Friday, October 21, 2016


Once a month, I preach through a translator at my small Cambodian church. Preaching in the US, especially preaching in a seminary classroom, did little to prepare me for the experience of preaching at a small church in a tucked-away corner of Phnom Penh.

I have preached while a thunderstorm raged outside the open window directly behind me. I was nearly shouting so that even my translator could hear me, not to mention anybody in the audience. I have been rushed by a toddler wildly waving a long stick. I’ve preached while children yelled and babies cried. (In my last blog post, I wrote about how I am learning to embrace the hidden beauty underneath what, at first glance, seems to be chaos in the typical Cambodian church service).

Sometimes I even make a joke that nobody laughs at. OK, fine, that’s happened to me in the US, too. My experience amply prepared me for that one.

Preaching on a Sunday with another excellent translator, CBU President Nivath
Despite all of the struggles—and in the case of the stick-wielding toddler, possible physical dangers!—that come with preaching here, one of my biggest revelations about the nature of church came to me while I was preaching one Sunday. You might think this revelation came to me as the result of my outstanding sermon content, but in fact it came the Sunday I felt most anxious and unsure about preaching.

One Sunday morning, the translator I had lined up informed me that he would be unavailable to translate for me that afternoon. No problem, there are two other people who help translate. I asked them, but by early afternoon I learned that neither could be at the service. Now I was panicking. One of the church leaders told me to come anyway and we would figure out what to do when I arrived (I hate waiting to figure something out, by the way).

When I arrived, they told me that Chumcheath would translate for me. I had not heard Chumcheath speak English before, so I was a little worried that this would be difficult. To make a long story short, Chumcheath did a terrific job. He was accurate and animated. My sermon was in very capable hands.

I was very energized by this experience. I had brought to light a problem (we needed a translator), and then the church used its own assets to solve the problem (there was someone very good at translating in the congregation who was not yet being tapped to share his gift). I helped someone participate more fully in the edification of the body of Christ.

That’s when the revelation about church hit me. You see, Chumcheath didn’t get to edify the church that day as a result of my stirring message or my inspiring actions or friendship or any of the other assets I might think I have. Rather, I had a need, and I felt helpless to fix it. When I brought that need to the church, someone stepped up in a way they hadn’t been asked to before, and the church has been stronger since then as a result.

I almost never attend church in the US from a place of weakness. I know the language. I am seminary-trained. I’ve served on church staffs. I usually have some kind of formal or informal leadership. This is not bad, but there are things you simply cannot learn unless you experience church from a place of powerlessness. Of course, as a missionary and preacher at this church, I’m not exactly perceived as powerless, but my lack of language and cultural understanding makes me feel more helpless than I ever feel in the US, especially on this one day.

Churches need good leadership, strong preaching, worshipful songs, etc. However, you can learn far more about the health of a church by observing two things: how many people who are weak, powerless or broken walk through the doors and what happens when they do. Such people can either make the church worry about becoming too messy, or they can unlock gifts that people never realized they had.

Today, I want to show my respect for those who take the difficult step of coming to church because they have hit rock bottom. If they don’t take the vulnerable step of coming to a church that often criticizes them and feels uncomfortable around them, then the church cannot live up to the fullness of its calling.

I came to Cambodia because I thought I had gifts that could be of some use here. However, that makes it easy to underestimate how much I can offer to the church by bringing my weaknesses. I need to be more open to admitting my needs, my anxieties, my pain. Not just for my sake, but for the sake of those who don’t yet know how God has gifted them to rise to the occasions that my own weakness creates.