Sustainability and Language

This week, I continue with observations about the Northern Outreach Program. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.

At least two Ghanaians and an Australian have done research into the impact of translations of the Bible into the languages of northern Ghana. One Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic and another, Dr. Thomas Atta Akosah, produced several papers.

Rural church

Rural church

To understand the results of their research, we need to understand the context they studied. The peoples of northern Ghana have low levels of education. Those who do receive an education, then leave the area to find work. So rural churches in northern Ghana often have few members who have finished high school or even primary school. Where there is no translation in their language and no literacy, discipling local believers into leadership roles is a long task. Many do not know how to read. Even if they learn to read, the Bible is only in a language they do not know. Everything depends on a pastor as few others can lead a Bible study or teach a Sunday School class. The most foundational tool for Christian growth, the Bible, is inaccessible to most believers. Their context is full of information about their traditional beliefs, but it is meager in information about their new, Christian faith.

Dr. Sule-Saa research reveals that where there are translations of the Bible in the language, churches sustain themselves and even expand of their own initiative, but other churches where there is no translation in the language of the people need constant help from outside and even then they might stagnate. I have noted this result in other blog posts.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Dr. Atta Akosah’s research explains one of the reasons why this is the case. He shows that the translation of the Bible in the heart language (mother tongue) results in the emergence of effective and widely respected local church leadership; something that does not happen where there is no translation. When local people start reading the Bible in their language, some of them emerge as leaders. Applying their literacy skills and using the Bible as their textbook, they begin answering key questions – questions they ask themselves and questions being asked in their communities. They become known as sources of good advice and help.

Learning to read

Learning to read

In one area, an illiterate young man came to a Bible translator, asking to learn to read his language. So the translator taught him. He used his skill to read the Bible in his language. He went on to learn English, and become a pastor. He stayed in his home area where he started a church where he preaches in the his language. The church is composed almost entirely of converts from another world religion. He has a reputation in the community for answering the questions people have, so much so that other local pastors and even the leaders in other religions call him “the teacher”. People of all faiths come to him for answers. He even has a Bible question and answer program on a local FM radio station in his language.

The rise of empowered lay leadership also happened in the Northern Outreach Program. The emergence of this new level of lay leadership, reminds me of Jesus disciples who were called “uneducated, common men“. It is certainly a very good sign for sustaining the relatively new churches stated among the peoples of northern Ghana whether in their home areas or in the cities.

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

When I attended the celebration of 25 years of the Northern Outreach Program, I found a large hall full of representatives of churches established by the program, few educated, all with their Bibles in their languages.. When we spoke to them about the rise of local, respected lay leadership through literacy and the Scriptures in the heart language, we got a chorus of verbal affirmation, as we did when we told our observations of other results. We were not telling them anything new, just affirming what they were experiencing.

One of the reasons we are involved in Bible translation is the sustained results it achieves. That is why the byline for this blog contains the words “lasting impact.”

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)

Valid even here

This week I continue observations of the Northern Outreach Program which uses literacy in the heart language to carry out urban evangelism. If you missed the introduction, you can find it here.

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Many have observed the rapid rate of urbanization in Africa and around the world. There is obviously a need for effective evangelism and mission in the urban environment. Urbanization brings together people from many languages and creates a favorable environment for the emergence of a lingua-franca, a common language which serves them all. The spread of Twi in Ghana, of Dioula in the southwest of Burkina Faso, of Bambara in Mali, of Hausa in the north of Nigeria, of Lingala in the Congo, of Swahili in east Africa and of other languages in other places, all point to the emergence of lingua-francas as important languages of communication.

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

The emergence of a lingua-franca is so obvious that it leads Christians, pastors, church leaders and missionaries to make the untested assumption that the heart language (people’s mother tongue) is irrelevant to the church and evangelism in cities and towns. But the Northern Outreach Program uses literacy and Scriptures in the heart language and that approach has been very successful. It is important to note that other approaches to evangelizing migrants from the north in Ghana’s cities have failed, or had only very modest success. They have not been successful in stemming the predominant trend of conversion to other religions. The significant difference between the failed approaches using a lingua-franca and the Northern Outreach Program is precisely the heart language, which the Program uses in its literacy program, in its evangelism, in its teaching and in its worship.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

Many observers fail to notice that the urban environment is not homogenous. It is certainly homogenizing, but it is not yet homogenous. It may be on a course to become homogenous in two or three generations, but today the urban environment in Ghana, and in many other places, is made up of ethnic, religious and linguistic niches which often keep their identity in the face of the homogenizing influences of the urban environment.

The success of the Northern Outreach Program, predicated on the heart language, shows that the heart language is an effective tool for reaching those niches.

Especially as approaches based on lingua franca, the homogenizing language, have proved much less successful.

Metamessages

All these years I thought it was only the pastor who could understand what God was saying. But now I’m reading it, and I can understand what God is saying to me.”
A woman speaking the Moba language of Togo

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

A Christian leader in a large association of churches here in Ghana once told us a whole series of stories about how people had misunderstood the songs they were singing in church, sometimes even singing nonsense.

When we launched the Jesus film in three languages in the town of Isiro in the Congo, the audience was live with whispered comments in the language in which the film was being shown. They were saying:

“I can understand everything!” and “It is perfectly clear!”

Why? Because it is not an unusual experience for African Christians to not understand what they hear in church. The Bible reading, the sermon and even the songs may be in a language they do not understand, or understand only partially. This circumstance creates strong metamessages.

Definition metamessageA metamessage is an unspoken message that comes alongside the spoken message. It can be true, or it can be false. The person speaking may or may not be aware of the meta-message he or she is creating. They may be intentional or accidental. If I speak in public using fancy vocabulary, I may create the meta-message that I am snob, or my hearers may think that they are unintelligent. I may intend that, or I may not. If I read a older Bible translation, some who hear may think that Jesus himself spoke with archaic language. We create meta-messages almost every time we speak and when we hear; it is a normal part of life.

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

When a Christian sits in church year in and year out understanding only partially what is being preached, that person will create meta-messages which fit that reality. For the Togolese woman mentioned above, it was “only pastors can understand what God is saying”. Others will create the meta-message that preaching is magical, or that the Bible is magical – the words have power whether they are understood or not, like abracadabra. They may come to believe that Pastors are necessary intermediaries between them and God. Interestingly, when the Bible was first being translated into the languages of Europe including English, the translators were trying to dispel lots of wrong metamessages which had been created by the use of Latin in the church.

Translation of the Bible into the heart language, the language people really understand, dispels false meta-messages. It returns faith to a personal level, assuring each person that God speaks to them, cares for them. We hear the testimonies of that all the time.

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.

Multiethnic churches are the norm

Over 60 languages are spoken in Ghana. That means more than just 60 languages. It means that many different people groups, each with their own ethnic identity and religious beliefs. You might imagine that each of those people groups lived in its own area with nice, discrete boundaries. The reality is much more complex.

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

People groups often overlap, at least near the borders of each group. Many people from nearby areas, or even far away, move into small towns, creating a rich tapestry of ethnic identities. On Sundays, churches deal with believers from multiple languages and with multiple traditional beliefs. The idea that each language group has its own area where people worship in their own language is still accurate in some places, but its is fast becoming the exception.

In the photo, taken at a church conference in Indonesia, the Scriptures are for sale in 13 different languages, which probably does not cover all the languages of the Christians at the conference. In Africa, the meetings at such conference is conducted in a national or regional language. Delegates are chosen who speak that language.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Figuring out how to be one, unified church while making sure that everyone hears the message in a language they fully understand is a challenge. There are many approaches, such as having more than one service each in a different language, then once a month having a unified service in a regional or national language. Some churches conduct services in two languages. But translating everything is time consuming plus it is difficult for listeners to stay focused when every other sentence is in a language they don’t understand. Others have church services in a regional or national language, and home Bible studies in local languages. There are no easy answers. But some ignore the issue altogether and do everything in a regional or official language. But that leaves those most disadvantaged in that language to fend for themselves. It is hard to imagine how a person can become a thriving Christian while understanding only a fraction of the Bible and the teaching and preaching in church.

Engaging the church in Africa in dialog about its multilingual environment is an important part of seeing that Bible translation in African languages are used to their full potential. Bringing new Christians still steeped in their traditional religion into a full understanding of their faith and into joyful walk with Christ is a stiff challenge if the language of the church leaves them out. Effectively addressing the complex linguistic situation facing the church is crucial to a healthy future for the church in Africa, one of the world’s largest.

That is why one of our strategic goals is that “use of the translations in the mother tongue will be sustained and growing”. To that end, I am one of a small team working to organize a conference of church leaders in November which will raise awareness of this issue and try to find ways to address it.

Slow motion Pentecost

define Pentecost - Google SearchThis coming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates something strange that happened at the Jewish festival of Pentecost two millennia ago. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit led them to speak. Many people from every country in the world were living Jerusalem. When they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed, and said:

“Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee? Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.” Act 2:4-11 CEV

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

This phenomenon, of people “hearing everything in their own languages”, has been accelerating. In 1900, The whole Bible or some part of it had been translated and published in 530 languages. By 2000, that had increased to 2,298. That is an increase of 1,768 languages – a rate of a new languages every three weeks for 100 years! Since the year 2000, the rate has increased further, jumping from 27 languages per year to over 70,” which amounts to a new language every 5 days!

That is not as dramatic as if it happened on the same day and at the same place, like it did at the festival of Pentecost. Instead, today we have a slower-motion Pentecost. But, unlike the event being commemorated this Sunday, it is spread over the world. What the new, slow-motion Pentecost lacks in immediacy, it gains in geographic spread.

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

But the real wonder is not the number of languages. It is the impact the translations are having. On the broadest level, we have the assessment of Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako:

African Christianity today is inconceivable apart from the existence of the Bible in African indigenous languages.

Then we have the assessment of leaders about what is happening in their areas where translation is being done:

“Some people are gradually shifting away from the evil aspects of the culture,” Lefa language of Cameroon

“Drunkenness is reduced and people cooperate together better. Now my job is easier.” Unbelieving community leader in Ghana

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

At the narrowest level, we have the statement of people.

 “I have read many times the book of Jonah, where God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh. But when I read this in [my language] it is like God is standing right next to me and speaking to me! It makes me realize that God is close, and that he speaks directly to people.”
Tanzanian man

“I came to know the Lord four years ago, but I was still living with my idols. No one in the church had taught me that I needed to abandon them completely. My pastor preached many sermons but had never spoken of that. Listening to Scriptures, I heard Jesus say you cannot serve two masters. In Thessalonians, I heard how people left behind their idols to serve the living and true God. I called the pastor and explained my situation to him. He was very upset that he had not taught me about such things. That day I repented and handed over my idols. Since that time, I have had peace in my heart.”
Man from southeast Mali

“I used to lie, slander, and quarrel. That has changed.”
A young mother in Mali

At that festival of Pentecost many years ago, they were surprised, excited and amazed at “hearing everything in their own languages.” The slow-motion Pentecost of our day calls for that same response. It’s time to be surprised and amazed and to get excited.

If you liked this, you might also like The day tribal ended.

Ulfilas day – according to me

Today, I commemorate a man you probably never heard of who did something unheard of. I wrote about it last year. Read, or re-read it here:

http://heartlanguage.org/2013/02/07/ulfilas/

Ethnodoxology

Composing Nkonya praise music under a mango tree

Composing Nkonya praise music under a mango tree

The word for the day is ethnodoxology –  the art of making praise songs in local languages.  Praise should come from the heart, so it is best given in one’s heart language.

Right now,  my friend Joseph Gyebi, worship leader, pastor, aficionado of Ghana Gospel music, and student of engaging culture for Christ,  is helping the Nkonya people of Ghana develop new praise songs in their language.

Ethnodoxology, it’s what will happen in heaven.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Trick or Theses

Some people celebrate an alternative to Halloween based on something that happened on this day (October 31) in 1517.

95 Theses in Latin

en 95 Theses in Latin

Monk and scholar Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the church door at the Wittenberg Castle, Germany. This event sparked a giant controversy which resulted in profound religious and political changes that are with us to this day. On the paper, Luther had written 95 statements reflecting his opinions about practices in the church during his day. They are often called the “95 theses”.

Many societal reforms we take for granted would probably have been impossible without Luther’s opinions. Some people celebrate the event as Reformation Day, complete with very cute costumes (see below). In the spirit of a day celebrating documents that changed the world, one family made a Declaration of Independence costume.

It is a natural outcome of Luther’s theses that he went on to translate the Bible into German.  He held the opinion that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. That could not happen until people had a Bible in a language they knew. Translating the Bible into the minority languages of the world continues that thinking. So, Bible translation and the day on which Halloween falls are linked in a round-about way.

If you liked this, you might also like, The Day Tribal Ended, Nida, or John Agama.

 

Patrons

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

The textile industry and Bible translation came together to produce one of the best and most controversial translations of the Bible. Back when it was illegal to own, buy or sell a Bible in English, a group of believing textile merchants backed an outstanding scholar, William Tyndale, to do a translation into English on the sly. Tyndale had to hide and eventually flee before being caught and executed. Despite the opposition, the financial and other support from the textile merchants never flagged. Their support, as much as Tyndale’s brilliant work and perseverance, was responsible for the widespread impact of the translation.

The unprecedented recent progress in Bible translation has been possible because of the many who have been the patrons of Bible translation for minority peoples. Just as, Jesus himself had financial patrons behind his ministry. Unlike Tyndale’s wealthy patrons, many modern patrons of Bible translation give out of modest means.

A longtime Ghanaian supporter of Bible translation receiving an award

A longtime Ghanaian supporter of Bible translation receiving an award

It is unfortunate that the role of the translator or missionary has been elevated above that of supporter or patron. We remember Tyndale, but not the textile merchants. The translations of the Bible which have so benefited the English-speaking world would never have been produced without the dedicated support of their patrons. The same is true for translation in the remaining languages – it won’t happen without the financial support of God’s people. To date, most of the patrons for Bible translation in Ghana have been from North America and Europe. That support was right and good and it needs to continue. But we need to add to it because things have changed. Some in Ghana have the means to provide for the remaining translations in their country, and eventually beyond. So, our work in Ghana includes mobilizing those God is calling to add to the existing patrons for Bible translation in Ghana – Ghanaian churches and individuals.

If you liked this, you might also like Translation and Democracy, A New Key, or Literacy for Life.

A display used to inform Ghanaian Christians about Bible translation into Ghanaian languages

A display used to inform Ghanaian Christians about Bible translation into Ghanaian languages