Being a bibleless Christian 

Photo Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe

We think of peoples without the Bible as being without the Gospel. While that is often the case, it is sometimes the case that people are evangelized using a language they understand to some degree. Churches are formed that use the other language. This situation can go on for a long time without the Bible being translated into the language of the people.

What is it like to be a biblesss Christian – a Christian who has to read the Bible in another language, or for whom there is no Bible in any language he or she speaks? I really don’t know because I grew up with the Bible in my language. But, I have talked to bibleless Christians and read things they said. So here’s what I have learned.

A older Congolese Christian told me he never thought his language would be written and therefore the Bible would never be translated into it. In one language in Burkina Faso, people walked for miles to see the first literacy class because they did not believe that their language could be written. Many were Christians. It is not uncommon that bibleless Christians believe that their language is defective and that is why it is not written like “real” languages.

If the language is defective, then perhaps it is not suitable for communication with God. Thomas Atta-Akosah reports that:

An indigenous Ghanaian Christian from a minority language group prayed: “God in heaven, we thank you for all the good things you have done. But you know that I do not speak Akan well and I know you do not speak my language. So I am finished. Amen.”

That Christian knew that the Bible had been translated into Akan and that Akan was therefore suitable for praying.

The opposite also happens to bibleless Christians. They have no doubt that their language is suitable. Perhaps they have never questioned its suitability, but existing churches insist they worship and pray in another language. One African wrote that his people had to push back for decades to worship in get their language and get the Bible translated into it.

Christians in dominant groups that have translations may not see the need, or they may worry that the church will be divided. One of my colleagues had a church leader tell him that with his translation he was trying to divide the church. Since that comment was made the Bible has been translated into several smaller languages in that area with no sign of dividing the church. But, a group did split off that speaks the same language and uses the same Bible. I have witnessed quite a few situations where church leaders and even missionaries oppose worship and translation in a local language.

So bibleless Christians often have struggle through barriers to translation they either erect for themselves or that others throw up in their path. Prayer is our most powerful tool for overcoming those obstacles because they are based in the heart.

Leviticus?

By Philip De Vere, via Wikimedia Commons (license CC 3.0)

Recent research shows that when local people have a say in how the Bible is translated into their language, it will be more widely read and have greater impact. So translation programs in Ghana now include consultations with local people, pastors and community leaders. When asked what book of the Bible they wanted to translate next, pastors and key lay leaders in the Delo language community in Ghana said that they wanted Leviticus. According to them, Leviticus will be most useful for evangelism, discipling believers, preaching, teaching and personal reading.

Delo translators with model of the Tabernacle

One Delo Christian pointed out that many of his people still follow traditional religion with practices very much like those described in Leviticus. He said that it is from Leviticus that he can build an effective bridge to the Gospel. I don’t think very many Americans Christians would name Leviticus as the book of the Bible they need most or first. Nor would they be likely to cite a verse from Leviticus when  talking to others about their faith. 

One of the realities and challenges of working in another culture is that what is most relevant might be different than you think. It’s not that the truth changes, not at all. But which part of the Bible is immediately relevant changes a lot.

By the way, did you know that the inscription on the Liberty Bell includes part of a verse from Leviticus?  The inscription reads in part:

Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof

Apparently those who designed the bell thought Leviticus was relevant to their political views. 

Mary’s song

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Mary’s song of praise is part of the story of Christmas. It is found in Luke 1. 

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.

Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)

This is quite a display of sophisticated theology for a simple peasant girl! Mary weaves her understanding of the Bible into her understanding of history, her circumstances, God’s promises and their fulfillment.

Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale, has written:

The Christian approach …. [contends] that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and [targets] ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.
Lamin Sanneh. Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

We see this at work in Africa where large and successful churches were started and led by people with low or no education but who devoured the Bible in their own languages. In fact, that is still happening today. Let none of us think that we are too ordinary to grasp or announce great Bible truths, or that others are too ordinary. The first translations of the Bible into English sprang from that same democratic ideal – that ordinary people would understand. When we translate the Bible into the languages of ordinary people we show that we have the same confidence in them that God has in them and in us. 

That’s actually a Christmas message because Christmas shows us that God has confidence that ordinary humans will understanding his ultimate message when it comes down. 

Merry Christmas - animated banner

Supporting Bible Translation

Sometimes when speaking to a US church or church group, I have been asked what is the most important thing the church can do to support our ministry. The answer is: make the Bible a key part of your life. I am doing Bible translation because studying the Bible changed me. Why would people who are not passionate about the Bible give so that others can have the Bible? Why would they care that there are people who do not have the Bible in their language? On the other hand, people who find life, hope and power in God’s Word understand why others need to have that same Word.

Besides, it has been shown that the surest way to grow in faith and Christian spirituality is to study the Bible with others. It is even more effective than attending church or reading the Bible personally; not that I am proposing that you stop doing either of those!

The American Bible Society recommends:

  • Declaring your confidence in God’s living and active Word
  • Renewing your personal daily encounter with God in Scripture
  • Giving the Bible a central place in your life
  • Inviting others to engage with the Scriptures

If you want to support Bible translation, then the first thing to do is to cultivate a passion for the Bible in your life that encourages and strengthens you. Besides, it will grow your faith. 

Empathy and mission

I have mentioned several times my favorite blogger, Seth Godin. In 2014, he posted this as part of a short blog entitled Tone Deaf:

Great marketers have empathy.
They’re able to imagine what it might be like to have a mustache or wear pantyhose. They work hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes.
“What’s it like to be you?” is an impossible question to answer. But people who aren’t tone deaf manage to ask it.

Doing Bible translation well includes being able to imagine what it is like to be part of a bibleless people. In fact, the primary skill of someone ministering the Gospel across cultures might be imaginative empathy. Mastery of linguistics or translation skills is crucial when translating the Bible, but if they are wielded without empathetic understanding, they are not ministry.

A basic knowledge of cultural anthropology also really helps in cross-cultural ministry, but if I employ it without empathy, people will feel like mere objects of study or even curiosities. I might go to another culture and imagine that I know how to solve their problems, but until I make the effort to understand those problems the way they do, my efforts will almost certainly fail.

Pray for us and for others working in Bible translation — that we will have imaginative empathy.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)

No no no

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I have always tried to preach where people have never heard about Christ (Romans 15:20 CEV)

John Piper calls this a Holy Ambition. Piper is far from alone in getting inspiration from the Apostle’s desire to take the good new about Jesus to places where it has not yet been announced. The website JoshuaProject.net is dedicated to listing all the peoples and languages of the world and the degree to which each has heard the good news. As is evident from perusing the website, intentionally taking the good new to new places requires research. One cannot just strike off in a random direction and hope to encounter a people who has not heard of Jesus.

I have colleagues who have spent a good part of their lives going out into the field and finding out where languages are, how many people speak them, if the people in one location can understand the people in another and if the language is dying out or perhaps growing. One of them is Ted Bergman who was an engineer before getting involved in Bible translation. After spending a couple decades training, organizing and leading small teams of researchers across Africa, he set out to find out how many places there in the world where there are no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible in the language of the people — a triple no.

The purpose of the research, of course, is so that people will know of those places and take action to remove one or more no. He found 138 such places. There are none in North America, South America or the Pacific. There is only one in Europe. The majority are in Asia but there are also a number in the Middle East and 18 in Africa. Just three countries have over half of the 138 places, but 19 countries have at least one. You can look at the list yourself, just ignore the columns of codes only missiologists understand.

I was a missionary for a while before I fully appreciated that missions requires research. Not the kind of research one does in a lab or on a computer, but rather the kind where one goes out among the people, talks to them, and seeks to understand their situation. What language do they speak? Have they ever heard an adequate presentation of the good news? Are there missionaries working among them? How many of them are Christians, if any? What religion do they follow? Is there a Bible in their language? This research is seeking out every niche where the good news of Jesus is still missing. A few months back, I was involved in an inter-agency committee in Ghana where we looked at research, made inquiries and came up with a list of all the remaining Bible translation needs in Ghana. What’s cool about that is the efforts now being made to shrink that list until it has nothing on it.

Area near the town of Goz Béïda in Chad which is near the Dar Sila Daju language area, one of the places with no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible

 

 

Public

For years Africans told me, “Your translation work is not well known. People should know about it.” The thing is, I didn’t know what to do about that. We weren’t trying to keep it a secret. We did tell people what we were doing, so I couldn’t figure out what we might change. In the last few years I have started to see what Africans meant and why it is important, mostly by observing what Ghanaians are doing in the translation programs when they have the full freedom to do it their way.

When we first arrived in Africa, we were sent to a village in the southwest of Burkina Faso. With help from translators in a neighboring language, we contacted missionaries in the area, met with a few local officials and set to work. While I was briefly acting director in Côte d’Ivoire last year, we officially started the translation into the Abure (pronounced ah-boo-RAY) language. The process was quite different. First, some well-known Christians from the language area were contacted about the translation. They formed a committee composed of representatives of all the major churches. Then they informed all the pastors, chiefs and officials of the plans to do a translation of the Bible into Abure. All of this culminated in a public event to which all the churches were invited and most attended. It was lead by people well-known in the language area. At the ceremony, an agreement was signed detailing how the translation would proceed and how the churches and Bible agencies would cooperate.

Only after the ceremony, was the translation program considered to have officially started. Having a public ceremony to launch a translation was something I first saw in Ghana in 2012. In found it significant that in both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire people who didn’t know each other and who were unaware of each others’ actions spontaneously started translation programs the same way.

Prayer at the launch of translations in three smaller languages in Ghana’s Volta Region

Public ceremonies, it turns out, are key events for informing everyone that the translation is taking place. I finally figured out that I could spend a lot of time going around telling people about the translation without accomplishing what can be done by visiting a few key people then holding one public event. Because chiefs and leading pastors attend, the whole community sees that they support it; a key to getting others to volunteer. I have also seen them become important fund-raising events. Finally, after the public event, everyone in the community, even those who do not attend, are thought to know about the translation, because the communities are very effective at spreading information by word of mouth.

But public meetings are about more than spreading information or raising funds. They give the translation program something nothing else can – legitimacy. Programs that are not publicly launched can attract suspicion – what are they hiding; why don’t they make themselves known? But programs that start with a public ceremony are seen to be transparent and have the endorsement of the right people; so people can trust them, contribute to them, and recommend them to others.

If you liked this, you might also like Making the Right Decision.

Jumping ship

In 2010, I worked for an organization that was like a well-run ship. The crew was well-trained and beyond competent. The equipment might not have been the latest, but it was fully functional and well-maintained. Relations between crew members were cordial. All the safety equipment was in place. But there was a problem. The captain said we were headed to New York but it looked to me like we were going to miss New York by a very long ways.

Paul Opoku-Mensah

It was in this quandary that Paul Opoku-Mensah, the director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), asked me to come to Ghana twice to do some training of his staff. During my trips to Ghana, I had the opportunity to talk for hours on end with Paul, including twice on 14-hour drives between the north and the south of Ghana. Paul’s organization was nothing like mine. It had recently been rescued from nearly sinking and it was still leaking and listing. The crew suffered from factions and discord, even threatening to mutiny against the captain. But Paul had a plan for getting to New York I found compelling. His plan was similar in some ways to what I was thinking, but involved a number of things I had never heard of. When Paul asked Dayle and I to join the crew of his ship, we were faced with a stark choice – we could stay on our sleek ship going the wrong direction or join the fractious crew of a troubled derelict taking an uncharted course. We prayed and jumped ship.

Our “New York” destination involved engaging the church in Africa in translating the Bible into African Languages, and sustaining the use of the Bibles being translated.

A few days ago, Paul, the man who has been our captain for the last 7 years,  moved on to something new. So I am looking back and evaluating the progress the ship has made. First, it didn’t sink! And while it hasn’t yet arrived at its destination, it is a LOT closer. Churches in Ghana have been engaged. They are giving money. It’s not enough yet, but it is growing substantially every year. Because churches understand and support ministry in Ghana languages, sustained use of translations in those languages is much more likely. 

In addition to being fruitful, the journey has been intellectually stimulating. Paul taught me a lot about the theory and the practice of sustainability and engaging the church in Africa,

In 2011, God put before us a very uncertain path. That was not at all a bad thing. 

New Norms

The Ghanaian organization we work for has just established norms for the length of translation programs — five years for the New Testament and 7 for the Old. These assume that the basic linguistic work like getting and alphabet and primer, have already been done. They also assume that all the right conditions have been met such as adequately trained translators with biblical training including at least one with who knows biblical languages; and adequate funding for all the translation activities and equipment. I have seen under-resourced translation programs drag on and end up costing more in the long term than if they had been well-resourced in the short term.

Translation progress graph

Translation progress is more like the blue line than the brown line

Translation does not progress in a straight line. That is, if it takes 5 years to translate the New Testament, the translation does not progress at the rate of one fifth per year. Rather, progress in the first year will be slow as the translators learn and as they solve translation issues that only need solving once then can be applied throughout such as how to translate “sin”. So we expect the translation to pick up speed as it goes along and at the same time to be better quality – clearer and more accurate.

But there is a limit. The translation can only go so fast without the speed causing problems like poor translation accuracy. I’ve seen that first hand and more than once. On the other hand, translations that proceed too slowly also create problems. Local churches and international funders can get discouraged and stop their support, for example. I have seen cases where translation progressed so slowly that the translators became a joke in the community and no one would lend a hand or give money any more. Even getting the translation back on track was difficult because no serious person in the area wanted to be associated with such a sorry project.

In this way, translations are like the speed (RPM) of large diesel engines. When they are pulling a load it is bad for them to go either too slow or too fast. So the operator has to keep them in a certain RPM range. Unfortunately, many Westerners like me who are involved in translation are (rightly) worried about translation going to fast and loosing quality, but we don’t seem to see the problems of going too slow.

Just for comparison, it took the translators of the King James Version seven years to translate the whole Bible, but there were over forty translators divided into six groups each of which did part of the Bible. Also, they borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s translation which done only a few decades earlier. In fact, not a few passages in the King James translation are lifted directly from Tyndale with only minor changes if any. On the other hand, the KJV translators worked part time alongside their church duties. Nevertheless, doing a whole Bible in Ghana in 12 years with 3-4 full-time translators and no previous translation to draw on will push the limits in many of the languages where translations are still needed. If the new norms provoke efforts to see that translation programs have everything they need to progress well, they will be valuable even if they are not always met.

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.