by Peter Unseth
Why we should use local proverbs in ministry and ways that they can be effectively utilized.
© Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0
You have washed your body; how will you wash your soul?
Many of us worshipping in scattered parts of the world have enjoyed listening to older preachers who inspired and delighted congregations by the wise use of local proverbs. They did not have much formal training, but spoke in ways that the local people understood and enjoyed.
We have also heard others—young preachers or foreigners—who shared correct scriptural truths, but did not inspire or delight the congregations. They had formal training, but spoke in ways unfamiliar to the people—ones that reflected a college or seminary setting.
In each situation, the congregation responded differently. One of the reasons for the differences in response was that the older, traditional speakers used local proverbs and other traditional oral art (Salisbury 2004).
In many parts of the world, the sign of being a good public speaker is appropriate use of proverbs, because their use adds to the credibility and authority of the speaker and his or her message.
How can we best use local proverbs in Christian ministry? This article gives reasons why we should use local proverbs in ministry, and presents ways that they can be effectively utilized. It is written with a strong African input, but the principles can be applied elsewhere.
In some countries of the world, such as Liberia, early Christian missionaries did not allow the use of local proverbs in ministry; instead, they regarded them as tainted since they were part of a non-Christian culture (Karnga 1996, 49). However, many local proverbs affirm high moral values that agree with scripture. These proverbs can and should be used in Christian ministry.
Before we discuss how we can use local proverbs in ministry, we should stop and consider the question of authority. Do local proverbs contain God’s wisdom? What is the relationship between local wisdom and scripture? What should we do if local proverbs contradict scripture?
Proverbs often represent a society’s highest efforts to command and describe a moral life, “the product of the common grace given to humanity at large” (Tewoldemedhin 2006, 747). But proverbs are based on fallen, human wisdom, and they cannot provide the power to obey, nor provide a way of forgiveness. Although we can benefit from the study of human proverbs,
We must always be sure that the Bible is the basis of our message; for the Bible must eternally remain the highest authority insofar as the Christian is concerned. Proverbs as well as other aspects of culture must be subject to Biblical teaching. (Karnga 1996, 50)
Some local proverbs seem to echo biblical teaching (sometimes even in structure). For example, “Alcohol bites harder than a snake” (Nepali) is similar to Proverbs 23:31-32: “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.” Although many local proverbs are in harmony with scripture, there are also local proverbs that contradict scripture. For example, there is a Bassa proverb from Liberia that sanctions lying, but Abba Karnga reminds us, “The Gospel does not support any kind of selective truth-telling” (1996, 46), pointing out that Colossians 3:9 and Ephesians 4:25 teach us that we must speak the truth.
Since scripture is authoritative above all traditions, we must be careful not to endorse the message of all local proverbs. The collective wisdom of our ancestors is still flawed and fallen. Jay Moon shares how he worked with Ghanaian church leaders to examine their proverbs in light of scripture. Sometimes they decided that scripture condemned values and practices that were expressed in their proverbs, but sometimes it affirmed traditional values expressed in proverbs (2009).
Use of Local Proverbs in the Bible
Some have questioned the validity and wisdom of using local proverbs in Christian ministry. The simplest reply to this is that Jesus and other writers in scripture used local proverbs in their ministries. One example is in Luke 4:23, where Jesus used a local proverb to introduce a topic, “I am sure you will quote this proverb to me, ‘Doctor, heal yourself.’” In another example, to illustrate a point, the Apostle Peter quoted two proverbs together, one from the Old Testament and one from the local culture: “What happened to them shows that the proverbs are true: ‘A dog goes back to what it has vomited’ and ‘A pig that has been washed goes back to roll in the mud’” (2 Pet. 2:22).
Proverbs can be used as part of evangelistic ministry, particularly in areas where many local people view Christians negatively, either as violating traditions or as following some sort of ungodly religion.
Using local proverbs works to “overcome the distrust of… unbelievers… who see the Church as an imported religion” (Karnga 1996, 10). When the gospel message is linked to local proverbs, it helps ground the message in local culture. Using local proverbs shows that we as Christians share and affirm some deeply-held positive values of the community. In our conversations, we can open up discussion of spiritual things by talking about local proverbs that call for virtue and high moral behavior, including forgiveness, sobriety, marital faithfulness, and respect for elders.
Every culture has values that will agree with biblical positions, and these values are typically reinforced by proverbs. Having agreed with the positive moral values taught by local proverbs, we can gently point out that nobody does all of the things proverbs tell us to do, and nobody refrains from doing all that proverbs advise against. From there, we can point to scripture that confirms we all are sinners.
Now we have a point of agreement between local assumptions and our Christian message. This naturally leads us into a discussion of our need for forgiveness by our Creator.
Proverbs in Teaching and Preaching
When preaching, it is often useful to reinforce a point by quoting a relevant local proverb. Joshua Kudadjie comments,
Their use will help immensely to teach the truths of many biblical themes and stories, and to affect the moral, social and spiritual lives of the people for the better; for when a proverb is used correctly, it speaks to the intellect, the soul and the heart… They can, thus, be used to great advantage in Christian preaching and teaching. (1996, 11)
For example, when teaching from Matthew 7:1 about not judging others, it would be relevant among the Tonga to quote, “A whip used on someone else should be put away or tomorrow the same whip will be used to whip you.”
A Jabo proverb from Liberia says, “A tree grows up before we tie a cow to it” meaning that experience and growth are necessary before others will trust a person in a position. It would be appropriate to quote this proverb in a Jabo congregation when teaching on the qualifications for elders/overseers: “The overseer… must not be a recent convert” (1 Tim. 3:2, 6).
There are times when a good preacher can take a local proverb and change it slightly. Such changed proverbs can often be used to help an audience remember a point. For example, in Amharic, Spanish, and Arabic, there is a proverb that reads, “Into a closed mouth, no fly will enter.” A preacher in such a congregation could twist the proverb and remind the congregation that, “Out of a closed mouth, no praise will come,” reminding people that we must not neglect praising Jesus. Scripture provides the authority, but the local proverb provides reinforcement and an aid to memory.
Proverbs for Titles and Outlines
A local proverb may provide a title for a sermon. For example, a sermon in Amharic about gentle speech (using passages such as Eph. 4:25-32) could be titled “A Word from the Mouth,” based on the local proverb, “A word from the mouth, out, spoken; an egg from the hand, down, broken.” The scripture is the main authority, but the truth of the sermon is easier to remember if it is tied to a local proverb. The full form of the proverb can be used in the sermon, but the opening phrase can also be used as a title to get people’s attention and remember the message.
A Builsa Christian from Ghana used the local proverb, “A human being hides in the feathers of a fowl” in a creative way (Moon 2009, 111). The proverb refers to the fact that chickens can be used to pay off debts or as sacrifices; in both circumstances the person is protected by a chicken. He then referred to Psalm 91:4, noting that God protects us, “He will cover you with his wings.” For the Builsa listeners it was a memorable and powerful image.
Local proverb style may also provide an outline for a sermon. For example, there are many Somali proverbs that are formed using a list of three. For example, “Three things bring the downfall of sultans: biased judgment, meanness, and indecision.” Following such a local pattern, a Somali pastor might introduce a sermon on 1 John 2:16: “There are three things that lead us into sin: the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does.” Or one might consider creating an introduction or outline that sounds like a local proverb. For example, “There are three things we should do with our mouths: praise God, minister to other believers, and tell the gospel to nonbelievers.” In producing literature, local proverbs may be good as titles or section headings.
Proverbs in Counseling Ministry
Proverbs can also be used in counseling (“counseling” in a broad sense). For example, when trying to reconcile people who are bitter at each other, we should always use scripture. But we can also use relevant local proverbs that remind us all of the need for forgiveness, the importance of living in harmony, the importance of husband and wife being united and faithful, etc.
As an example of a local proverb that has relevance for marital and premarital counseling, consider the Amharic proverb, “Husband and wife are drawn [like water] from the same lake.” This proverb allows us to remind the prospective husband and wife that both partners in a marriage need to be Christians. Also, it reminds us that since both originate from the same source (Christ), they must treat the other as a beloved member of the Body of Christ. Additionally, because of their unity in Christ, possible divisions from their backgrounds (such as ethnic or clan differences, family friction, etc.) must become less important than the new marital bond of unity.
By using local proverbs in addition to scripture, we are providing multiple reasons for people to choose the wise and godly action. If a person is not fully committed to the authority of scripture, he or she may be more willing to listen to a local proverb. One of the reasons proverbs are traditionally used in advising people is that they are often indirect and less confrontational. Especially when the person giving the advice is younger, such as a young pastor speaking to an older person, proverbs allow the speaker to advise gently, invoking the community’s wisdom, not merely speaking his or her own opinions. Scripture should still be used, but local proverbs can also be an important tool.
Proverbs in Discipling
In many places, proverbs are used to teach the young the community’s values. Proverbs may need some explanation of their meaning and the intended application, but they are a standard tool for teaching. Whatever the age group comparison, when we look at new converts to Christianity as being young in the faith, the use of proverbs in teaching them how to live in their new commitment to Christ is appropriate.
Proverbs in Songs
Songs are sometimes written based on local proverbs. Local proverbs can also be used in writing Christian songs, such as using (part of) a proverb as a unifying theme for a song. We can ask a local Christian musician to write songs using specific proverbs, composing in the local musical style. For example, if these styles use a verse and a repeated refrain or chorus, a song might consist of a local proverb, a brief situation where it is needed, and a repetition of the proverb. This might be followed by a second situation, then repeating the proverb.
Proverbs in Comparing Local Traditions to Scripture
Moon documented how he encouraged church leaders among the Builsa of Ghana to compare their traditional proverbs to scripture. In some cases, they found proverbs that were parallel to scriptural teaching, but they also found some that expressed cultural values that were not in agreement with scripture. By looking at their own cultural values as expressed in their proverbs, the church leaders were better able to discuss and decide which parts of their traditions they should keep, which they should modify, and which they should reject (2009).
Proverbs in Theological Teaching
Proverbs have traditionally been used to teach and guide both children and adults in a variety of local contexts. We can also use appropriate proverbs for formal teaching in a Christian context. If teachers in theological colleges and seminaries use local proverbs in their teaching, both as teaching tools and as topics of study, this will demonstrate to the students that using local proverbs is appropriate and effective.
Karnga pleads for theological colleges and seminaries to focus on proverbs, both as teaching tools and as “part of courses in biblical exegesis, hermeneutics, exposition, gospel contextualization, techniques of preaching, and the use of Jesus’ parables” (1996, 51). Moon wrote about a class where he asked students to describe their ministry situation with a local proverb (2004, 168; 2009, 171). The students responded enthusiastically. One teacher assigned theological students to collect and study proverbs from their people (Bennett 1997). This led to rich discussions of many topics, including difficult topics related to marriage.
Collecting and Organizing Proverbs for Ministry
We should all collect proverbs that may be useful in ministry. The idea of collecting proverbs for preaching is at least as old as St. John Chrysostom (AD 345-407). Over 1,600 years later, Johann Christaller published a collection of over six thousand proverbs from Twi in Ghana with the hope that they would be used for preaching the gospel to unbelieving Twi-speakers. Since then, many collections have been published by Christians in ministry.
When you hear a proverb, write it down. It may be useful to collect large numbers of proverbs1, instead of just writing down those we hear in ordinary conversation. Collecting these lists gives us opportunities to have serious discussions with respected, older members of the local community, whether they are believers or not. The proverb-collecting process gives us opportunities to spend time with local elders discussing topics that are important to them and to us.
After collecting proverbs, categorize them for different kinds of ministry applications. Organize them so that they can be easily found when needed. Some may be useful for funerals, some for evangelism, some for counseling wayward young people, and some are relevant for specific scripture texts. Some proverbs will be useful for more than one purpose so these should be categorized for each purpose.
This can be done in a database, or something as simple as a notebook, arranged so that one can later find proverbs related to various topics. For proverbs that relate to specific passages of scripture, it is helpful to write these proverbs (or the first few words of each proverb) in the margins of one’s Bible.
It is also important to notice and collect examples of local proverbs that promote values, actions, and attitudes that do not agree with scripture. One can use a proverb to introduce the topic, but then give the scriptural teaching that corrects it. In the Bible, Ezekiel did this, quoting a local proverb, then telling them that the attitude expressed in this proverb was wrong (Ezek. 12:22-23). This could be introduced using Jesus’ formula, “You have heard that it was said… But I now tell you…”, or “But the Bible says…”
These thoughts are intended to stimulate Christians to use local proverbs in ministry. We should use these when they naturally come to mind, but also make an effort to find and create ways to include proverbs in our ministry, making this effort part of our regular preparation for teaching and preaching.
For an African context at least, Karnga has made the explicit suggestion, “Find and cite at least one appropriate indigenous African proverb every sermon or major address that you deliver” (1996, 52). By using proverbs, outsiders can provide the example and affirmation for local Christians to use their own proverbs.
Proverbs can make any speech or conversation tastier and more memorable. A proverb, whether biblical or local, is a beautiful way to express an idea. “An idea well-expressed is like a design of gold, set in silver” (Prov. 25:11).
1. I have prepared suggestions on how to collect proverbs: www.gial.edu/GIALens/vol1-1/Unseth-Proverbs-Article.pdf.
Bennett, Pat. 1997. “Traditional Proverbs on Marriage as a Communication Bridge between the Christian Gospel and the Bemba of Zambia.” In Embracing the Baobab Tree. Ed. William Saayman, 241-259. Pretoria: University of South Africa.
Karnga, Abba. 1996. “Bassa Proverbs for Preaching and Teaching.” In The Wisdom of African Proverbs: Collections, Studies, Bibliographies. Ed. Stan Nussbaum. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Global Mapping International.
Kudadjie, Joshua. 1996. “Ga and Dangme Proverbs for Preaching and Teaching.” In The Wisdom of African Proverbs: Collections, Studies, Bibliographies. Ed. Stan Nussbaum. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Global Mapping International.
Moon, Jay. 2004. “Sweet Talk in Africa.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(2): 162-169.
_____. 2009. African Proverbs Reveal Christianity in Culture: A Narrative Portrayal of Builsa Proverbs Contextualizing Christianity in Ghana. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications.
Salisbury, Thayer. 2004. “Testing Narrative Theory.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(1): 86-92.
Tewoldemedhin, Habtu. 2006. “Proverbs.” In Africa Bible Commentary. Ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo, 747-786. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Peter Unseth worked for a dozen years in Ethiopia with SIL. He is now on the faculty of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas. He studies and promotes the use of local proverbs and other oral traditions for ministry.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 16-23. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.