Why I am still a missionary

I was experiencing God’s Word in a totally new, living, transforming way, when George Cowan came from Wycliffe. He presented a way to give to others for the very first time the Word that was changing me – by translating the Bible into their languages. It was captivating. That is why I became a missionary involved in Bible translation.

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

What brought me into missions was not the command of the great commission, nor the idea of changing the world, nor even the idea of finishing a great goal such as translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. For me, it was more personal. These other motivations came along as confirmations.

This motivation has proved very durable. No matter how many goals we set, how many we reach, or how many we fail to reach, how much we change the world, or fail to change the world; what never loses its luster is the idea of giving to others the Living Word that changes my life.

Over the years, I have added another motivation to my repertoire; one I did not expect. It is one I share with the preacher who started preaching only in prisons because he found that prisoners could often hear the Living Word in a way that respectable people often could not.

I am not a missionary because I have something extraordinary to bring to people. God has that. So do all Christians. Rather, I am still a missionary partly because where I go, people are open to the Word of God. They receive it and make it their own. They understand it in their context. They understand that it is for them and they act on that. Even before they have it, while the translators are working, they expect that it will be theirs, that it will show God to them.

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

I am not saying that I am a missionary because I see more results overseas than at home. I’m not even sure there is a reliable way to measure that! No, I am a missionary because when people in Africa accept God’s Word for what it is. They interpret it through the lens of their circumstances. When they explain what they understand in God’s Word, I see things that I had not understood, or that had I understood with my head but not with my soul.

I love the piece in Handel’s Messiah where a soloist sings “Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. The crooked straight and the rough places plane.” I might even like that part better than the Hallelujah Chorus. But the Bible verse that solo comes from was given a new power when I was in Burkina Faso. A town which was served by a very bad road invited the President. He accepted their invitation, and immediately the roads department set about repairing the road for the president. I understood in a new way that I was to set about eliminating the sins in the desert of my heart if I was to expect the King to show up and be happy.

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

But it is not really about understanding the Bible better, or differently. No, through the eyes of African brothers and sisters I see and experience God differently. From my privileged position as a middle class, white American male, the biblical God who brings liberation to captives escapes my comprehension. I might even fear that saying “liberation” will slide me into bad theology. But when I see the liberation God brings to my African brothers and sisters, I understand better his character, his passions, his vision for this world. This God experienced by my African brothers and sisters is my God, but not the dimmer version of him I had known before. Sometimes, it’s like I’m hearing the Gospel for the first time.

In short, I am still a missionary because God keeps revealing himself in new ways in what I do. You don’t have to be a missionary to experience that. Rather, God will keep revealing himself in new ways to anyone who injects his grace and truth into this world.

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What makes for great results

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

For decades, organizations doing Bible translation did little evaluation of the impact of their work. The fact that translating the Bible into a language for the first time has impact, is not in question. The anecdotal stories are too numerous to doubt that. But the lack of evaluation did mean that we did not know what enhanced impact and what hindered it.

Fortunately, more and more evaluation is being done. Some patterns are emerging. One pattern came out clearly in an evaluation carried out by OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors translation. It found that when a translation program is controlled by the local church and community, it is more likely to produce great impact. By “controlled”, we mean that local churches appoint their own committees, select the translators, and decide on the how, when and where of each step involved in translation. This is not the first time an evaluation has resulted in similar findings.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Let’s be clear. This means that others cannot be making those decisions – not the missionary involved, not the translation agency (Wycliffe or another), and not churches back in the US supporting the project with finances. This may seem easy, but it is actually quite hard. Not that long ago I talked to a missionary who proclaimed his disagreement with a local choice and vowed to overturn it. He did. We all think that we know what is best.

The findings of the evaluation carried out by OneBook confirm an ongoing initiative in which we are involved. That initiative aims to strengthen local decision making. We are doing that by:

  • Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Bringing onto the local committees people who are more representative of local churches and the local community

  • Making sure that local translation committees are recognized by churches
  • Putting more decisions in the hands of local translation committees
  • Giving translation committees representation at national meetings
  • Helping translation committees develop a clear mandate and responsibilities
A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

Dr. Michel Kenmogne with the Wycliffe Global Alliance wrote:

“The recommendations arrived at make sense to me. The emphasis on church participation and local ownership, as well as the crucial role of functional literacy, are not negotiable if we want to achieve holistic transformation.”

I agree. We do not carry out translation for the sake of translation. We do it to see lasting impact, and that means putting more decisions in the hands of local churches.

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana

Missionaries are special

A while ago, I came across a very provocative article entitled “My Son’s Disability Doesn’t Make Me a ‘Special Kind of Person’“. Here’s an extract

Boys in Chad

Boys in Chad

In 2012, when my son was born with spina bifida — a birth defect of the spine — I joined the ranks of millions of people worldwide who love someone with a disability. I’ve learned a lot in the year since: how to find the best wheelchair-accessible parks, how to schedule multiple therapists, how to be a mom. But more than that, I learned that I am “a special kind of person.” At least, that’s what people told me. Why? Because it takes a special kind of person to raise a child like my son.

Girl carrying her baby sister

Girl carrying her baby sister

I’ll be honest and say that at first, I really liked being a special kind of person. Who wouldn’t? It was nice. It meant I was doing something good, something important and noble. I am, after all, raising a child who has a disability.

But after a few months, it didn’t sit so well anymore. Being called a “special kind of person” began to make me uncomfortable. And then I saw a photo on Facebook that made me realize why. It was a picture of a teenage girl dressed for prom and standing beside her date — a boy with Down syndrome. The picture was charming, but it was the comments that got to me:
“Honorable move, looks like she made his day!”
“Someone at my school did the same this year. It made me proud of her because she’s absolutely beautiful and could’ve had anyone she wanted.”
“That is very sweet of her…”

In prayer meeting with colleagues

In prayer meeting with colleagues

Turns out, she was a special kind of person, just like me. But it felt hurtful somehow. I started wondering, “How would I feel if the boy in this photo was my son?” Sixteen years from now, when my son goes to prom, will people applaud his date? Will they see her as a martyr? As a saint?

Just what are we saying about people with disabilities when we glorify those who love and care for them?

When I speak about Bible translation in churches in the US, it is not unusual to have someone say to Dayle and I something to the effect that we are special people. It might simply be, “I could not do what you do” or “I admire you for doing such difficult work”. I try to give those comments gracious responses, but they have always bothered me.

The forest in northeastern Congo

The forest in northeastern Congo

Seeing Bible translators or missionaries as “special people” because of the place they work, or the people they serve may imply something negative about that place or those people. Believe me, we enjoy the places we have served and the people with whom we have the privilege to work. Yes, there are negatives here, as there are in my wonderful home town in the USA.

But we do not have to work up some special grit or determination which merits special mention or admiration. Quite the contrary.

The author ends her article like this.

So call me hardworking or call me a wonderful mother. But if you call me a special kind of person, I’ll probably nod and smile, because I know a secret: If you knew my son, you’d love him, too. So, I guess you’re a special kind of person — just like me.

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

It’s true. If you saw the amazing places we have seen, if you knew the people we work with, if you saw their joy at receiving God’s word in their language, if you could join in their enthusiastic worship, if you witnessed their deep character and joy in struggles; if you saw their everyday joys and pains, then you would love them too and want to be with them. That makes you just as special as we are.

Hover over a photo to see the caption, or click on any photo to start a slide show.

God, When Will You Speak in My Tongue?


The poem below was written by a man from Southern Sudan expressing his desire to have the Bible in his language. Sometimes, Bible translation is presented as something done where there are few believers. But in Africa, there are places where there has been a Gospel witness for decades and a growing church, but no Bible in the language of the people, their heart language. In such cases, believers long to have God’s word in a language they really understand. They know that the Bible is being translated into languages around them, and they wonder when it will be their turn. Put yourself in the place of those believers when you read this poem.


Lokuuda Kadanya

James Lokuuda Kadanya

Far and near
It is said that you, God, speak!
How do you do that?
Is it in their tongues?
If it is truly so,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

East and west, north and south,
The Creator speaks, it is said!
Not in the language as of birds;
But in other human tongues I cannot understand!
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Children and grown-ups of other lands,
With their different tongues,
Know your voice.
In their tongues you speak a special message to them!
If you speak messages in different tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

South Sudan in Africa mapIn the world around, we perceive you,
Yet your language is not clear.
We want to know you personally,
We want to hear you speak to us.
If you know all tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

We search you as a treasure.
Our eyes look on mountains, rivers,
Even in caves, forest and world around us.
Many voices are heard, confused we become,
If your voice is one, as of that of the Creator of all,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Oh! God, Creator of all people,
You who do not segregate,
Is it possible to hear you speak?
Can you speak in my tongue?
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

—James Lokuuda Kadanya

South Sudan Flag

South Sudan Flag

James speaks the Toposa language of South Sudan, which is spoken by more than a half million people. Today he is operating Salt and Light Outreach Ministries in South Sudan.
This post is re-blogged from The Seed Company Blog.

Necessary for a chief

The Sisaala paramount chief's representative giving remarks

The Sisaala paramount chief’s representative giving remarks

In Ghana, one necessary accessory of a king or paramount chief is an umbrella. Someone carries it for the king or chief. The Ashanti King, and even his representative, has his umbrella over him at all times, even inside a building (although not at his own palace).

So when the representative of the Sisaala Paramount Chief spoke at the dedication of the Sisaala Bible, the Master of Ceremonies was shocked to find that they had not provided an umbrella. (Although most chiefs bring their own.) So he immediately asked someone to go get an umbrella. Within a minute one appeared, but it was quite small. A couple minutes after that, a larger umbrella appeared. At first, the MC held it, but he was quickly relieved by a young man who volunteered.

One of the things I like about Ghana is their attachment to the parts of their traditions they find valuable.

Hover over a photo to see a caption, click on any photo to start a sideshow.

Dying of what

Sign_skull_and_crossbonesWe appreciate it that people pray for our health and safety in Africa, although Americans who have not been here may over-estimate the dangers. But what are those dangers? Unfortunately, Africa has an image in the US of being a place of strife and conflict, so you may think that we need prayer for protection against armed rebels or militias. It also has an image of a place where they are chronic and endemic diseases such as malaria, AIDS and even Ebola; so you may pray that we would be protected against illness.

Fatal accident in front of our place, two years ago

Fatal accident in front of our place, two years ago

When I was in the US, I was often asked about attacks against Christians. That is one of the themes in the news about Africa, especially from religious broadcasters. But of those three: conflict, disease and attacks against Christians, the most likely to happen to us personally is disease. We are thankful for good health during our first years in Ghana. May the Lord continue that trend!

What you may not know is that the most likely cause of death or disability for us is an automobile accident. Sorry, I know that is very pedestrian. Nothing exotic about it.

WreckThe World Health Organization says that nearly 3,400 people die on the world’s roads every day. Tens of millions of people are injured or disabled every year. Over 90% of traffic deaths worldwide occur in low and middle-income countries. A traffic accident is the most common cause of the death of foreigners in Africa. The rate of fatal traffic accidents in Ghana is 13 times higher than in the US. That is actually good for African where the continental rate is 24.1 times that of the US. This high rate is due to speeding and lack of enforcement of traffic regulations. These are exacerbated by the attitude that traffic accidents are random events over which people have no control – that they are a matter of fate.

Overturned truck near our apartment

Overturned truck near our apartment

When we travel by road, we see at least one recent traffic accident per day, often more. That is not counting the overturned or wrecked vehicles from accidents that more than a day old. The newspapers have news of accidents with fatalities several times a week. Two years ago, we even had a fatal accident right in front of our place.

It’s not exotic. It’s not glamorous. It’s probably not something your church will get excited about, but pray for our travels in Africa anyway.

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20130906_163620In September 2013, Dayle’s parents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. In preparation for the party, Dayle was making a cake. She called me over to see this and have me take a photo. She is mixing the cake for their 65th with a mixer they bought about 2 years after their wedding. When I posted the photo on Facebook, one of their grandchildren posted:

Durability. The mixer. The marriage.

Durability is one of the principles behind our work. We want what we do to leave a lasting and increasing impact. We don’t mind if it starts small. Jesus was looking for lasting and increasing impact when he said:

I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father.
(John 14:12 CEV)

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.
(John 15:16 CEV)

We believe that durability of ministry means encouraging ministry in a language that touches more than the head,  investing in local people, and passing the vision for Bible translation to the new churches in Ghana. You will see durability reflected in our by-line.

Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact

It is also reflected in our ministry goals.

Dayle's parents 65th

Dayle’s parents 65th

I am not against short term missions, on the contrary, But short term missions without an accompanying long term effort will only very rarely create lasting and increasing impact. I am not against ministry in English and other major languages, but there are many environments where only touching people using their heart language (mother tongue) creates lasting change. I am not against evangelistic campaigns, but unless they are linked to something else, many who confess Christ will slip back into their former lives.

Producing durability is often not flashy. In fact, it often can only be appreciated after some time, when it becomes more and more impressive, just like that mixer or a marriage of 65 years.


When we were working on translation into the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle and I both got pink eye(conjunctivitis). One of our friends saw the condition and told us that we had Apollo. We thought that was a rather strange name for a disease, but what did we know. We asked around and discovered that there had been a widespread outbreak of pink eye in West Africa at the same time that Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Local urban legend (yes, that happens in Africa too), linked the two events and ever since West Africans have called the disease Apollo.

Blessings come from God's Great Covenant - Hair salon.

Blessings come from God’s Great Covenant – Hair salon.

The association made between the Apollo 11 moon landing and an outbreak of conjunctivitis might seem strange to you, but keep an open mind for a minute. Different cultures have different ideas about the causes of events. We in the West have largely adopted the enlightenment idea that causes are physical, not mystical. We think that science completely explains causes. Many Africans accept mystic causality. If you think that education will change that, you are wrong. Studies have shown a slightly higher percentage of educated Ghanaians accept mystic causality than do uneducated Ghanaians. But don’t roll your eyes. Consider the following illustration of Ghanaian thinking which I have adapted from  well-known Ghanaian churchman Peter K. Sarpong.

A boy always walks to school following a certain path. He always goes with his friend who comes to his house and they walk together. One morning, his friend comes a few minutes later than usual, and so they set off late. As they are walking their usual route, a large tree falls on the boys, killing them.

A westerner will look for a scientifically sound cause for the tragedy.  So we might say that the boys died because recent, heavy rains had loosened the earth around the roots of the tree, so it fell. A Ghanaian might agree, but he would make other observations. He wold note that the boys set off late that morning. If they had been on time, the tree would have fallen after they passed. So what made them set off late? Also, the tree’s roots were loose, but why didn’t it fall an hour before or an hour after? Why didn’t the rain come more slowly in a way that would not loosen the roots? The questions go on and on. It does not take long for such questions to defy answers from a perspective of pure, scientific causality. Many Ghanaians conclude that even though scientific causality explains some things, it cannot bring answers that really satisfy.

This sign asks a question about causality

This sign asks a question about causality

Working effectively across cultures means not dismissing or making fun of what people say and believe about causes, even if at first you just want to roll your eyes. For one thing, people might stop telling you what is really on their minds if you make fun of what they say. And if you think about it, you will find that educated, scientific Westerners are not very different. The not uncommon view that “everything happens for a reason”, for example, cannot be justified by pure science. It is fundamentally a statement of mystic causality. Yet one sees and hears it all the time from educated Americans.

In Jesus’ day, many thought that sin caused all disasters and disabilities. See Luke 13:1-5 to see how Jesus dealt with that.

I find that I have learned from African viewpoints on causality. Besides, I still remember the  shocked look on the African pharmacist’s face when I told him I needed a treatment for Apollo. A white guy is not supposed to know that kind of local legend.

Slow feedback loops

Feedback can change our behavior. If I put my fingers on something hot and burn them, I get immediate feedback in the form of pain; causing me to jerk my hand back. I remember not to touch that thing again! A fast and strong feedback loop causes behavior change.

A slow feedback loop is not as effective in motivating us. The danger of HIV/AIDS is that it can take years for the disease to have its first noticeable negative effects. The same is true of a poor diet. It takes information and discipline to make changes in our lives for things that have slow feedback loops. So we have to know the dangers of high blood pressure, for example, and take our blood pressure (information), then we have to have the discipline to change our diet and/or take medication to keep it under control.

Johan Christaller

Johan Christaller

Missions – the effort to make Jesus known everywhere – suffers from a similar problem. An evangelistic campaign with a big public meeting might result in many people accepting Christ. That is quick and positive feedback. Reporting those numbers will motivate Christians to give to the evangelist. But research shows that the number of those who continue in their faith can be quite low. That information is part of a slow feedback loop, so it tends to have less impact on Christians who are deciding where to send their mission dollars. Like slow feedback in health issues, for slow feedback in missions to affect how Christians give to missions, there is a need for information and discipline.

German missionaries first translated the Bible into languages of Ghana. Johan Christaller’s translation of the Bible into the Twi language was published in 1871. Translations of into other languages in the south and central parts of Ghana were completed in the early 20th century. Over the next 100 years, many Ghanaians became Christians through the use of those translations.  Large and solid churches were established. 100 years is a really slow feedback loop. The organization Dayle and I are on loan to, GILLBT, published its first New Testament in a language of Ghana much later – in 1976. It published Scripture in a number languages over the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Around 2000, some Ghanaians started studying the impact these translations were having. The results are quite remarkable. I have blogged about them and spoken in churches about them, so I won’t repeat them here.

Think about the slowness of that feedback loop.

Year translation
work started
Year translation
was published
Year the research
was done
1962 1976 1998
Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

The research to show the effectiveness of the translation appeared 36 years after the translation started. The translators must have worked in faith that the translation would have an impact. They probably had some stories of impact the translation was having on some people, but they could not know if the effort was going to effective until it was done. In fact, not until years after that! (We are hoping to speed that loop up in the future, but it will still be relatively slow.) A friend of mine who has done quite a bit of research on the impact of Bible translations in Africa says that the biggest impact of translations start about 10 years after they are published.

But the feedback loop is even slower than that. The translation done in 1976 continues to have impact even after the research about its impact was completed in 1998. We know that from anecdotal information. But we don’t know when that impact will be formally evaluated again. It is probable that the feedback loop on many translations will be so long that those who did the translation and all who supported it through prayer and finances will have left this world before all the feedback is known, if it ever is.

Any mission work that has sustained impact over decades will have a very long and slow feedback loop.

I am working on a project with a church in northern Ghana that builds the methods proven effective in the long-term to reach out to the two least evangelized peoples of Ghana with a total population approaching 1.5 million. That really makes me excited, even though we may not see significant results for another 3-5 years.

Hypothetical missions programs, both with fast feedback loops

Hypothetical missions programs, both with fast feedback loops

Some people may give to missions and Christian ministries when there is a dramatic and quick feedback loop, but not much otherwise. That kind of giving is good for emergencies and disasters, but it doesn’t work well to produce sustained impact. For that, regular and well-targeted giving is better.


Gaining weight while in debt

Gaining weight blurbNot long ago, a Ghanaian friend posted this on his Facebook.

In Africa, people who gain weight are respected. It is a sign of affluence. Only people with means can eat well enough and relax enough to gain weight. If I come back from the US having gained some pounds, Ghanaians will congratulate my friends and family for treating me well, and they will tell me that I look healthy. So if someone owes another person money, does not pay it back and gains weight, that person is spending on himself the money he should be paying back. He is disrespecting the person to whom he owes the money. So “Gaining weight while you OWE me MONEY is a sign of disrespect…”

Culture is not just the outward stuff – what people eat, the kind of houses they live in, and so on. It is the ideas that shape how they perceive actions, such as gaining weight or losing weight. One can’t interpret correctly what people of another culture say without understanding their underlying perceptions.

A Ghanaian friend of ours makes cartoons with Christian messages. They show how common behaviors in Ghana are in contradiction with what the Bible teaches. Here is one of his cartoons which tackles men who ogle beautiful women. One look a the cartoon will tell you what characteristic is considered beautiful in Ghana. The point is, if you made this cartoon with a woman beautiful by Western standards, it would not be effective. Communication which does not take culture into account will fail.