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Don't Forget About 'Others'

Three ways to remember 'others' in our sermons.
Don't Forget About 'Others'

I grew up in the Sesame Street generation watching the well-known children's program in the seventies and eighties. On that show, a recurring segment was "One of these things is not like the other," even with its own catchy song to boot. You probably remember the tune. They would show four items such as hats, socks, toys, animals, etc. Three of the items on the screen would be identical. The fourth would be conspicuously different from the others. The point of the exercise was for young children to be able to group together like items and identify the one that was different. Throughout life, this exercise of pointing out dissimilarities in many ways never leaves us. It's a life skill where we immediately spot the "odd one out." We tend to separate things or even people who don't look or sound like the majority or dominant group. Our minds reflexively spot them and something in our brain triggers that someone different is in our midst.

As a corollary, in so many areas of life, like attracts like. We tend to like those who are like us (i.e., like the three out of four hats in the Sesame Street example above). And those who like us are usually similar to us whether economically, theologically, ethnically, denominationally, educationally, and in many other categories. Consequently, difference is often frowned upon. We don't really know what to do or how to respond to human differences. We tend to freeze up and stare awkwardly at the other person. Conversations come to an abrupt halt after saying the obligatory "hello." This is true in life as well as in the church. We, even pastors and preachers, like those who are like us and we don't know what to do with the "other."

The simple truth is that at some fundamental level all people can be xenophobic, ethnocentric, or even racist in our hearts.

Stating the obvious, our world, our country, our state, our city, our town, our neighborhood, and our churches are not by any means homogeneous or monolithic. In 2016, our "circle" is scattered with people who are not like us but who are rather different from us. While diversification is clearly evident, it does not automatically denote that we appreciate or even like the sprawling diversity around us. David Livermore, an expert on cultural differences shares this story, "The other day I was working out at the gym and I overheard a guy say to his buddy, "So tomorrow I have to go to diversity training … " "That's right up there with getting a root canal!" to which his friend responded, "I don't mind diverse people as long as they agree with me!"[1] Even as pastors, some of us ignore those who are different. Some of us are frightened by others who are different. Some of us, like this guy at the gym, don't mind differences when they assimilate to us. Some of us love those who are different but we're timid about interacting with unfamiliar people and cultures. We can be scared, ambivalent, frightened, apathetic, and at worst perturbed by others' differences. You are not alone. In this article, one thing I would like to say to preachers is this: "Don't forget about 'others.'"

Before we dive right in, a caveat must be acknowledged in that I don't necessarily like sociological or philosophical terms like "the other," "others," or "otherness." Essentially, these terms refer to identity formation with respect to those who belong in the "in-group" and those in the "out-group."[2] For our purposes, "others" represent any person or group who does/do not fit the mold of the majority culture in your church. This classification goes beyond ethnic and cultural distinctions to include: socio-economics, class, education, denominations, theological presuppositions, musical preference, and more. Here are three simple ways that we can remember "others" in our proclamation.

'Others' want to be loved

Have you ever visited a new church? Yes, of course, we all have at some point in our lives. For many of us, our first inclination is to visit congregations where at least on the surface we look like the majority culture. However, have you ever visited a church where you were noticeably different from the dominant group? Being an "other" is not an easy situation. "Others" cannot blend in or fit into their environment like chameleons. The first thing to keep in mind is that "others" want to be loved. This is more than simply a homiletical concern. It's a pastoral concern as well as a matter of discipleship. It takes great courage to walk into a church building on Sunday morning as "the other."

My encouragement for all preachers today is to truly love "the other" just as Christ modeled loving "others" in his earthly ministry. Love them by greeting them warmly. Love them by asking them questions especially when we are ignorant about their cultural context. Love them by praying for them and their families. Love them by creating a church culture of warmth and hospitality. Love them by inviting them into your home. Love them by eating their cuisine. Love them by valuing their interests, hobbies, and passions. Love them by familiarizing ourselves with what bothers them. Love them by getting to know their cultural expressions of worship, leadership, and service. "Others" want to be loved.

'Others' want to be included

Second, "others" want to be included. One of the growing challenges of preaching is the budding diversity of our congregations. Even twenty to thirty years ago, such widespread diversity did not typically factor into the pastoral or homiletical equation. It was permissible and normative to preach a generalized biblical sermon that would seemingly address "everyone's" concerns. This is not the case today. The demographics of our congregations are changing quickly. How are we responding to these differences?

There are three crucial ways to include "others" in our preaching.[3] First, consider how they interpret Scripture. Hermeneutics cannot be done monoculturally. Yes, we have our own set of hermeneutical blinders on, but a second necessary step is to ask ourselves how "the others" may interpret this sermon text. What questions are they raising about this Scripture passage? Where are there hermeneutical conflicts with their cultural backgrounds? What comparisons can be made with your listeners' cultures and the ancient biblical world? Helpful books are readily available to stir our hermeneutical pots such as Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP, 2012), Crossing Cultures in Scripture (IVP, 2016), and The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan, 2016). Second, find ways to illustrate in ways that connect with "others." Hobby-horse illustrations are default illustrations we commonly use such as sports illustrations particularly from our city or region. Living near Boston, I can't tell you how many sermon illustrations I have heard about the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics. The problem is that not all illustrations are alike. Many of the illustrations we incorporate weekly from the dominant culture may not be connecting with "others." What if we tried to learn about what interests them? Going further, what if the protagonist in our stories came from their cultures and not our own (think Jesus and The Good Samaritan). Third, remind yourself that applications look differently across cultures. For instance, not every application is individualized. Sometimes and perhaps often our applications should be communal or collectivistic. Many "others" place more emphasis on the family and community and not just on their own individual existence and how this text impacts me. "Others" want to be included as well.

'Others' want to be treated with respect and equality.

Finally, treat "others" with respect and equality. This is a tough one because we would never want to think of ourselves as somehow being prejudiced against "others." The simple truth is that at some fundamental level all people can be xenophobic, ethnocentric, or even racist in our hearts. Ask yourself this question: Do I think that my culture, my ethnicity/race, or I as an individual am superior to "others"? When we think in these terms, we often fail to treat others with the respect and equality that they deserve.

Over the years, I have witnessed pastoral interactions between pastors and parishioners from other cultures. Now, here is the rub. An initial conversation sparks between the two parties. Like in most conversations, in one of the first sentences, the pastor will ask the new visitor his or her name. If the visitor's name is not an "American" or "Western" name and it's difficult for the pastor to pronounce, I've seen pastors who either do not try to pronounce it or butcher the name and do not give it a second or third attempt to get it right. What are we communicating? In stark terms, they don't matter to us. We don't even want to bother to learn their names.

The carryover of such exchanges bleeds into our proclamation and ministry praxis. Treat "others" with respect and equality. Learn their names. Greet them in culturally respectable ways. If we don't know, just ask. Particularly when visiting pastors come to preach for our congregation, show them honor by calling them by their appropriate titles such as Reverend or Doctor even if our congregational culture is more laid back. Find ways to treat "others" with dignity and equality by giving them a voice whether it's in church leadership positions, church financial decisions, serving on committees, presiding in worship services, teaching and leading small groups or Sunday school, and even "being the face" of the congregation. For staff and pastoral positions, compensate them with equity.

Ministry and preaching to "others" can be awkward. I've been there. I'm still learning every day. Yet, all preachers can be agents of change in our congregations. We can model what it looks like to love "others" well. Remember, they are human beings too made in God's image. They may look and do things differently but they are flesh and blood just like us. No doubt, we will make our fair share of cultural blunders as we engage with "others." But, don't let that stop you from loving them, including them, respecting them and showing them equality. In fact, remember that your church is better with them than without them. So don't forget about "others."

Notes

1. David Livermore, "Diversity Fatigue," in http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1104770033256&ca=de1f930f-7aa1-4b57-a9f5-61dbcc5c928c (Accessed on September 20, 2016).

2. See, for example, Henri Tajfel, "Social identity and intergroup behaviour," Social Science Information 13 (April 1974): 65-93.

3. For additional reading on the subject of this entire article, see my forthcoming book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Our Sermons (Baker Academic, September 2017).

Matthew D. Kim is Associate Professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the author of Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Your Sermons (Baker Academic, 2017).

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