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.

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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

What kind of holy?

Holy Bible

Page of John Wycliffe's translation

Page of John Wycliffe’s translation

What do we mean when we say that the Bible is “holy”? I hope that we mean that it is God’s word and that we therefore take it seriously. But some people mean something else – that the language itself is holy. In an essay on translating the Bible, C. S. Lewis reminds us that:

Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street

Jamaican New TestamentBut we do not need to go back five centuries to find this opinion. Today it is flourishing in many places including Jamaica. There, the translation of the Bible into Jamaican is causing quite a stir. Those opposing it are saying pretty much the same things that were said by those pious people in the sixteenth century.

But, in order for the truth to break through, a specific kind of false “holiness” needs to be lost. Lewis goes on to say that losing that kind of holiness is no loss at all.

The only kind of sanctity that Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language…

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

Tyndale Bible

Some oppose translation of the Bible into minority languages, or consider it to be a waste of time, for a similar reason – that the languages are too lowly. In other words, they are not holy enough. That point of view misunderstands the nature of the Bible — and the nature of minority languages. In addition, it runs counter an observation of the Apostle Paul – that God likes to work through what the world considers weak and plain and common.

I am in Bible translation to see God work amazing things in people and languages that others consider insignificant and, yes, even unholy. God’s Word is holy in the way God made it holy, not with the artificial “holiness” people sometimes try to add.

What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important  (I Cor 1:28 CEV)

If you liked this, you might also like Great Style, Patois, or Counted.

The day tribal ended

Tomorrow, people around the world will celebrate a very unusual happening on a Jewish festival some 2000 years ago. Read the account here.

But let’s back up a bit. One can read the Old Testament as the story of a tribal religion. By “tribal” I mean proprietary – belonging to a specific group of people. The religion of the descendants of Abraham came to them in their language, it is full of their stories about their God.

There are many tribal religions which also belong to people of a common ancestry, who share the same customs and usually the same language. Most tribal religions respect other peoples who have their own gods and religious practices.

A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that God had universal ambitions when he choose to start with Abraham and his descendants. Which brings us to the first festival of Pentecost after Jesus was crucified. Something happened there which shook to the core the idea that Jesus had come to fulfill the aspirations of only a limited group of people – everyone started hearing about the glory of God proclaimed in their own language. Tribal religions are almost always locked up in one language. Here was something different.

From that day, Christianity has been a religion which is not tied to one culture or one language. Instead, it permeated Roman society and the Greek language, breaking free from any tribal identity. Other events, such as those Peter experienced with Cornelius came along to confirm and seal the breakout. The Apostle Paul wrote against those who wanted to tie Christianity to tribal roots. Occasionally some try again to make Christianity a tribal religion – attempting to tie it to a particular language, nation and/or customs. But it never lasts.

There are two ways to be a universal religion. One is to assimilate everyone into your tribe. In this method, everyone will eventually have the same customs, perhaps speak the same language, have the same religious practices, and believe the same religious teachings. The other is the path God has taken Christianity where the person at the heart of the religion, Jesus, comes into languages and cultures and they develop an allegiance to Him while continuing to speak their languages and practice their culture – building houses as they did, singing the same kind of music they always did, being proud of their people’s history and achievements, and so on. Christianity does not seek to assimilate all cultures, even if some of its proponents sometimes mistakenly try to do that. Christianity translates itself into the languages and cultural forms of people.

Christianity does not erase culture, but weaves itself into the culture to create a rich tapestry – Rev. Prof. J D Ekem

If God had hired the most successful advertising agency to put on an event to illustrate that faith him is not a tribal thing, that agency could not have come up with a more convincing and significant event than the one described in Acts chapter 2. All those people, who had been assimilated into Judaism and had come to the center of that faith, Jerusalem, to worship each heard in their own languages – languages hitherto reserved for their tribal religions. Amazing.

If you liked this, you might also like Worse than you thought, Linguistic diversity or Weak things.

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A New Key

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

I have written before about Solomon Sule-Saa, a Ghanaian who has done extensive research on the impact of translating the Bible into the Konkomba and Bimoba languages of northern Ghana. In a summary of his research presented to a conference in September, he said of the Konkomba and Bimoba peoples:

“The Bible now provides the key to understand the world”

I have heard my share of sermons on Romans 12:2

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”

But I do not think that I have heard a better description of one way to put that verse into practice – that the Bible should be the key through which I interpret the whole world.

Translating the Bible into new languages is often billed as effective evangelism, and it is. But it is much more than that. Beyond bringing people to Christ, these translations are transforming individuals and communities through renewing people’s minds.

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

During an ethnic conflict which was so serious the Ghana army had to intervene, the Bimoba lost confidence in the neutrality and good will of the Ghana government. They saw no way forward but to continue fight for their rights. In a war council, several leaders quoted from the translated Bible, arguing that that Jesus way is the way of reconciliation. So, abandoning their own wisdom they agreed to engage in peace talks moderated by the government they no longer trusted. It worked. They got what they were seeking through negotiation. Now that is faith – following the teachings of the Bible when your life and your livelihoods are at stake. This story shows that the Bible in these languages is doing more than influencing the decisions of individuals. It is also affecting the decisions made by the chiefs for the whole group. Now that is being transformed.

If you liked this, you might also like Tome, Patois, or Feeling the Gospel in our bones.

Bimoba traditional dance

Bimoba traditional dance

The Cute and the Informative

I’ll start with the cute. NewsOK, a Oklahoma on-line news site, has a great article entitled Who Wrote the Bible. It’s not what you might think. Instead of a dry theological treatise, the author gets the answer from children from ages 8 to 10. Smart kids. You’ll enjoy it.

Also in the fun and informative category is Wycliffe’s new website – Road to Transformation. It opens with a nice infographic and you can stay there or dig into more details. Believe me, the process is exactly like we do it.