Recently, I had the opportunity to minister in the Middle East, including time in Israel and Egypt. One of the highlights of my trip was preaching in the First Baptist Church of Cairo—yes, there is a congregation so named.
Egypt is an ancient civilization, with standing ruins dating to thousands of years before Christ. Of course, the land is rich with biblical history too. Currently, the vast majority of Egyptians (90%) are Muslim. According to the Joshua Project, 3.4 % are evangelical. However, there are just under 2,300 people in the Egyptian Baptist Convention, which makes Baptists a microscopic minority.
To be candid, preaching to believers in a context like Egypt is a bit intimidating. In many ways, they have paid a greater price for their faith than I have for mine. They know what it means to leave father and brother to follow the Messiah in ways we do not. We American Christians curse the darkness; they live in it.
Yet, as I preached, I felt the pleasure of God and sensed anew the power of the Word, the universality of the Great Commission, and how all believers—regardless of locale—exude a kindred spirit.
Throughout my time in the pulpit, I was mindful of my context and of the unique circumstance in which I ministered. I worked to honor the Lord by being mindful of these six tips:
1. Preach the Word. The Word is powerful to transform lives, regardless of one’s cultural or ethnic affiliation. Is this not the story of Acts and the broader story of church history? The Word supplies the power, not our eloquence, force of personality, or personal connection. If you get nothing else right, get this right—preach the Word.
2. Familiarize yourself with your audience. This is important in any preaching context but especially overseas. Are you preaching to believers? Are they facing persecution, scarcity of resources, or some other hardship? Are they unbelievers? To what religious system are they most likely adherents? It is impossible to hit your target if you do not know where it is or who they are. Much of this fact-finding can be accomplished by searching the internet or by simply speaking ahead of time to someone familiar with the context of the location where you’ll be preaching
3. Focus on the gospel. The power of the gospel is why you are there and why you preach. Do not travel around the world to preach only to show up with a self-help sermon. The gospel is the message every person needs to hear; it is the message every faithful minister is to preach. Remind the believers of all they have gained through Christ. Lift high the Son of God to unbelieving audiences.
4. Keep it simple. Preaching overseas involves multiple vulnerabilities or opportunities for error. Speaking through a translator presents its own challenges, and then through the translator to the gathered crowd even more. Western quips, cumbersome words, angular concepts, American slang, all can trip up the translator. Even if he can follow you, those listening to him—who are likely less educated than he—probably can not. Do not gunk up the message with complexities. Keep it simple, direct, and punchy.
5. Remember the universality of biblical truth. Preaching overseas reminds you of the limits of illustrations, cultural referents, and anodyne preacher stories. That is all fine anyway because that is not why you are there. The great, grand truths of Scripture are also the great, grand needs and longings of the human heart. Sin, repentance, forgiveness, atonement, eternal judgement, the Lordship of Christ, and other grand truths are the mountain peaks of Scripture. Make sure they flavor your sermon.
6. Be mindful of cultural norms. Is there a particular Bible translation they use? Are there cultural dress expectations? Is the congregation inclined or disinclined to receive an American? Asking your host a few questions beforehand is well worth your while. It may well save you some embarrassment and, more importantly, position your sermon to be better received.
Preaching, in the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, is “the highest, most glorious call one can ever know.” I resonate even more with Lloyd-Jones’ assessment when I preach in an overseas context. As I do, I feel the majesty of the gospel and the weight of the Great Commission. All of this is too important to flub the sermon. Too much is at stake. That is why we should strive to preach our best sermons in overseas contexts. I trust these six tips will further that end.