Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

Nations

member-states-of-the-unThe Bible is full of references to the nations. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the word “nations” appears 469 times with 431 of those being in the Old Testament. The singular “nation” occurs 594 times with 529 of those being in the Old Testament. So we find well over 1,000 references to nations in the Bible. It’s a major theme that is not developed much by preachers or theologians.

Nations are not what they used to be. What we call a “nation” today did not exist before the year 1500. In fact, about 80% of modern nations have been created since the year 1900 and before that their territories were governed in ways that were different from the modern nation. That means, of course, that the idea of the modern nation did not exist when the Bible was written. So it would be a mistake to assume that when we find the word nation or nations in the Bible, it means what we mean today. But what did it mean?

We get our first clue from the Bible itself. Books of the Bible like I Samuel are full of references to the Philistines. But their country (or nation) Philistia is not mentioned. In fact, it is impossible to figure out from what the Bible says where it was. This is true for other nations mentioned in the Bible. The repeated references to “the Philistines” and the lack of references to “Philistia” make it clear that the focus was on the people, not the territory or the government. In the Bible, nations are defined by their people. An objective reading of the Old Testament leads us to the conclusion that a nation was a group of people with a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language. They had territory, but that was not in focus. In fact, territory was flexible; it could be expanded by war or shrink in war. Historians have confirmed this conclusion.

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

But today we would not call a group of people who share a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language a nation. We would call them an ethnic group. We do say things like “Cherokee nation”. In Canada, native peoples are called “First nations”. But in general, when we say nation we mean country and that is not at all what was meant in the Bible. Almost all countries are composed of peoples with different ancestors, beliefs and languages. Switzerland is mostly composed of peoples of Germanic, Italian and French descent, culture and languages. India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and many other countries are composed of dozens or even hundreds of peoples with different ancestors, cultures and beliefs. Clearly what is called a nation in the Bible is not what we call a country today.

This is confirmed by the word the New Testament uses for nation – the Greek word ethnos. Of course, our word ethnic comes form the Greek ethnos.

Why is a Bible translator writing about this obscure piece of Bible information?

Well, understanding this changes how we understand parts of the Bible. Let’s take a look at a well-known verse:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, … ” (Matthew 28:16-17, ESV, emphasis mine)

For starters, there are a few less than 200 countries in the world, but here are over 7,000 languages. The Joshua Project lists 9,832 people groups. Going and making disciples of all of them is quite different than going to the relatively small number of modern nations. Second, the focus of Jesus’ command is not geographic, but ethnic and cultural. There are many churches in Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example, but there are peoples (“nations” as the word was used in Jesus’ time) in those countries where the Gospel is virtually absent. A country with lots of churches can have places it in where there are peoples where the church is absent – where we have yet to put into action Jesus command to “make disciples of all nations”.

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Culture is not cute

It used to be the case that unmarried people working in Bible translation were assigned to languages in pairs. Quite a number of Bible translation programs have been done by two singles, especially by two single ladies. On occasion, one of the singles would leave – for health, to get married, etc. In such cases, we would assign another, usually one who had just arrived.

Local people would treat the first as senior and the newcomer as junior. The newcomer might be the older of the two, but in the local culture the one who had been there the longest had seniority. They would address all questions to the single with seniority, in some cases even refusing to discuss issues when the senior single person was absent. If the junior of the two offered an answer, opinion or suggestion, people would not accept it or act on it until it was confirmed by the senior. As you can imagine, some singles in the junior position found such situations very frustrating or even demeaning.

power-distance-index-graphThese situations were real culture clashes – a high-power-distance-culture meeting an egalitarian (or low-power-distance) culture. Local people are used to playing their role in the culture. In fact, they don’t know how to act any other way. They perceive their actions as polite and respectful while the junior person finds them belittling.

In my recent role in Côte d’Ivoire, I found myself having to constantly adjust to the high-power-distance culture. My natural reactions were often wrong. Even when I knew that I had to adjust and tried, I sometimes failed.

Some Africans have described a major difference between their culture and Western culture like this :

Western : I think, therefore I am.
African : We are, therefore I am.

They are expressing the idea that their value as individuals comes from their belonging to a group – family, clan, village or people. We Westerners, on the other hand, derive our value from being our own person with our own ideas. We may perceive belonging to a group as a threat to our individuality. Africans tend to believe that being part of a group enhances their individual existence.

flagglobe2The great irony in the situation described above is that local people are giving the newcomer a place in their structure thereby affirming that he or she is included. They are treating them exactly like a member of the community. But the junior person experiences this inclusion as exclusion. The harsh reality is that the newcomer cannot hang on to being a western-style individual in that context and at the same time fit into the local culture. Working across cultures is hard. It most certainly has its joyful periods, but if it is never hard, uncomfortable, painful, frustrating or confusing, then we’re not doing it right.

The experiences of US churches which are being intentionally multicultural bear this out. It ain’t easy. The picture some paint of joyful and easy multiculturalism is very misleading.

But we can’t follow our God by withdrawing into our own comfortable cultural space either, tempting as that is. Our God sent his only Son across a huge divide into pain, suffering, misunderstanding, rejection and finally death. The Son made the journey willingly and he invites us to follow him into the lives of people different from ourselves, down the street or around the world.

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