Guidelines for Leading Worship in International Contexts

The challenges in inter-cultural communication are multiple. Therefore, when the opportunity arises for North Americans to deliver an address or sermon to a group whose first language is not English, or for whom U.S. culture is remote, it will facilitate communication and build stronger relationships if one keeps the big picture in mind.

It is obvious that the primary focus for those whom English is not their first language is comprehension. What is less obvious is that those who are native English speakers wield unacknowledged power. This is due to the dominant place English language holds as the international means of communication; a prominence built upon its colonial past. Growing up speaking English is akin to having “white privilege;” that is, having an advantage, but one of which you are unconscious. Regardless of your goodwill and intentions, this power imbalance exists. In that context, simply hearing you speak will cause some to admire and look up to you, and others to withdraw and, perhaps, even dislike you.

There are additional challenges in inter-cultural communication. Many will not be familiar with North American or Unitarian Universalist (UU) history; and one must assume that most are not familiar with current events in North America or its popular culture. This also applies to members of European Unitarian Universalist (EUU) congregations because an increasing number of its members are not ex-pats, and many who are U.S. or Canadian citizens have not lived in the either country in decades.

The following guidelines address these challenges. They will somewhat ameliorate the power differential while also making the presentation more intelligible.

When preparing a presentation for such a gathering:

  • Begin with a greetings and thanks in their language. It will telegraph a lot about your awareness and intention.
  • Choose simple vocabulary.
  • Use simple sentence structure.
  • Keep it short, concise and to the point; and especially so if it will be translated (i.e. a 10 minute sermon will take 20 minutes.)
  • Avoid slang, double-negatives, contractions, idioms (e.g. Are you out of your mind?) and acronyms (including UUA, GA and R.E.).
  • Familiarize yourself with the history of the culture you are visiting.
  • Learn about the protocols and etiquette of the guest community (e.g. how people should be addressed and what is the appropriate attire).
  • Know the cultural sensibilities of those you are addressing (e.g. Hungarian Unitarians do not tell jokes in their sermons. Indeed, one culture’s humor is not easily understood by a different culture.)
  • Be aware of cultural characteristics of the host community in things like gender dynamics and the perceptions of time (i.e. some cultures appreciate punctuality and planning in advance, while others have a more casual approach and openness to making last minute changes).
  • Be careful when using popular cultural references (e.g. sports, politics, movies), metaphors, or North American history (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson) and when you do so, provide context for the remark.
  • Be careful about the assumptions you make (i.e. that everyone agrees with you or knows what you are talking about).
  • If you are going to use foreign words or phrases make sure you know the meaning of the word in the context you are using it and practice the correct pronunciation.
  • Learn about the social justice concerns and religious landscape of your audience. Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists are not the same everywhere and the struggles of every country have a complexity that cannot be well understood through the lenses of another culture.
  • Make “I” statements (otherwise, people may mistakenly believe you speak with authority you do not have).
  • If possible, ask a person familiar with the host culture to read your sermon or presentation.
  • If a translator will be used provide a copy of the manuscript to the person several days before hand so that it can be reviewed; then stick with what you have written.
  • For presentation in which you expect the participation of the audience, make sure you learn how the host community interacts. In some cultures, people will share their thoughts and disagreement but in others it is seen as disrespectful.
  • Remember that the United States is the only country that still uses the imperial system (Fahrenheit, miles, pounds). Every other country uses the metric system (Celsius, kilometers, and kilograms).

When delivering your presentation:

  • Speak slowly.
  • Speak at normal volume.
  • Articulate clearly (i.e. Do not swallow your words or trail off at the end of a sentence).
  • Leave pauses between major ideas.
  • Build in an even longer pause between sections (i.e. for some it will take extra effort to follow and such breaks give their minds a chance to rest.)
  • If possible, stop periodically and ask if there is anything someone would like to have clarified. (This gives listeners a chance to request an explanation without having to admit the person did not understand).
  • Leave a substantial time for questions and answers.
  • Watch your body language. The way you use your body also sends messages.
  • Be cautious in giving advice and sharing your opinions. “This is the way we do it,” can be heard as arrogant and patronizing.
  • Listen carefully to your audience and tailor your responses to their needs and insights.
  • Value and acknowledge people’s expertise and knowledge. You might be the guest but you are also only one voice among a group of other people.

Most importantly embrace the experience as a learning experience in which you will not only learn about a culture different from your own, but in taking note of the differences and similarity will come to a deeper understanding of your own culture and yourself.

(These guidelines were generously provided by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed who served as the Unitarian Universalist Association's Ambassador to UU Fellowships in France, Holland, and Switzerland in consultation with Claudia Espinel, the Meadville Lombard Theological School Director of International Formation and Recruitment, and Rev. Harold Babcock the UUA Ambassador to the Hungarian Unitarian Church.