Matthew D. Kim on Preaching with Cultural Intelligence

Preachers who interpret scripture without paying attention to cultural, ethnic, and other differences in their congregation miss out on opportunities to build bridges to their listeners’ lives.

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In this Strengthening Preaching conversation series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support.

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In this edited conversation, Matthew D. Kim talks about his 2017 book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Our Sermons.

What led you to write this book?

PreachingCulturalIntelligenceThis book developed from years of reading homiletics textbooks that dealt with understanding the biblical text and the biblical world but didn’t give much attention to understanding today’s cultures. There was a huge vacuum of theological resources on biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis.

At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I teach a preaching course called Cultural Exegesis for Preaching, and I co-lead a D.Min. track on Preaching to Culture and Cultures. Some of the material in this book comes from the lectures and discussions in these courses. The book is the first of its kind written from an evangelical perspective, and it speaks into important areas like self-exegesis, scriptural exegesis, and cultural exegesis.

Preaching with Cultural Intelligence is not only about ethnicity and culture. The book explores similarities and differences on a wide range of topics, including denominations, ethnicities, genders, locations, and religions.

What is cultural intelligence?

Cultural intelligence is a business term from the early 2000s. In basic terms, it is intelligence related to understanding people from different cultures and connecting with those who are culturally different from us. I have adapted the term for preaching and ministry purposes in the book.

Some of the major conversation leaders on cultural intelligence are P. Christopher Earley, Soon Ang, and David Livermore. Anyone can learn to be more culturally intelligent if they are interested in people, but it does take time and patience with others and with oneself.

What does​ the acronym BRIDGE stand for, and how ​can​ ​it ​help a pastor develop greater cultural intelligence?

I use the BRIDGE acronym to help pastors and preachers build a bridge into their listeners’ lives. It stands for Beliefs, Rituals, Idols, Dreams, God (views of God), and Experiences. Each of these topics helps us enter the world of congregants who may come from similar and dissimilar backgrounds.

When we understand people’s beliefs, rituals or traditions, idols (often culturally rooted), dreams or hopes, views of God, and life experiences, this knowledge increases our cultural awareness and sensitivity, which can help the sermon connect better with all types of listeners. Since time is limited, I encourage preachers to explore only one or two elements of the BRIDGE each week for listeners who may come from different cultural backgrounds. This information guides both our hermeneutics and homiletics.

​How do preachers address their own cultural ​myopia and ​blind spots?

No preacher should try to escape from his or her cultural background. We all encounter God and interpret God’s Word through our unique cultural lens. This was by God’s design in creating a world of people from different ethnicities and cultures. God created everyone with an ethnicity and culture. There is no completely culture-free hermeneutics or culture-free model of homiletics. We preach out of who we are, and that’s a good thing.

At the same time, however, we want to be intentional in learning about and learning from the cultures of others. In Chapter 4 of the book, I help preachers go through a journey of self-exegesis in order to explore their own cultural backgrounds and blind spots. Without understanding our own cultures and cultural myopia—which we sometimes take for granted—it’s more difficult to objectively learn about other cultures. Read the book for more on that!

​​On page 112, y​ou address the situation of liminality and shame that people from non-majority cultures often experience. Could you say ​more about this?​

Ethnic minorities and people from minority cultures regularly experience a sense of liminality, or in-betweenness. Sometimes we feel like we are neither this nor that. At other times we feel completely American, or identify completely with our ethnic heritage, or most likely fall somewhere in between. While we are culturally American, we’ve also inherited an ethnic culture from our parents and grandparents from a different country’s perspective—at least for second- and perhaps even third-generation Americans.

As a native-born U.S. citizen, I wish so badly that members of the dominant culture would simply refer to me as American and see me as an equal. I wish they didn’t ask me about my nationality or citizenship, question my love for America, or so often ask me where I’m really from based on my outward appearance as an ethnically Korean person.

Ethnic minorities live with a sense of shame because the dominant culture doesn’t see or treat us as being fully American, even though we are. We’re treated differently. We’re often looked down upon, overlooked, and ignored. This experience of liminality and shame happens in society regularly, but we experience this even more acutely at times in the context of the local church. This book addresses how we can love and embrace all kinds of listeners so that they may grow in Christ-likeness.

At the very end of the book you write,

“Preaching with cultural intelligence means altering not simply our conventional methods for sermon preparation, but also, even greater, our habits of life. It involves spending quantity and quality time with people who think differently, eat differently, learn differently, dress differently, praise differently, work differently, spend differently, behave differently, play differently, pray differently, smell differently, and do life altogether differently.” 

Many Christians live in ethnic enclaves and never really encounter people different from themselves. Is that a problem? Is broadening our exposure to the diversity of the human family and family of God a part of Christian obedience, or is it a luxury for those who have such curiosity? 

Jesus sought the stranger and the Other throughout the gospels. For instance, Jesus went to the border of Samaria and Galilee and visited with the 10 lepers in Luke 17. It also says that he intentionally went through Samaria and sought the woman at the well in John 4. And there are many other examples of Jesus’s encounters with all types of people.

Yes, it is true that some live in ethnic enclaves—and that includes both white Americans and ethnic minority Americans. But, Jesus says in his Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

It is absolutely a huge part of being a Christian, and it is not optional. The human tendency is to stay close to people like ourselves. The call on humanity, however—especially for the Christian—is to go out and love people who are different from us. This book will stretch us beyond our level of comfort. Yet, when we grow in cultural intelligence, it becomes a more natural part of our everyday experience. We may even begin to like and love those who are different from us. We do this so that all men, women, and children may know Christ, experience the power of his resurrection, and grow as disciples (who just happen to belong to a particular cultural group).

Preaching magazine recently named Preaching with Cultural Intelligence the 2018 Preaching Book of the Year. Congratulations on this honor!

Praise God! I am deeply grateful, humbled, and honored by this acknowledgment and hope that this book helps pastors, preachers, seminarians, and all Christians grow in their love for God, God’s Word, and all of God’s people. I give all of the glory, honor, and praise to him.

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