Recipe for transformation

I don’t put much stock in the idea that there is some recipe for doing missions that will make it successful everywhere and always. Doing mission means caring about the people to whom one is ministering. If I care, then I seek to understand the specifics of their situation. But a recipe is meant to work everywhere the same. The danger is that it can remove the need to understand people and their circumstances and by that eventually remove the need to care and then caring itself. On the other hand, we ignore successful mission endeavors at our peril because they point us to ways the Holy Spirit might be working.

In 2014, OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors Bible translation, did an evaluation of the translation programs they sponsor in nine different countries. The evaluation focuses on whether the translation programs were effective at producing transformation in the communities they served.

The answer to that question was an unqualified yes, but there was more. Some translation programs had more impact than others. Furthermore, the ones that had more impact had some things in common. They were:

  • Local decision making
  • Adult literacy
  • Immediate distribution of the translation
  • National leadership

These findings match my own personal observations of dozens of translation programs in Africa.

The translation programs with the most impact all had a great deal of local decision-making. Churches, for example, had control over who was chosen to be a translator and other key program decisions. Assurance of the accuracy of the translation stayed in the hands of the translation organization, but many other decisions were turned over to the churches (for translation) and chiefs (for literacy). I have seen other evaluations that came to the same conclusion.

Translation programs which produce significant transformation in the language community also were those conducting small-scale, inexpensive adult literacy programs. These literacy programs often started in churches and were attended by church members wanting to read the new translation. But they then spread to the community at large and then eventually into primary schools. Literacy programs mean that people can read the new translation, an obvious key to the translation having impact. But they have many, many more benefits.  Literacy classes were the main sources of health teachings for the economically poor and those attending had more knowledge and exhibited the best health care practices, Furthermore, 76% of those attending reported having benefited economically, almost as high as the 79.8% who reported spiritual benefits.

Another key was immediate distribution of the translation. This is a relatively new idea for many translation programs where the translation was not distributed until a whole book was translated and even then some books were not printed and distributed until the whole New Testament or Bible was distributed. It was not unusual for whole books of the Bible, translated and ready for people to read, sat on the translators’ desk for years before being distributed so that people could read them. Immediate distribution does the opposite. As soon as a passage is translated, it is distributed. So the parable of the lost sheep might be distributed as soon as it is translated; before the rest of the chapter in which it appears is even translated. It might be distributed by printing off a few copies and giving them to pastors or read in church, or to literacy classes to read in the class.  Or a translator might quickly record it on their phone and share it with others on their phones via Bluetooth or NFC. In turn, they share it with others causing it to spread rapidly. A constant flow of new passages into the community can have a powerful effect.

Having the program be lead by a national rather than by a missionary from another country did not create greater or lesser impact, but it did reduce the cost significantly.

So, here’s one recipe for real gospel transformation of communities. It is the basis for the translation programs in Ghana we are helping to implement. I believe that anyone doing translation in Africa should try it out. It might work other places too, but I can’t speak to that.

Boils

This is a page from our son Matthew’s baby health book from Burkina Faso. There are a number of cases of boils in over a period of six months. Because the official language of Burkina Faso is French, the baby book is in French. So you see mention of “furoncles” – boils in French. Notice the s on the end of the word. Matthew did not have a boil each time, but multiple boils. Each time he had antibiotics, and that cleared up the boils, but not for long. In one sequence, he was given antibiotics for 10 days on September 7 (7.9.85 on the health card). They cleared up, The course of antibiotics ended on the 16th, and on the 19th the boils came back worse than ever. If I remember correctly, he woke up with 8 or 10 boils on the 19th.

The doctors had no answer other than to give repeated and frequent courses of antibiotics. One doctor told us that the staff germ that caused the boils was found in the soil and in the dust. In short, it was everywhere. The boils were painful and Matthew began to dread going to the doctor. Then we told a missionary couple with another organization. They said that we should treat him aggressively for prickly heat including bathing him with certain soap we could find at the pharmacy and applying a specific lotion for prickly heat after his bath. They also said that we should give him children’s vitamins with zinc. The prickly heat rash causes small breaks in the skin through which the infection can enter, they said. There were no children’s vitamins with zinc in Ouagadougou, so we got family to buy Flintstones Vitamins with zinc in the USA and send them to us. While waiting for them to arrive, we began washing him with the soap and treating him with the lotion for prickly heat. It was not a complete cure, but the cases of boils immediately became less frequent. After the vitamins came, they stopped altogether. When Mark came along, we gave him the vitamins and washed him with the special soap and he never had boils.

We were shocked that none of the doctors we consulted suggested any of the steps that solved the problem. Apparently, they did not know that it could be solved with vitamins containing zinc or by treating prickly heat aggressively. But God knew that we would not find the answer where we were looking, so he sent that missionary couple our way. We ran into them without planning to, and we just happened to tell them about the boils. God set up that meeting. Many times we have found comfort and solutions beyond what science could provide in the people God put around us.

Missionaries are made to leave

Missionaries are made to come and go, or at least they should be. Jesus had about three years of ministry and then he left. The Apostle Paul went from town to town. There’s a bifurcation in modern Western missions between missions lasting two weeks and those lasting 20 years or longer. I worked with situations where a Western missionary has worked in the same language for 20, 30 or even 40 years. Sometimes my American friends express admiration for missionaries who spend many decades in the same place, but I’m pretty sure that is not always a good thing.

A missionary’s role should change as he or she trains local people with whom they are in ministry and they take on more responsibility. We see this in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. After announcing the Good News and seeing some converts, he named and mentored leaders for the new Christians before going on to the next place. He then kept in contact, prayed for those he left and visited them when that was possible. Leaving did not break his relationships. Another aspect of Paul leaving well was that he incorporated some of the new believers from the place he was leaving in his mission to the next place. He also brought all of them into praying for it.

We shouldn’t follow Paul’s example slavishly, but we ignore it at our peril. Depending on the type of ministry (translation develops slowly), a missionary might stay in one place for a long time. But even a long stay should be preparing for a good departure. Bible translation not infrequently takes place where there are low levels of education, making it difficult to train local people in all the complexities of translation. But difficult does not always mean impossible, especially when the time frame is 20, 30 or even 40 years.

A while back, a missionary told me that another missionary should be allowed to stay where they were because that had become home. Being in a place that feels like home is a good thing, but it is not a valid missionary goal. In fact, it sounds like a way to justify staying long after one’s missionary goals have been accomplished. Missionaries who stay in one place for a long time may do so because they like it, they are comfortable, or because they get respect. Recent research found that 96% of missionaries reported that they were functioning well in the society where they are conducting missionary work. Moving would disrupt that. A few times in my career, missionaries faced with a potential change of location have said to me that they want to stay put because “God has called me here”. In every case,  that “here” was a situation that they found personally fulfilling.

Dayle and I with Abidjan staff a few days before our departure. They gave us traditional Yacouba outfits.

I recently took an interim assignment in Côte d’Ivoire. I was given a very specific six-month mandate – take care of current matters and work with a national committee to recruit an Ivorian director. When those things were done, Dayle and I returned to our assignments in Ghana. We had an advantage. Our assignment specifically demanded a transition. We had no choice. Perhaps all missionary assignments should be like that.

Training Ghanaians

Back in the early 1990s, my role lead me to read documents describing a program in Ghana to train Ghanaians as leaders of Bible translation projects. The program looked very interesting to me, so I began to follow it; reading reports and asking questions of people working in Ghana. But after the first cohort of Ghanaians went through the program, it stopped without explanation. However, I did hear that the people from that first cohort went on to lead translation programs. One of them even led translations in two different languages. So when I took an assignment in Ghana in 2011, I was pleased to meet all of them and hear their stories. 

At the send-off. The five trainees are in front

Well, it is starting up again; not the same program exactly, but something close. Dayle and I were thrilled to be part of a send-off meal for five Ghanaians traveling to Israel for eight months to do intensive study of modern and biblical Hebrew in preparation for becoming experts in Old Testament translation. When they return to Ghana, they will train translators, do accuracy and quality checks on translations, and teach Hebrew to Ghanaians translators. These five will be the team of experts who will make sure that translations in Ghana will be accurate, clear and natural. They will also serve beyond Ghana.

Board chairman explaining the importance of this training

Even better, the training was largely organized by leading Ghanaian Christians. They intervened at various steps in the process to help with visas and other formalities. The board of the Ghanaian organization Dayle and I are loaned to, GILLBT, has also caught the vision for training their own.

I am convinced that, as in the 1990s, this program will result in more and better translations in Ghanaian languages. Given the commitment and involvement of leading Ghanaian Christians, there will be more than one cohort this time.

Favorite Verse

YouVersion is a Bible app for tablets and phones. It has the Bible in hundreds of languages and it is very popular around the world. Among its many functions, it allows users to highlight, bookmark and share verses. Because the app works with an Internet connection, the makers of YouVersion can see which verses people are highlighting, bookmarking and sharing. Also, they can tell which country the activity is coming from. This allows them to track which verses get the most attention in which countries.

YouVersion has revealed that in 2016 the same verse got the most attention in 88 different countries. It would be fun to see what verses my readers would guess. Without a doubt, John 3:16 would get lots of votes. In reality, the verse that got the most highlights, likes and shares in 88 different countries in 2016 was this one:

“And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped.” (Zechariah 14:9 NLT)

Perhaps you are now surprised.

Ghanaian woman reading Bible in her language. (Original photo: Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance; effects E. Lauber)

It turns out that what Bible verses people like varies a lot from place to place. That’s because different verses in the Bible speak to different issues and which issues are most important to people depends on their culture, beliefs and circumstances. I can’t assume that someone from another culture and place will find my favorite parts of the Bible most relevant. That’s probably why God had the Bible written over many centuries, in many places, in many different circumstances, and in different cultures. I wouldn’t want someone from another culture to limit me to their favorite food, let alone their favorite Bible verse.

We are involved in the translation of the whole Bible so that Zechariah 14:9 and other verses that you or I would never pick can be someone’s favorite. With the whole Bible, everyone can find the verses that brings them the most hope, encouragement, joy and faith; the ones without which they would never find their way into God’s kingdom.

Your language doesn’t go far

Night literacy class in Ghana, photo courtesy of Paul Federwitz

A Christian from a smaller ethnic group in northern Ghana told me that he told the district pastor of his church that he was enrolled in a literacy class in his language. The pastor responded that what he was doing was useless because he could not go far with his small language. If he traveled even a short distance he would quickly be outside the area where the language is spoken, so it would not serve him any more. According to the pastor, he was leaning a skill with very limited range. 

Any psychologist will tell you that a person only learns to read once. Its just like math – if you learn it in any language, you know it. The skill of reading can be transferred to any language with much less time and effort than learning the skill in the first place. So enrolling in a literacy class in any language will give a person a skill they can use in any other language. Being able to read will go a long way, even if the language won’t. So the pastor was focusing on the wrong thing – language instead of literacy.

Woman teaching literacy class

Besides, it is the end that matters not the start. A primary school education cannot take you far, but you cannot get more education without it. It would be silly to think that primary school education is worthless for those who get high school diploma’s and university degrees. Literacy in a small language might not get you far in one sense, but in another it can be the start of something that goes a long ways. Tens of thousands of primary school dropouts in Ghana have gone to literacy classes in their small languages, gained skills, then returned to school with success becoming nurses, teachers, pastors and even a university lecturer!

In addition, there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians who have had their lives transformed through reading the Bible in their languages, even though they never went to school. That wouldn’t have happened if they had not enrolled in a literacy class in their small language. Then there are the many Ghanaians who would never have even considered the claims of Christ and the Gospel except they enrolled in a literacy class and then read the Bible in their language.

But the pastor’s point about the language is true. The language is only used in one small part of Ghana which is an even smaller part of the world. The usefulness of a language over large geographic areas is important for commerce, politics, etc. Nevertheless, the pastor has another problem. His own language, while many times larger than the smaller language, is a very small language by world standards. Yet he reads the Bible in his language because people who speak a really important language like English or German came to Ghana and did not think his language too small or trivial to translate the Bible and teach people to read. They did not dismiss his language as one that wouldn’t take people far.

It turns out that people often think that languages smaller than theirs are too small to be worth it but their own language is worth it. An ethnocentric viewpoint like that does not square with God’s own sense of mission. He could have easily dismissed us because being human doesn’t take you far in this universe.

What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them? (Psa 8:4 NLT

This post is made in honor of International literacy day which is tomorrow.

FM and language

Logo for a Ghanaian-language FM station

Some people believe that globalization will result in a universal consumer culture that wipes out local culture including local languages. But there are a number of indications that this is not the case. One is the explosion of FM radio stations in Africa. Some of them get some or even all of their content via the Internet. For example, the BBC World Service is broadcast in Accra on 101.3. Such stations represent a homogenizing globalization where local people are affected by international influences. But many more FM stations use local languages. Of necessity, much of their content is generated locally.

This localization of FM language and content is a significant hedge against homogenizing globalization. Ghana’s National Communications Authority says that 481 FM stations are authorized to broadcast of which only 5 are foreign stations like the BBC.

In addition to FM stations, other forces are giving new vitality to African languages. In recent years, it has become a virtual requirement that Ghanaian politicians give their political speeches in their language when they’re in their area. That did not used to be the case. Some have even spoken their language in Parliament, although some mocked that. However, some defended it as well.

In some parts of the world many languages are dying. Ghana is not one of them. Here the languages are spreading their wings and traveling into new territory including the Bible, radio, politics and even education. They are carving out spaces in globalization for local culture and preferences. Ignoring them in Christian ministry would be an against-the-flow mistake.

PS: This is the next-to-last post in my series about small languages.

Impact in the Volta Region

Ghana’s Volta Region borders the neighboring country of Togo. The veneration of the python is practiced in the Volta region and extends east through Togo and Benin. It is even thought that it formed the origin of the practice of Voodoo in the Caribbean through slaves taken from the area. Even today, there is a voodoo festival in Benin  and a Python temple. The most widely spoken language in the Volta Region is Ewe (pronounced Eh-Vay). It is the language of church, commerce and relationships between peoples, in addition to the being by far the largest mother tongue in the region, extending into large parts of Togo. Christianity came to the Volta Region with German missionaries in the 1800s.

They worked in the Ewe language, including translating the Bible. In this language map you can see that the embedded in the Ewe people and language there are a number of smaller languages that Ewe is surrounded by smaller languages. Ewe became the de facto church language not only for the Ewe people, but for the people speaking those smaller languages as well. While the work of missionaries had a dramatic impact on the Ewe people and in some other places, it did not displace the veneration of the python in some of the smaller language groups. In fact, the influence of the python actually grew in the mid to late 20th century, in some cases pushing back advances that Christianity had made. Women are the most affected. They are inducted as young women. Placating the spirit of the python can even deplete a woman’s financial resources. One of the effects of the veneration was the there were few women in churches in areas of the Volta Region where smaller languages were spoken.

The first Bible translations (just the NT to be precise) in the smaller languages of the Volta Region were finished in the 1980s, with more completed in the 1990s and even more started since 2010 and a few with no translation work yet. Research done by a colleague of ours, Naana Nkrumah, focused on the impact of those translations on the veneration of the python. They were summarized in an article in the Journal of African Christian Thought and at a conference I attended. One of the marked changes since the translations were published is the number of women in the church, which has increased dramatically. Other results include:

  • Very few young women are now inducted into the veneration. In some areas, none has been inducted for over a decade.
  • Women report significantly improved financial status as a result of not spending resources placating the spirit of the python
  • The veneration has lost prestige and power. In past confrontations with Christiantiy, Python priestesses did powerful miracles which convinced women to stay away from Christianity and stay faithful to the python. Now such miracles are rare and when they do occur many women have the courage to stay with their Christian faith in spite of them.

Naana Nkrumah

What is interesting about these findings is that the Bible and preaching in an African lingua franca (trade language) was unable to compete with devotion to the python. This was in spite of the fact that the language in question, Ewe, is widely spoken and understood in the area. On the other hand, the translation of the Bible into smaller local languages resulted in dramatic change. It is my contention that understanding a language is often not enough to produce all the benefits of the Gospel. Instead, the Bible and preaching must be in the people’s heart language (mother tongue) – the language that touches their deepest center. Only then can deeply-seated beliefs and traditions be changed.

This blog is the 4th in a series on why we translate into small languages.

Small languages: part 3

A friend of mine who has been to Israel several times asked me if I had been. I haven’t. She then said that the first thing that struck her when she arrived was how small the place is. The total land surface area of the earth is more than 57 million square miles. Israel’s land area is 7,847 square miles. (8,019 total minus 172 square miles of inland water). So Israel’s percentage of the world’s land is 0.0137% – a little more than one hundredth of a percent or 14 parts in 100,000.

We might ask why a God of infinite power would give his chosen people such a small bit of real estate.

But that’s not all. There are an estimated 14 million Jews in the world Today, down from a peak of almost 17 million in 1939. Against the world population of almost 7 1/2 billion, that makes Jews 0.188 percent of the world’s population. We might ask why God has not caused his chosen people to grow to be more numerous.

It seems that numbers and land surface are not that important to God. What we might use to measure the prestige and value of a people or a nation are not the measures God uses. We shouldn’t be surprised. God told his prophet Isaiah exactly that:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8 ESV)

In Corinthians, the Apostle Paul develops this idea further:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are (I Corinthian 1:27-28 ESV)

God often works through the small, the despised, the marginalized, those no one considers important. It is a theme throughout the Bible.

  • When God sent his son he arranged to have him born during a trip forced by the taxation order of a foreign, pagan invader. He had him born in a trough for animal fodder.
  • When God wanted to overthrow the corrupt regime of Elie and his sons Hofni and Phineas, he chose the lowliest person in the society of that day – a childless married woman. He gave her a son who became a just leader. (I Samuel 1-7).
  • Jesus illustrates God’s methods with the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd goes looking for the lost 1% of the sheep.

Why do we translate for small languages? Because we are following our God. We are trying to be like him. Because to be valid, our mission has to reflect his heart, his mission, his values and his methods.

Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing?