BY CLEOPHUS J. LaRUE
Colored preaching, by which I mean preaching done by people of color, will be the kind of preaching heard by a majority of the Christian world by the year 2050. Owing to a massive demographic shift in the latter part of the twentieth century, the epicenter of Christianity, and thus Christian preaching, has moved below the equator. Europe is no longer the heartland of Christianity. Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, says Christianity is turning brown and moving south and growing by leaps and bounds in these areas. These new representative Christians, as European missiologist Andrew Walls describes them, will be the people of color who populate the global south—Africa, Asia, and Latin America. According to Walls, the manner in which they view Christianity will matter more and more, and how Western European and North American Christians view it will matter less and less. But even with this new numerical reality, Walls is convinced that Christianity can be made stronger and even more vibrant if the West and the people of the global south join together in refashioning the Christian witness.
In recent years, I have had the privilege of traveling to different parts of the global south to participate in a small part of that refashioning process. I have witnessed firsthand the energy, vibrancy, and unparalleled growth of the church in these areas. In 2001, I saw Christians in Fortaleza, Brazil, crowd into a condemned church building one night to hear the gospel proclaimed. In that same year I traveled to Kerala, India, where I saw more than 100,000 Christians of the Church of St. Thomas gather on the banks of the Pamba River for a week of preaching, Bible study, and prayer. A few years later in Monrovia, Liberia, in church services throughout that city, I saw the indefatigable spirit of a war-weary people determined to worship God even as they tried to lift themselves out of fifteen years of civil war and unmitigated, self-inflicted destruction.
My most recent opportunity to visit India came rather unexpectedly last year. While walking to my office I heard a familiar voice call out to me from across the Seminary quad: “Dr. LaRue, will you come back to India and teach a course on preaching?” The thought of returning to India caught my attention immediately, so I turned to see who was extending this gracious invitation. It was Ajit Prasadam, a 2005 graduate of Princeton Seminary’s Ph.D. program in Christian education, now serving as director of the St. Andrew Centre, India Sunday School Union (ISSU) in Coonoor, India. Before he could even think about rescinding his invitation I said yes. I didn’t say yes because I thought I had so much to offer the Indian seminarians and pastors, but because I knew I had a lot to learn from them.
I also knew of Princeton Seminary’s longstanding commitment to the worldwide church and most assuredly to the global south. Our mission statement says, in part, that we equip men and women “for leadership worldwide in congregations and the larger church.” For many years, Princeton Seminary has sought to make its resources available to people of faith in all lands. In a matter of weeks Dr. Prasadam and I worked out the details of the courses I would teach and he advertised them throughout their seminaries in India. At my own expense I traveled to India for the third time in May of last year. Schools in the global south often struggle financially and they simply do not have the funds to sponsor professors from the Western world. Moreover, when I consider the abundance out of which I live in the United States, I counted it all joy to pay my own way, convinced that I would be the richer for it.
In my first week at the St. Andrew Centre, I participated in a seminar with several other Indian homileticians, among them Surya Prakash, Stephen Alfred, and M. Gnanavaram. I read papers on biblical exegesis for preaching, the use of the imagination, sermon structure and form, and similarities in the preaching of marginalized peoples. The Indian homileticians read papers on the struggles of the dalit Christians (the untouchables), interpretive strategies of Indian preachers, issues surrounding village people and town folk, and preaching as pastoral care. I found it interesting that, not unlike our experience in the United States, there were disagreements among the Indian homileticians about the emphasis of their preaching—whether it should have an evangelical or a liberation focus. One senior Indian homiletician accused the younger scholars of focusing too much on social concerns and not enough on winning the lost to Christ. The liberationists defended their teaching, saying the basic needs of the people had to be met or else the words of salvation they preached would fall on deaf ears.
The second week involved sessions where we actually engaged in teaching what amounted to a fast track introductory course in preaching. We had lectures and exercises in biblical exegesis, imaginative preaching, developing controlling thoughts, and ways to discover fitting sermonic forms and structures. Throughout much of those two weeks I was feeling my way, all too conscious of the differences in our contexts. An exercise that I use quite often in the States initially fell flat in India. I ask students to pair a scripture text or theological conviction with some aspect of lived experience. This exercise is intended to help preachers begin to develop ways to speak to the human situation with the Word of God as their point of departure. My Indian students really struggled with this exercise until an Indian homiletician spoke up and told me to let them do the pairing exercise in their own dialects with an interpreter. With this suggestion the exercise took off. I thought the Indian students were having trouble expressing themselves theologically, when they were simply having trouble expressing themselves in English, which was not their mother tongue.
As part of my research for a book project, I was searching for similarities and differences between the preaching of Indian Christians and marginalized people of color in the United States. First, I noticed that the professors and students with whom I came in contact had a preference for experiential religion. They all had testimonies of actual occurrences with the divine in their lives, and they were not ashamed to speak of those experiences. They were also a “people of the book.” They knew the stories of the Bible and ordered their lives around those stories. The scriptures mattered to the Indian preachers and they preached them with aplomb and creativity. Moreover, since English was not the mother tongue of many of them—most spoke Tamil or Telugu—they wanted to become more effective communicators in the English language. Finally, clearly influenced by the more subdued preaching of the Anglicans and other European preachers with whom they had come in contact, many of the Indian seminarians wanted a more direct, creative, and invigorating preaching style. They were quite fond of the more animated African American preaching style that many of them had already heard through the Internet.
In May I will return to India with Martin Tel, our director of music, and William Heard, an alumnus (M.Div., 2005) and director of liturgy and worship at Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church in Camden, New Jersey. Dr. Tel will teach courses in music for Christian worship, and the Reverend Heard will perform several concerts. Also, it is my hope in the near future to take a travel course to India and have the Princeton students engage and interact with the Indian seminarians as they learn from one another how to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in diverse contexts. I am absolutely convinced that we have much to teach one another in a world that is quickly becoming a global village and with a faith that is growing browner by the day.
Cleo LaRue is the Francis Landey Patton Associate Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary.