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Preaching in Global Perspective

What we can learn from preachers around the globe: An interview with Dr. Benjamin K. Homan, President of Langham Partnership USA

Dr. Benjamin K. Homan is President of Langham Partnership USA, an organization founded by John Stott to encourage and resource global evangelical leaders. His impressive network spans continents, and includes Majority World leaders of diverse backgrounds, contexts, and ethnicities. Preaching Today editor Matt Woodley sat down with Homan to hear how perspectives from global preaching can influence Western expositors.

Matt Woodley, PreachingToday.com: Tell our readers about what Langham Partnership does.

Dr. Benjamin K. Homan: Our vision has always been to foster successive waves of new Bible teachers around the world. We have three strategies. First, we provide Ph.D. scholarships in biblical studies to key leaders around the world. When I'm in front of an audience, I jokingly call it the "evangelical mafia" around the world. It's a fairly invisible network of over 300 completed Ph.D.s—many of them presidents of theological schools, like Atef Gendy who is the president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. Or the South American Theological Seminary's founder and president Antonio Barro; or Stephen Lee, the president of China Graduate School of Theology. The list goes on and on. Rooted in John Stott's vision, Langham Partnership's role has been to quietly stay behind the scenes and make sure that these talented, gifted, called, knowledgeable-of-their-context individuals get the training and the credentials they need to lead.

God hasn't just poured out his gifts on the church in North America. He has amply, generously supplied those gifts around the world and we should honor and respect these preachers.

Second, we want to help get these folks in print. Sam Kunhiyop would be an example—an African who has written African Christian Ethics. Sam can stand in front of an audience and say, "I'm the grandson of a witch doctor, and I know where you're coming from." He can provide advice from a biblical perspective as an African on polygamy, civil conflict, ancestor worship, and a host of other things that don't really cross the minds of people here in the United States—and if they did we wouldn't know how to address them. We want to see a body of evangelical Bible-centered writing around the world, written by well-trained, competent, articulate folks that can lead the church.

The final area is more of a grassroots approach towards developing preachers around the globe. You'll find bi-vocational, tri-vocational pastors, some with very little training, that are preaching not just to one church but many churches in some cases. We want to be able to elevate their ability to preach from the Scriptures, to do expository preaching rooted in the Word.

We're working not towards a preaching program but a preaching movement—an expository preaching movement within the nations. So we look for partners that are passionate about this. There is local ownership and local participation in driving this. We do episodic training, including things like how to preach Old Testament narrative or the Gospels or the Epistles, and then how to apply the Scriptures to your context.

To me, the secret sauce of the movement is organizing the pastors into cohorts. They begin practicing this when they are together, but then after the training is over, these cohorts stay together in preaching clubs—in Latin America they're called escuelitas or "little schools"—and these preaching clubs bring the pastors together. They collectively study the Scriptures, outline the passages, and work on the applications together. It's sermon preparation done in community with each other. And that carries with it accountability to one another, accountability to the Scriptures.

Tell us some of the dynamics influencing global preaching today.

The preface to my answer is that most of us don't realize the massive reach that American preaching is having around the world. Some of the effects of that are good but some are absolutely terrible.

Once, I was driving across Nairobi in a taxi. The driver had on the Christian radio station. The music was from the United States, and then an American preacher (who shall remain nameless) came on. We would put him in the "prosperity gospel" category. So I'm sitting in Nairobi's bumper-to-bumper traffic, listening to an American prosperity gospel preacher. We've exported some of the best and some of the worst in preaching. Mistakes that are made here in the United States are multiplied around the world.

The voice coming from the radio was a very confident, excellent presenter. The first 90 seconds of the sermon showed so much promise—there was a passage of Scripture read. Then it took a dramatic non-biblical turn that carried the ideas of the preacher but not God's ideas. It wasn't anchored to the text; it was simply a person's philosophy on life. That's a preface to any conversation on global preaching.

Here's another story. Once, I visited a small village in Bolivia where there were a lot of really good things going on. As I quizzed people about some of the good that was happening, including in the church, I asked how the pastor obtained his messages. This is a very small town, no paved roads, extremely rural, very little electricity—this is a tiny hamlet in the Altiplano of Bolivia. So here's how the pastor writes his sermons. Every week or so a truck comes through town and the pastor will jump up onto the truck, attach himself to the cargo, and ride the truck into the major city which is five hours away. There, he will go to a church, listen to the sermons, take copious notes, and then find another truck to come back to the village and deliver what he heard.

Wow. So that's his preaching training?

That is his preaching training. Whatever that preacher preached, for good or for bad, is going to be what he's going to give back to his people. Hopefully he'll take good notes. But there are many ways it could go wrong. He will probably get the message in Spanish and it needs to be translated or he will do his own translation into Quechua. So you have a translation issue there. And probably an application challenge in that the application that he has heard for city dwellers is going to be different than perhaps the application in the village. I think that there is this reminder and we're told in the Scriptures that teachers are held to a higher standard, and I think one of the reasons why teachers are held to a higher standard is that people will mimic what they see, what they observe.

I was asked to preach in a rural congregation in Kenya and I really did not want to do that. I approach preaching from a standpoint of fear and trembling—this is God's Word and so I need to submit myself to it. So when I was asked to preach, I felt a huge responsibility and also a sense of inadequacy—I wouldn't know the appropriate ways of providing application. The preacher invited several of the people in his preaching club to come hear me because they were going to meet afterwards and talk about my sermon. I felt tremendous responsibility. It was very interesting: They all took great notes and we sat together afterwards in a circle and talked about the sermon and critiqued it. And they said, "You had two introductions, why did you do two introductions?" And there was a reason for that, but they just found it curious and they wanted to understand what the rationale was.

But here's the thing that Americans need to understand about the church around the world—these are gifted, called, intelligent people, and when we look at the book of Ephesians and see that God has given gifts to his church, he hasn't given those gifts just to North Americans. He has amply, generously supplied those gifts around the world and we should honor and respect these preachers.

Let's talk about some of the really good preaching you've heard outside the West. Are there any themes or insights that would help American preachers take off some of our cultural blinders?

Suffering, for one. A couple of other things: Bishop Zac Niringiye, a Langham scholar, spoke at Fuller Seminary last November, and I was struck by something. I had been praying for him because he has been very public in his opposition to the government and to the president, and calling for the president to resign over overextending his terms. You're probably aware the Ugandan president was very popular with the international prayer breakfast movement—somebody who certainly claims to be an evangelical Christian. Bishop Zac is challenging him, and has been arrested and then released, had his passport taken away and then given back. Anyway, when Bishop Zac was speaking at Fuller he said, "Some of you are praying for me. Don't pray for my safety, pray for my obedience. If you pray for safety that's a denial of the cross." That's outside the box for North Americans.

When I was in Colombia, I had some in-depth discussion with preachers. The question I asked was, "What do you think the gift of the church in the nation of Colombia would be to the rest of the world"? I got the same answer about 12 times—"A theology of suffering." They said then we've had over 50 years of narco-terrorism; we bury young person after young person. We've done so many funerals. No family in our nation has been unscathed, and we've had to work this out.

That's very moving.

Another feature with many global preaching contexts is the rural setting, and I'm not certain that American preaching uses agricultural illustrations much anymore.

No. We have a database of about 12,000 illustrations on Preaching Today.com, but not a whole lot of agricultural illustrations. "Vineyards," mostly.

There is the trend of urbanization around the world, I understand that. But go to many places where the church is thriving in Africa and Latin America, and people are still very close to agriculture. They're close to their cows, their herds, their crops. The language of that is something that we are not as fluent in as much here in the United States anymore. And it's still of value.

What global realities do you want Western preachers to remember?

We need to remember that there is still a very large segment of the population around the world that does not read. Preaching becomes the primary delivery mechanism for God's Word. We just need to be reminded that preaching is crucial, essential for that segment of the global population. As well, we cannot assume that people own a copy of Scripture in their own heart language. We have multiple translations. We can go online. But many people simply don't have that access, so again—we need to be reminded of how crucial preaching is.

We need to remember that sports analogies and cultural illustrations likely won't connect with a global audience. You have to understand contexts you find yourself preaching in. This goes back to the importance of agricultural images and illustrations that for some are going to be far more effective. But it all depends—you'd have to wrestle with communicating in an urbanized place like Manila or some of the big cities. In India … you're going to just have some different issues there.

One more unique one in the importance of global preaching—is instructing people to deal with people of other faith traditions. So you have in the United States a much more homogenous Judeo-Christian context—and I realize there's erosion in that respect. But many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are living elbow to elbow with people from other traditions. So providing biblical instruction about how to connect with and interact with people of other faiths is a big issue.

Matt Woodley is editor of Preaching Today.

Dr. Benjamin K. Homan is President of Langham Partnership USA, an organization founded by John Stott to encourage and resource global evangelical preachers and leaders.

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