In 1800, of all the languages in the world, only 68 had a translation of the Bible. Today, the number of languages with the whole Bible stands at 670 and another 1521 have the New Testament. A total of 3321 have some or all of the Bible in print. You can find all these facts at http://www.wycliffe.net/statistics.
Most of these translations were done by Western missionaries; making the last two hundred years the era of missionary Bible translation. The missionary approach has been very successful both in terms of the number of translations and in terms of the spread of Christian faith. It will certainly go down as a glorious era in the annals of missions.
But the missionary era is fast coming to an end. While new translations are still starting at a good clip, fewer and fewer of them are started, organized or lead by missionaries. Local people and churches are doing those things. This shift is anything but a sign of failure. In fact, it is the exact opposite – a sign of success. In Ghana where I work, Ghanaians who themselves received the Bible in their languages during the era of missionary translation are now undertaking translation in the languages of Ghana not yet so endowed. This turn of events is healthy – to be expected where God is working.
I work alongside Ghanaians in ways that reinforce what they are trying to accomplish for God’s Kingdom
Missionaries did things in a certain way – one that suited their preferences and those of their organizations. Ghanaians are keeping some of those ways, but in other cases they are mixing things up. I expected they will change more things over the next decades. With others around the world and under God’s guidance, they are inventing the next era of Bible translation.
This new era does not exclude western missionaries, but it does change our roles. Instead of bringing our ways, we learn and encourage innovation as we teach and consult. Encouraging innovation includes going along with new approaches we don’t believe in because sometimes they work. Humility about one’s opinions and experiences is crucial
“I came looking for a job but I found a career.”
An employee of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), the organization we are on loan to, said this at an office staff meeting in August 2017. He said it full of joy. Judging from my other conversations with him, I know that he is not looking to spend his life working for GILLBT. So by “career” he did not mean lifetime employment. He meant “vocation” or even “call”. He has talked to me more than once about how missions is evolving so that he can plan a career in missions after his employment at GILLBT ends.
He was hired when he answered an announcement at his church about a job opening in GILLBT. At the time, he was just looking for a job; money to live on. But as he learned about translation he began to feel a call.
Ed and other staff member in Abidjan preparing information for the recruitment of a new director
I have heard similar stories from other Africans involved in Bible translation. One told me how he met missionaries translating into his language and started working with them. He showed a flair for translation, so the missionaries asked his church to release him from his position as a pastor to work with on the translation full time. They agreed. Eventually he went on to do advanced studies in translation and become the leader of a program training African translators. He said he knew that it was all part of God’s call in his life.
One of the best roles of a missionary is to be some part of God calling others to being a doctor, a human-right lawyer, a teacher, a Bible translator, or whatever, That is how ministry will continue through the next generation.
Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi
About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.
Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.
Poster for a recent Duncan-Williams event
Recently, a storm of criticism erupted on social media when a week of prayer and fasting was declared in Zambia to fight a cholera outbreak. The idea was mocked and ridiculed, even by some Christians, because they would prefer to see efforts directed toward better public sanitation. A similar thing happened a few years ago when the Ghana currency, the Cedi (pronounced see-dee), was losing value against the dollar. A falling Cedi causes inflation in Ghana. Everyone was talking about it and it was constantly in the news.
One day, I saw in the news that a well-known charismatic preacher had prayed for the Cedi, commanding it to stop falling in value. Most newspapers and radio stations carried the story. I heard conversations between Ghana Christians on the topic.
The critics said the government should exercise more fiscal responsibility; that praying for a miracle was not the right way forward. Others expressed their support. Being a fiscal conservative, I thought the criticism raised some valid points. But I also thought that criticizing prayer was unnecessary. That’s because I don’t have any confidence in the understanding or desires of those who pray, including leading pastors or even myself. But I do have confidence in God. He will hear the prayer and respond based on his infinite wisdom and from his heart of righteousness and love.
It strikes me as both unnecessary and prideful to try to get our prayers exactly right. But insisting that others get their prayers right strikes me as dangerous – something likely to reduce faith and discourage prayer. God is all-wise. So why do we think people have to pray exactly the right thing? The critics expected the people praying to understand the factors that influence exchange rates and pray for the right factor(s) to change. Of course, even economists disagree on what should be done, so good luck getting that one right. I prefer to count on God.
And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words, (Romans 8:26)
Maybe my old age is making me lazy, but I now like to pray for things that bother me even when I don’t understand the issues at all.
PS: I accidentally sent out this post by email some months ago. My apologies to those who are getting it for the second time.