Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe
Guidelines for Guest Preaching, Teaching, and Cross-Cultural Communication
Editor's Note: While recommendations relate particularly to the Russian cultural context, most apply as well in other countries of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe.
These guidelines are meant to serve the purpose of showing God's love with humility and without giving offense. Genuine love, kindness, attention, respect, and a willingness to learn in a new culture will contribute significantly to effective preaching and teaching--and these qualities of character and witness do not require translation.
Working with Translators
Content of Lectures and Sermons
Whenever possible, give your translator the text ahead of time. At the very least, provide a list of Scriptures to be quoted. Russian and English Bible chapters and verses do not always correspond.
It is not necessary to read Scripture in English. Save time by giving the relevant Bible references, allowing the translator to read the text in Russian only.
Do not quote Scripture from memory without informing translators beforehand. They will want to use Scripture exactly as written, rather than resort to their own Russian paraphrase.
Keep in mind that poems and hymns are especially difficult to translate. Occasional brief quotes from such sources may be effective, but be sure to share such challenging texts with translators beforehand.
Speak slowly and distinctly. Do not force translators to translate more than one or two sentences at a time. Keep sentences short. Because of the difference in Russian and English sentence structure, do not give half a sentence for translation.
Keep in mind that in using a translator you will be able to cover only 40 to 50 percent of what you normally would cover.
When your translator is speaking, keep your eyes on your audience or on your notes. In small group discussions, maintain eye
contact with the person you are talking to rather than with the translator. In a sense, you have to ignore the fact that you are using a translator. On the other hand, you must not ignore the translator as a person. The better your relationship with the translator, the better the translation. The translator needs to understand your heart as well as the words you speak.
When referring to a teacher, friend, or doctor, specify
gender since the Russian language has different masculine and feminine
If you are in a major city, suggest attending a concert
or visiting a museum with your translator--with you paying. You will get to
know your companion in a different situation and you will understand the
culture better. Do not go to plays because they involve demanding work for
your translator, while the purpose of the outing is to have a relaxing time
Eliminate from your presentations any acrostics,
alliteration, puns, and other plays on words that do not translate. Also,
idiomatic and colloquial expressions rarely translate intelligibly. Make a
concerted effort to avoid using expressions such as "pulling someone's leg,"
"jumping to conclusions," "eating humble pie," and "beating others to the
punch." We have no idea how little standard English we speak until we begin
leaving translators "out to lunch," "throwing them curves," and so forth.
Before leaving home, consider how much of your normal
speech is actually slang and how much is standard English. Even common
expressions such as "half a dozen" make no sense to people who think by tens,
and expressions such as "in the driver's seat" or "I'm fixin' to" are
Carefully consider your pronunciation and how hard it
might be to understand--especially if you are from the deep South, New
England, or the northern Midwest.
Enunciate clearly and use plain English whenever
possible. Otherwise, for example, the word "tithe" may be translated as
Use personal names sparingly and be sure your
translator understands when you are using them. An American speaker once
referred to his daughter, Melody, but the translation came out, "My daughter
is a musician." If it is important to give the name, it is best to say "The
name of my daughter is Melody." Or you could simply say "my daughter."
Try not to use contractions. It is best to say "I am
going to go" rather than "I'm gonna go."
If the translator does not understand your meaning,
rephrase the sentence. Simply repeating what you already have said, but in a
louder voice, will not solve the problem and may embarrass your translator.
If someone in the audience knows English better than
your translator, never suggest a change. Let the assigned translator continue.
Avoid using a large, complicated vocabulary. What
students receive will be limited to what your translator thinks you are
saying. The less complicated your speech and grammar, the greater the accuracy
of the translation.
When using a famous quote, you may want to ask your
translator ahead of time if it is familiar. If it is a well-known quotation by
a key personality in church history, theology, or politics, it may already
have been translated, with care having been put into shaping the language.
Some translators may know little or no theological
language. Even theologically trained translators may not know some specialized
or recent theological terminology. Try to avoid such vocabulary, or at least
discuss it with your translator prior to the lecture.
Plan ahead, giving some or all lecture notes to your
translator beforehand. Allowing time for the preparation of translated visual
aids will also make your teaching more effective.
Don Fairbairn writes, "I have observed many foreigners speak with translators. When there have been problems, in most cases, I would place the blame on the foreigner's inability to speak standard English, not on the translator's insufficient knowledge of English. Your goal should be to speak without slang or colloquialisms and with pronunciation that is as unaccented as possible."
Conveying Biblical Truths Through Literature
Reduce to a minimum or eliminate altogether
illustrations from Western life and culture. Leave analogies from baseball and
American football at home.
Do not use jokes in sermons, and use them very sparingly, if at all, in lectures. Russians generally do not consider theology a laughing matter. In addition, jokes rarely cross cultures with the meaning and the humor intact. In Central and Eastern Europe jokes against Russians were a staple throughout the decades of Soviet domination. But since ethnic jokes are always demeaning, it is advisable not to stoop to telling them. See Mark Elliott, "Moratorium on Russian Jokes," East-West Church & Ministry Report 2 (Winter 1994), 8. On the other hand, making
fun of oneself in a lighthearted way can help a lecturer avoid the appearance
of being overly stiff and serious. Try to determine when it is appropriate to
include a light remark so your audience will know you are human.
Ray Prigodich is slightly more tolerant of humor: "In
traditional churches, jokes must be omitted entirely. However, in many of the
more contemporary congregations that have been planted in the last ten years,
humor can sometimes be used tastefully and appropriately. And certainly in
lectures in many settings in the former Soviet Union, humor can be used
effectively. Humorous anecdotes from the indigenous context may serve a useful
purpose. The point to emphasize is that any humor used should not excessively
reflect Western cultural values."
Russians are highly literate. University graduates and
students often know American literature and popular culture as well as or
better than many Americans. However, as Perry Glanzer notes, "I have found
that the cultural literacy of Russians is declining somewhat. In 1994 and 2001
I asked how many Russians had read certain books. I find that knowledge of the
classics is decreasing."
Russian Evangelicals frequently have more biblical
knowledge than do American Evangelicals. At the same time, nonbelievers,
nominal Orthodox, and new converts often lack even a rudimentary familiarity
with the Bible. This requires care in lecturing to avoid condescension, on the
one hand, and to avoid assuming theological understanding that may be lacking,
on the other hand.
Discuss ahead of time with your host any potentially
controversial theological or cultural issues such as Arminianism vs.
Calvinism, women's head coverings, jewelry, makeup, and use of alcohol.
Encourage interaction with your students. Under the
Soviet system the classroom was not a forum for discussion. The professor did
all the talking and students "gave it back" during oral examinations. Use case
studies and thought-provoking questions to facilitate discussion and "thinking
on one's feet."
Avoid using illustrations that have a materialistic
overtone. Be sensitive to the economic situation by avoiding references to
salaries, homes, and cars. Do not relate stories that paint the West as the
Teachers should not make reference to dating or joke
about male-female relationships. In some parts of Eastern Europe dating before
marriage is not a common practice and reference to it is ill advised.
- It is always important to assess the educational level of your class. Lectures often start at an inappropriately high or low level. Try to find out the perspective of other teachers and students. If possible, have another professor observe your first lecture and ask for feedback. Also ask several students if their needs and expectations are being met. In the past ten years quite a few gifted Western preachers and teachers have shared in the East, so elementary presentations may not be sufficient.
Read at least short selections from Russian literature to develop illustrations for lectures and sermons as a gesture of respect for Russian culture. Sources include Leo Tolstoy ("How Much Land Does a Man Need?" and "The Three Hermits"); Fyodor Dostoevsky ("The Grand Inquisitor" in Brothers Karamazov, "A Disgraceful Affair," "Dream of the Funny Man," and "White Nights"); Nikolai Leskov ("The Lady from Mtsensk," a few chapters of Cathedral Folk, and Schism in High Society); and Alexander Solzhenitsyn ("Matryona's House" and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).
Russians have a deep love for poetry and revere highly the great nineteenth century poets Pushkin, Lermontov, and Nekrasov. A respected poet of the twentieth century is Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago. English translations of many Russian poems
are available on the Internet.
It is important to know one's audience. Russians are understandably proud of their contribution to world literature and will appreciate thoughtful, relevant allusions to such writers as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. However, many Russian Evangelicals, especially if middle aged or older, have had limited educational opportunities under Communism and will be less familiar with Russian literature. Also keep in mind that some Protestants consider classic Russian literature worldly.
Dress appropriately. It is best not to stand out in a
crowd. On the one hand, lecturing in very casual dress may surprise students.
On the other hand, wearing a different shirt or outfit every day would
underscore your affluence. For worship, coat and tie for men and dresses for
women are preferred attire in almost all cases.
Slavic people dress up much more often than do
Westerners, but they often have only one dress-up outfit (and, for that
matter, often just one moderately formal outfit and one set of work clothes).
Do not hesitate to wear the same clothes for several days, but make sure that
you have sufficiently formal clothes so that you do not offend people. A
well-worn outfit is acceptable, whereas a new designer suit or dress or the
latest in Western casual fashion may not be culturally sensitive in the
present economic climate.
Check ahead of time about the head-covering policy for
women in Protestant churches. Practices vary widely from church to church,
even within one denomination. Women in some churches may always--or
never--wear head coverings or only during prayer. Whatever the practice, it
usually applies to married women only. In Orthodox and Catholic worship, head
coverings for women are always advisable.
Avoid wearing excessive jewelry. Class rings and gold watches are pushing the limit. Even wedding bands can be out of place in some conservative congregations.
Bring small, good quality gifts: scarves, calendars of
your region or city, tea, instant coffee, pepperoni or summer sausage,
children's vitamins, kitchen towels, and T-shirts with lettering identifying
your city, church, or school. A "coffee table" book of photos of national
parks or your city or nature scenes makes a nice gift for a special person or
- Lapel pins of various sorts, called znachki in Russian, are not as popular as they once
were, but are still a good idea--and are easy to carry. Believers appreciate
religious pins such as crosses, hearts, and fish symbols.
Some--but not all--East Europeans are offended by gifts
of hotel and airline toiletry items. Ask a missionary living in the region for
advice concerning such items.
Personal photos, especially of your family, make nice
gifts for new friends. You will also find that many will want to exchange
Pictures of your family and pets and postcards of your
region, your city, and your school will be of interest. But use discretion: do
not share pictures of your house, cars, ski vacations, etc. Your wealth will
be obvious enough without rubbing it in.
The best policy is to never promise financial assistance to new friends or hosts. An unexpected gift is always better than a broken promise. Ask a local missionary what amount is appropriate for a gift or payment for a certain task.
National, Cultural, and Religious Sensitivity
Avoid negative comments about Russian life. Russians
are painfully aware of their economic and political difficulties and are often
vocal about them; but coming from foreigners, such criticism can be insulting.
Refrain from repeatedly saying, "Back home we do it this way" or "Back home we
have this or that."
Instead, share compliments: a thousand years of Slavic
Christianity, the endurance of the Russian people through centuries of
hardship, the courage of Christians under persecution, the depth of
friendships, the beauty of the countryside and historic churches, the
excellent ice cream, the wonderful chocolate, etc. Such observations will do
much to encourage your hosts.
Learn the Cyrillic alphabet and carry it with you,
practice sounding out signs as you travel, and learn a few words and phrases
Americans have a reputation for being loud. For
safety's sake as well as cultural sensitivity, it is best not to speak English
in public within earshot of strangers.
Be careful how much and where you spend money. Your
relative wealth can become a stumbling block for friends trying to cope in
post-Soviet economies. Buying gifts for your family and friends back home
certainly is appropriate, but loud or frequent flaunting of "good buys" can be
tiresome and offensive to nationals.
If on occasion you have to deal with primitive
conditions such as outdoor privies and lack of running water in rural areas,
never use the phrase "Third World" to describe them. This is likely to give
Unless one is in conversation with an especially close
friend in a post-Soviet society, avoid discussing standards of hygiene.
Do not chew gum while preaching, teaching, or worshipping. There may be other public gatherings where chewing gum is not a good idea. Many Russians consider this practice to be nekulturny (uncultured).
Lecturers should finish course preparations before
traveling abroad. The better prepared you are when you arrive, the more time
you will have for students.
When teaching teachers, be sure to relate to them as
peers and take advantage of opportunities to socialize with them.
In post-Soviet societies--except in some Westernized,
urban settings--relationships are more important than schedules or the
completion of tasks. Relationships are everything: not a lot of shallow ones,
but a few in depth. Look for those individuals the Lord brings your way and
spend quality time with them in homes, small groups, and seeing sights they
feel are important.
In conversations with your hosts, try not to dwell on
unexpected changes in plans or inconveniences. Many times what happened or did
not happen was beyond their control.
The one prediction in Russia that can be counted on is this: things will be unpredictable. It is extremely important to be flexible, recognizing that some things--sometimes many things-- will not transpire as planned. Westerners often find it hard to adjust when schedules change, while Russians may regard complaints a sign of immaturity. Do not be surprised or irritated if meetings do not start on time or if changes occur in public address equipment, venue, teaching load, lodging, or food.
The author wishes to express his appreciation for the many helpful corrections and additions provided by readers of an earlier draft of these guidelines: Vitaliy Bak, John Bernbaum, Don Fairbairn, Deb Gallaway, Perry Glanzer, Viktor Hamm, Yvonne Hyma, Matt Miller, Alan Nagel, Nick Nedelchev, Gregory Nichols, Sandra Oestreich, Larry Ort, Katharina Penner, Peter Penner, Ray Prigodich, Andrew Semenchuk, Pauline Semenchuk, and Sam Slobodian.
In non-Russian, post-Soviet states, be sensitive about
speaking Russian. Citizens of these countries treasure their freedom and
national identity, and most are glad to be rid of everything Russian. They may
be offended if you address them in Russian.
- People planning to visit non-Russian republics of the
former Soviet Union should not refer to these nations as "Russia" or to the
inhabitants as "Russians."
Determine the ethnic composition of your congregation or class beforehand. Take care how you refer to the nationality or nationalities in your audience. See Mark Elliott, "What to Call It?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Spring 2000),
Be cautious about photographing strangers in public
places as some people find this offensive. Sometimes mafia types will seize
cameras or at least film if they become nervous about what is being
One East European leader advises guest preachers and
teachers to exercise humility by not assuming "they know everything" and
"their theology is the best." A servant spirit, in contrast to an attitude of
arrogance, can convey spiritual truths as important as any found in a lecture.
Because of the persecution and isolation of the Russian
church during many decades of Soviet control, Western liberal theology did not
influence Russian churches. Remember that Evangelical churches in Russia,
Ukraine, and Belarus are very conservative in theology and conduct.
Be aware that very conservative believers may feel out
of place in restaurants they cannot afford and may consider worldly.
When possible and applicable, make yourself available
for individual time with students. You may have as much, if not more, impact
through personal contact as through lectures.
Foreign guests usually are given prominent seats in
church services. Humbly accept the hospitality, but do not become addicted to
such attention. Always point others to Jesus who allows you to serve Him.
The sanctuary platform and pulpit are treated with
reverence because the Word of God is proclaimed from this place. Therefore,
sitting with legs crossed, sitting with one foot propped on a knee, and
leaning back in a relaxed and leisurely position while facing the audience are
considered disrespectful to people and to God. Do not show the bottoms of your
Preaching (or worshipping) with hands in your pockets,
on your hips, or behind your back is considered disrespectful.
Treat and handle the Bible carefully and reverently.
Folding back your Bible, dropping it on the pulpit, or pounding it with your
hand is considered highly irreverent and disrespectful of God's Word.
Nonbelievers as well as believers find such behavior troubling.
Be prepared to pray standing or kneeling, but never sitting. This applies to seminary and Bible school classrooms and both Evangelical and Orthodox worship. Praying with the assistance of a translator can be a delicate matter if the translator is not a believer. It is acceptable to give your entire prayer in English at once, with your translator providing the meaning of your prayer, rather than a word-for-word translation. Evangelical believers typically stand to pray before and after meals.
- Benn, Anna and Rosamund Bartlett. Literary Russia, A Guide. London: Macmillan, 1997. 495 pp. A wonderful entree to Russia's literary heritage organized geographically by region, city, and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, street by street, and house by house. No country claims more literary museums than Russia, with the authors directing readers to all the major and many of the minor ones. Includes descriptions of landscapes and streetscapes, statues and monuments, homes and apartments that figure in Russia's literary legacy.
- Dabars, Zita with Lilia Vokhmina. The Russian Way: Aspects of Behavior, Attitudes, and Customs of the Russians. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1996. 99 pp. This handy guide will save many from multiple cultural miscues. The authors cover 73 features of Russian life, arranged alphabetically, including bribery, clothing, dating, family, flowers, gestures, greetings, hygiene, privacy, punctuality, superstitions, and telephones.
- "Guidebook for Volunteer Missionaries in Russia." Central and Eastern Europe Team, International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention. 10 pp. This carefully crafted document may be downloaded from www.khabarovskhorizons.com.
- LeClair, Ray and Cindy. Handbook for Christian Travelers to the CIS. Wheaton, IL: Slavic Gospel Association, 1993. 79 pp. A practical, perceptive, and wide-ranging guide for Christians on a mission. Retains much of its relevance even though the latest edition is 1993.
- Miller, Wright. Russians as People. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1960. 205 pp. A classic anthropological portrait especially useful for a retrospect on Soviet life, but retaining much value because of its insight into timeless Russian traits.
- Okenfuss, Max J. and Cheryl D. Roberts, eds. Reemerging Russia, Search for Identity. Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 176 pp. An introductory reader on Soviet and post-Soviet Russian cultural life. Respected authors cover history, film, literature, art, women, religion, and minorities. Well done.
- Richmond, Yale. From Nyet to Da: Understanding the Russians. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1992. 191 pp. Perhaps the best single treatment of Russians as a people. Addresses the impact of geography, climate, and history upon outlook, attitude, and behavior. Frequent, insightful comparisons with Western ways.
- _____________. From Da to Yes: Understanding the East Europeans. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1995. 343 pp. Reviewed in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 4 (Fall 1996), 10-11. An excellent, penetrating foray into what makes East Europeans tick. The author tackles every major nationality of the region, plus post-Soviet Balts, Belarusians, and Ukrainians.
- Slobodian, Sam. An Orientation Manual for Americans with Preaching or Teaching Opportunities in Eastern Slavic Countries. Indianapolis: Baptist International Evangelistic Ministries, 1998. 190 pp. Includes an excellent discussion on "Speaking through a Russian Translator" and "Notes on Literary References for Use in Preaching to Russians."
- The Bruderhof. The Gospel in Dostoyevsky. Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 1988. 258 pp. This anthology of some of the great writer's most profound spiritual reflections includes appreciations by J. I. Packer, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Ernest Gordon.
- Volovich, M., K. Zorky, and M. Makarov, eds. Anglo-Russkii slovar' v pomoshch' khristianskomu perovodchiku [English-Russian Dictionary for a Christian Translator]. Moscow: Association for Spiritual Renewal, 1997. 389 pp. Reviewed in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 2 (Fall 1994), 15. A labor of love that went through multiple editions over many years on its way to becoming arguably the best English-Russian theological dictionary for translators.
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report and director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL.
Mark Elliott, "Guidelines for Guest Preaching, Teaching, and Cross-Cultural Communication," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Spring 2002), 8.
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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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