Who spreads the Gospel to places where it has never been? Missionaries, right? Actually…
This is a portrait of John Agama, now deceased. He was the national chief of police in Ghana for a number of years. He was also a leading Christian and was nationally known as such. While the Gospel was preached in the southern parts of Ghana, from which John came, even from the early 1800s, in the mid 1900s it still had not penetrated into the northern parts. This concerned him.
So along with some other leading Ghanaian Christians including William Ofori Atta, they invited Wycliffe members to come to Ghana and they asked them to concentrate their Bible translation efforts in the north, which they did. The first came in 1962, exactly 50 years ago. I could tell a similar story for other countries where the work of Bible translation got started through the initiative of national Christians. Missionaries came and led the work, but the vision for it came from within the country and nationals did much of the real translation with the training and quality control supplied by specially trained missionaries.
We see a similar story for one of the largest churches in Ghana, The Church of Pentecost. It was started by James McKoewn and has grown to be one of the largest churches in Ghana. It has been self-supporting from the beginning. It now runs schools, clinics and even a university which it funded only with money it raised in Ghana. It has outreach in at least 80 countries worldwide, all funded from within Ghana. James Mckoewn as the only missionary it ever had. All of the other pastors and evangelists have been Ghanaian. James McKoewn did a marvelous work, but he only did a very small percentage of the evangelism and discipleship himself. He concentrated on mentoring a small group of Ghanaians who evangelized and each developed their own small group to mentor. We see the missionary, McKoewn, but the majority of evangelism and discipleship was done by Ghanaians and they carried the vision long after Mckeown was gone.
I met a man in the town of Tamale whose father was the first pastor from the Konkomba people. The Konkomba resisted the Gospel for many years. As the first pastor this man was persecuted, reviled and rejected. Threats were made against him. The man I spoke to remembered growing up in a household that the community at large rejected and insulted. They were though to be traitors. People believed that by rejecting traditional religion they were putting the community at risk from spiritual forces. So they were thought to be a threat that needed to be expunged. But his father stuck to it.
Some of us read and are inspired by missionary biographies. That is great. Unfortunately, there are many, many untold stories of their first converts who suffered as much or more and who did more to champion the Gospel than the missionary and for a longer time. Not that the missionary failed, but by the nature of things the nationals had more impact and stayed longer.
Today in northern Ghana there are many places where the Bible has been translated and the missionary has left. But dedicated Ghanaians are doggedly, without pay even though they have little themselves, running night literacy classes so that their fellow believers can read the Bible and even so that non-believers can have the benefits of knowing how to read. They do this year after year. There is no missionary to tell the story to those who sent out the missionary. But the story will be known in eternity. It will, I believe, be shouted from the rooftops.
One of the lessons of these observations is that missionary impact is extended greatly when the skills and vision are passed on to nationals. Asking a missionary how many converts he has made is okay, but it might also push the missionary to do more primary evangelism to please his supporters, but long-term and sustained impact will come from mentoring and training a small group of local people.