idea-for-idea, not word-for-word, so give the interpreter a complete idea to express in the best form for the receptor language.
  • Avoid irony. It doesn’t translate. Ask yourself, “What would this mean if they took it at face value?” “Yeah, right!” would become, “Yes, that is correct.”
  • Beware of Kiwi colloquialisms such as “interesting” (when you mean “challenging”) or “average” (for “disappointing”).
  • Alliteration won’t translate!
  • Say half as much as usual. A 30 minute sermon = 15 in English and 15 for the interpreter.
  • Back to the tag team – for listeners the sermon flows best when there is no gap between one partner finishing a sentence and the other starting. A fluent interpreter will begin while you’re still sounding the last word or two, and you can do the same.


what you pray for is what you will preach for – george wieland


Preaching drives me to prayer. Much of it, I have to admit, is for myself: I need discernment, understanding, and a sense of what is the message that I should be bringing; perhaps my mind is churning and I need help in forming thoughts and capturing key points; because preaching has to be done alongside my “day job” I often come to it tired and needing energy and persistence in preparation; I may be anxious and feel the need of God’s peace and courage.

All this is certainly worth praying about, but I find it vitally important to call myself back from preoccupation with my own needs as the preacher to pray for those to whom I am to speak. What I’ve discovered is that what I pray for is then what I preach for. The focus of prayer sets goals that I hope my preaching will contribute to.

The Apostle Paul’s pattern in his letters was usually to offer a prayer for those he was addressing before going on to teach, appeal and challenge them. A good process for preachers! I find his letter to the Colossians particularly helpful in shaping my prayer and, accordingly, my preaching:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light.

Colossians 1:9-12

Praying this for a group of people that I am to have the responsibility of preaching to recalls me to the primary goal: that the Lord will be honoured and pleased; and the means to that goal: the lives lived by those to whom I will be speaking. Those lives will be pleasing to the Lord when they are characterized by the doing of good things and a growing into a fuller knowledge of God. So that’s what I want to preach for: I think of the sermon that is forming and ask how it will encourage God-pleasing action and be a means of all of us knowing God more.

This prayer specifies what the hearers will need for those outcomes to be realized: spiritual wisdom, to truly understand what God wants, and divine power, to be able to keep going in the life of faith with God-honouring qualities of patience and joyful thanksgiving. Praying it for my hearers focusses not only their need but also mine as I offer myself and my words to God to be instruments of His wisdom and power in their lives, for His delight.

Reading on in Colossians chapter 1 it’s difficult to tell where Paul’s praying to God for those he is addressing ends and his speaking to them about God begins. That’s the kind of confusion I aspire to!

george wieland – what do they hear when you don’t say anything?

As I understand and try to practice it, preaching the Bible involves trying to hear from God through scripture for others, and to communicate to those others what I believe I am hearing. It is part of my responsibility to try to know and understand as far as is possible the people to whom I am going to preach, so that my listening for them is informed by my listening to them and my communication of what I have heard does not miss the mark by failing to connect with their lives and situations.

But what do they hear when they listen to scripture for themselves? I had the opportunity recently to ask that question and listen in on some answers. A few students agreed to help me with a simple experiment. Each had to find a group of people willing to read part of the Bible together and talk about what they had heard. The facilitators were not to teach, simply set up the group, arrange for the Bible passage to be read aloud, invite the participants to share what they had noticed in the passage and let the conversation take its course. The sessions were recorded and transcribed, and forwarded to me with some description of the sort of people who had comprised the group.

All the groups read the same text, the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. But they did not all hear the same things! There was a group of young male university students, heading (they hoped!) into reasonably well paid careers. What really got them going was the topic of money. How much of his wealth did Zachaeus give away? Did he have to? Do we have to? We keep hearing about “Good News to the Poor” but what if we’re not poor – is the gospel for us as well?

There were two groups of older women, in different parts of the country. Interestingly, both highlighted the theme of acceptance: Jesus accepted someone that others hadn’t, and the crowd didn’t make room for. The comment was made that you only really accept someone when you go to their home, and see them as they are (hints there of changes in pastoral practice and a denigrating of “drinking cups of tea with old ladies”? But that’s another topic!)

And there was a striking result from a group of young people from refugee families. As each in turn mentioned what they had noticed in the story the list of observations grew, but there was one point that almost everyone in that group cited as important: Jesus knew his name. And, a close second, Jesus actually went into his house.

I had been curious to know what the various groups in their different life stages and social and cultural contexts would make of the Bible. What I saw was what the Bible was making of them! Stirring discomfort in the materially privileged and causing them to wrestle with questions about how their anticipated salaries and careers related to discipleship and salvation; offering to people who feel unvalued and sidelined in a world and even a church that seems to be passing them by the reassurance of Jesus’ acceptance; and in young migrants struggling for identity and belonging in a country that treats them as aliens where no-one knows (and few would bother to pronounce!) their names, igniting surprise and delight in a Jesus who knew the name of the strange man who didn’t fit in with the crowd, and who by stepping through Zacchaeus’s door broke down the divide that separated the little world of that home from the large world of the community around it to which until then he had not been able to belong.

This exercise has impacted my preaching. It has heightened my awareness of the breadth and depth of human experience and the range of realities and needs among those for whom I am attempting to open up the Bibles message. It has made me more attentive to what might seem to me to be ancillary details rather than what I take to be central points of a passage, recognizing that for some those details might be living words that connect powerfully with their situation. And it has reinforced in me the conviction that the Bible is to be read aloud – even if I’m told it would take time out of the “preaching slot”! – because the transforming message for at least some might be in what they hear before the preacher says anything.

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George Wieland is the newly appointed Director of Mission Research and Training at Carey Baptist College. A former missionary and pastor, he preaches regularly in a range of contexts.

george wieland – “who’s getting their ass to church on Sunday?”

What follows is a Facebook conversation between a group of young adults in NZ, Friday 11 March 2011, while watching TV coverage of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami

(names changed, but their comments remain).

Amy All these natural disasters lately are scaring me and making me feel uneasy!

Ben the world’s coming to an end! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES …….. or come to the end of the world party at my house mite as well end it partying ……

Cathy it’s so frickin scary. Watching the tsunami

Amy I’m watching it too. It’s intense. I almost feel unsafe, like anything could happen here anytime…Flip, Better get my ass to church on Sunday! Lol.

Amy What if 2012 really is it? :S

Ben Hahaha who cares what happns not much we can do b out it, Im thinking volcanoes shd be next, had floods, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, yep def getting volcanoes next

Deb Haha that’s what we were discussing here at home. Church on Sunday it is … I no like anytime anyday anything can happen with no warning. I’m creaking. I’m with you on this one… 2012 must be true. So we shud def go to church on sunday.

Amy Yeah I was thinking the same about volcanoes! Especially in Auckland, we are flippin surrounded by them! I like your attitude Ben cos I’m kinda freaking. I want to grow old and travel and get married and have kids and all that stuff…

Ben here comes the tsunami. Wish I had a surf board rite now.

Ben I’m going to the beach, whos keen?????

Emma Amy, this stuff has been happening since the dawn of time. It is scary and I think even more so given what CHCH has just experienced. But yeah, personally don’t think the world is gona end just yet. Hopefully not anyway!

Deb Omg asolutely Amy. Travel get married if we miss out on that I’d be pretty angry. Omg volcanoes Aargh… Now a tsunami warning. For auckland.

Ben I’m pretty sure if we all die u wont care that u didn’t travel or get married lol haha

Ben but seriously like Emma said its been hapning for years don’t think we have anything to worry about

Deb this attitude you have is good in a way and bad. I love it… But seriously I’m scared.

Fraser 2012!

So if Amy, Deb and the others agree that they “shud def go to church on sunday”, what if they turn up in your church? What do you hope they will experience?

I use the term “experience” deliberately. As a preacher I do hope that what I say will bring knowledge and understanding, but I don’t think that it is primarily a desire for information nor even a nagging theological question that is impelling Amy and Deb to a church service on the Sunday after the Japanese earthquake. They are scared. And, like many other frightened people through the centuries, they are reaching out to God.

I hope, then, that in whatever church they arrive at on Sunday they experience the reality and the welcome of God. I hope that they experience what it is to be enveloped within a community that draws its strength from God. I hope that they experience the relief of hearing their real fears named and the seriousness of what has so disturbed them acknowledged. I hope they experience a dawning or rekindling of confidence that God may be trusted. I hope they experience a recognition of and repentance from anything that has distanced them from the God they now know they need. And I hope that they experience a new or restored relationship with God in Christ, and peace beyond rational knowing.

Of course all this depends on much more than the preacher, it is the task of the whole church, but we as preachers can make a major contribution when we recognize that we are addressing not only enquiring minds but also frightened hearts. It is love that will cast out fear, not a refutation of Mayan Calendrics (if the 2012 reference is a mystery, Google it – members of your congregation already have).

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George Wieland teaches New Testament at Carey Baptist College. A former missionary and pastor, he preaches regularly in a range of contexts.

george wieland: how does a preacher pray

There are times in the course of preparing a sermon or shortly before preaching when I find it hard gather my thoughts to pray. Ideas are buzzing, anxieties are clamoring for attention and my head’s like a Kolkata roundabout.

At such times I’m grateful that Jesus’ first set of inadequate servants asked him to teach them to pray. The pattern Jesus gave them becomes for me a set of tram lines along which my shambolic mind and heart can run, albeit in fits and starts, and move towards trust and obedience.

I might pray like this: (more…)

george wieland: listening and speaking

I like to be well prepared before I preach, to have arrived at a clear grasp of the message I hope to communicate, to have dealt in my own mind with Biblical, theological and practical issues, to have crystallised key ideas in effective phrases or headings. This diminishes the anxiety that I feel as I approach the communication event that we call the sermon. And that’s the problem. To what extent is my preparation an attempt at self-protection that, like Saul’s armour that he pressed on young David, might seem to reduce my vulnerability but could in fact disable me from fulfilling my role as utterly dependent agent in the communication event in which God is the actor? (more…)