Challenging identity

A couple years ago, I worked with a church in Ghana on a program to reach out to the Gonja and Dagomba peoples of northern Ghana. They constitute the two largest unevangelized people groups in Ghana, comprising 1.2 million speakers. 100 years of outreach to these people groups has so far had minimal impact.

Identity is s good part of the reason. The Dagomba and Gonja have wolven identities for themselves that exclude them from Christian faith. Almost all of them follow another world religion and they believe that religion is part of their identity. Their ethnic identity and their religion are rolled onto one package. There are several facts that sustain this belief.

  • Their rival people groups in southern Ghana are largely Christian while the Gonja and Dagomba are not. Before Christianity and other world religions came to Ghana, each group had its own variety of African traditional religion as most African peoples do. So it makes sense to them that each group has its own religion.
  • The rival, largely Christian people groups of southern Ghana have started churches in the Dagomba and Gonja areas. But those churches were built for Christians from southern Ghana who have moved to the north for work. Those attending them are often civil servants posted to the north. The churches are lead by pastors from the Christian peoples of the South and they hold their services in the languages of the southern transplants, not in Gonja or Dagomba. So it appears that the churches are only for the southerners, and in fact, they are. The logical conclusion is that Christianity is also only for southerners.
  • Furthermore, the churches in question sometimes don’t attempt evangelism or outreach to the Dagomba or Gonja people in whose communities they are situated.

Ghana is not strange in this regard. I remember worshiping on Sunday evening in California with an entirely Anglo congregation located in a Hispanic neighborhood. I learned that the church had no service or outreach in Spanish. It is likely that the church’s neighbors considered Protestantism to be the religion of Anglos and Catholicism their religion. The behavior of the church certainly reinforced that perception, unintentionally I’m sure. So what’s happening in northern Ghana is not all that strange. In fact, I suspect that it happens in many places.

Translating the Bible into Dagomba and Bimoba presents a radical challenge to people who link their ethnic identity to a particular religion. When the Dagomba or Gonja see the Bible in their language, and then churches with services in their language, attended by Dagomba or Gonja people, the idea that Christianity is not for them breaks down. But that can’t happen if the churches keep holding services only in the languages of southern Ghana.

So the program I helped the church plan had the following components:
  • Holding literacy classes for the small numbers of Christians, and in the community for all who are interested,
  • Translating the church’s liturgy into Gonja and Dagomba so that church services can be held in those languages.
  • Translating training materials used to train lay ministers in the church so that Gonja and Dagomba Christians can be trained to lead services and perform other church functions.

Solomon Sule-Saa presenting the program to the regional church business meeting

Recently, I talked to the Ghanaian man, Solomon Sule-Saa, with whom I designed the program. He was all smiles. It is working well, he said. The churches are growing. Incorporating their languages into the church is eroding the walls between Christianity and the Dagomba and Gonja peoples.

How this blog started

Meeting the man in the striped shirt was part of my journal the same evening

The roots of this blog go way back, to well before I started writing it or even considered having a blog. I used to travel a lot for our ministry. When I would return home after a few days, and occasionally after a couple of weeks, my wife, Dayle, would ask me what happened. In typical husbandly fashion, I would compress it all into a couple of sentences, leaving out lots of the detail she wanted to hear. So she let me know that things had to change.

So, I reluctantly started to take time, every evening when I was traveling, to quickly write down what happened during the day. It turned into a journal of my trip. This was in the days before computers and well before the Internet So the journal was hand-written in a small notebook. I would go over it with Dayle when I returned home from my trip. She loved it.

But something happened I did not expect. First, in the evening when I was remembering what happened during the day, I would realize that something that happened, or something that was said, was important for my ministry. Perhaps a church leader had said that a translation was progressing too slowly, or a Christian in church would say that he or she was having trouble buying a translation in his languages because the sales point was always closed, or far away. Then I began so see patterns. For example, over time I found that several Church leaders had mentioned in passing that a translation was going too slow – each speaking about a different translation.

I realized that I had been missing these patterns and forgetting important things that were said.

So in addition to writing my journal to Dayle, I started writing a paragraph or two about what I had noticed, a bit of analysis of it and perhaps further actions to take, such as gathering more information. That started guiding my conversations with translators, local people and church leaders. The result was rich in insights.

When blogs became a thing, I started putting my reflections online. And that has turned into this blog.

I realized in the process that God really is in the still small voice. He is not pushy. But he does reveal Himself. We just have to take the time to reflect, be quiet and listen. My way of being quiet and listening is to stop and write a little journal. The things God is revealing almost pop off the page at me.

the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. I Kings 19:11-13

Information neglect

Programs to Translate the Bible generate information about those programs. One of the aha moments in my missionary career came when I thought about where that information goes and where it doesn’t and why.

When a missionary goes to a place to translate the Bible into a language, the missionary produces information about their work and life. This can be in the form of personal letters, prayer letters, and presentations given to churches, church groups, missions conferences, etc. The primary purposes are:

  • To raise funds to support the missionary and his/her work.
  • To generate prayer for the missionary and the people they are serving.
  • To recruit others to serve in Bible translation.

The information is intended for people and churches in the place the missionary came from. Very little, if any, of the communication is distributed in the language community where the missionary works, or to Christians or churches in the country where the missionary is works.

Today, most Bible translation programs are conducted without a missionary. Instead, nationals do the translation but often with funding coming from churches and Christians in another country. These translation programs also produce information. Reports photographs and prayer requests are sent to those providing the funding. Here’s an example. As with missionary translations very little, if any, of the information is distributed to churches or Christians in the area or at the national level, even where discretion is not needed. So people in the country can feel that they don’t know anything about the program being carried out in their midst. This means that churches and Christians are not mobilized to support the translation program through prayer, giving or serving. It might also mean that when the translation is printed fewer people read or use it.

This was the situation when I first came to Ghana in 2011. But the new director had a vision for mobilizing churches and christians in Ghana in support of Bible translation. Dayle and I played a supporting role in that vision. Today, most denominations in Ghana are well aware of translation efforts and many give significant gifts out of their annual budget for translation. Out of the effort to make Ghanaians fully aware of translation came a group of Christian business men who now support translation. Also, now GILLBT (the Ghanaian organisation I work with) has Ghanaian staff who make sure that information about translation is made known in Ghana. So we only get involved in that occasionally.

God acts through information. So spreading information about Christian ministry is cooperating with God. Neglecting to spread it where it needs to go would then be…

Language Committees: Part 3

This is the last in a series of posts on language committees. I’m writing posts on this topic because helping language committees be more effective is currently the focus of my ministry.

In my first post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful. In my second, I wrote about the problems that happen when the committee doesn’t do its job well. In this post, I propose that there are three underlying causes of weak language committees.

The first underlying cause has to do with who is on the committee. If there are committee members from various parts of the community, the committee will be more effective. For example, are all the major church denominations are represented on the committee? A committee that represents only a very narrow swatch of the community will almost certainly result in a translation effort that is full of problems.

The second underlying cause of committee ineffectiveness is motivation. When the members of the language committee are deeply committed to the translation and therefore care about its success, the committee will be more effective. A colleague of mine is dealing with three ineffective committees where people became members because they thought there would be money in it. Sometimes this is related to the first point – the wrong people are on the committee. Other times, it is related to the next point.

The last underlying cause of committee effectiveness or ineffectiveness is lack of knowledge. Doing a translation for the very first time in a language obviously means that people will be doing something they have never done before. Unless the committee gets orientation, usually from the translation agency, it will have trouble making good decisions. Lack of information can lead community leaders to select the wrong people to serve on the committee.

As you have certainly noticed, having effective committees is no small matter.

I started out my focus on committees by seeing the issue as being mostly knowledge and the solution, therefore, being mostly orientation or training. Now, my focus has shifted to committee composition as the cornerstone issue. After all, what good would it due to train the wrong or unmotivated committee members? To address those issues I am working with two GILLBT leaders. We are dealing with the issues as a team.

Language Committees: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series on language committees, which are currently the focus of my ministry. In my last post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful.

In this post, I will present some things that go wrong when the language committee doesn’t do its job well.

If the committee fails to do a good job of choosing the translators, then problems can occur. I witnessed a case where the committee chose translators because they were related to the committee chair. Their translation was so poor that they had to be replaced with translators chosen for their skill. I have seen several cases where churches and Christians started loosing confidence in the translation because one of the translators was not living according to the Bible’s norms. The language committee had messed up either its selection or supervision of the translators.

I was close to one translation where a key church leader denounced the New Testament as soon as it was published. The committee had failed to mobilize all the churches in favor of the translation. The man who denounced the translation perceived, perhaps rightly, that the translation effort was dominated by a rival denomination.

I have seen some cases where the funding agency limited its funding because the churches in the language area contributed far less than they were capable. The committee simply failed to mobilize the churches to give.

Lastly, I know of several cases where translations sit in storerooms unsold and unread. One of the reasons is that the language committees fails to promote the translation or even, in some cases, to distribute it.

I have a list of even more problems caused by ineffective committees, but I think you get the point.

Next week, I’ll talk about the underlying weaknesses of committees that are the source of these problems and what can be done to strengthen committees. As we will see, sometimes committees are ineffective through no fault of their own.

Language committees: Part 1

For the last few months, I have focused my work in Ghana on the question of making language committees more effective. It’s probably not clear to you what that means, so I’m going to dedicate a few blogs to the topic.

Language committees are a crucial cog in the translation machine serving minority languages in Africa. They play a very different role in translating into major languages like English. So my descriptions do not apply to those languages.

A program to translate the Bible into a language in Ghana involves five groups of people / organizations.

  • Translator’s
  • Reviewers
  • Translation agency
  • Funding agency
  • Language committee

The translators, also called the translation team, are just that – those who do the translation. These days, they are a group of 2-4 speakers of the language screened and chosen for their role and given special training. They are usually employed full time.

The reviewers are a group of unpaid volunteers who meet occasionally to read the draft translation proposed by the translators and comment on it. They mostly consider whether the draft translation communicates clearly.

The translation agency is an organization specializing in translating the Bible. It has experts in biblical languages, translation, and linguistics. It gives training, carries out accuracy checks, identifies which languages need translation, and works with language communities and churches to set up new translation programs, among other tasks.

The funding agency raises funds for translation in smaller languages.

The language committee is a group of unpaid volunteers which meets from time to time to initiate then guide the translation effort. They have a lot of responsibilities such as:

  • Choosing (with the help of the translation organization) and supervising the translators
  • Mobilizing their community in support of the translation, including giving.
  • Coordinating with the translstion and funding agency.
  • Setting program goals (New Testament, Old Testament, Jesus Film. etc.)
  • Promoting and/or organizing adult literacy
  • Choosing the reviewers and assuring they work well.
  • Stocking and distributing the translation,

As you can see, the language committee is, or at least should be, the glue that holds all the pieces together. In my next post, I’ll give examples of what can go wrong if the committee does not do its job well.

Limits of reason

God gave us reason as one of our faculties.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” – Isaiah 1:18

But reason has its limits. When groups of missionaries work together on Bible translation, they have to make decisions together. So we try to reason through which decision is best. This works pretty well a lot of the time. But when it comes to translation programs the options are so numerous that reasoning through them becomes difficult. Take a literacy program for example:

  • Should it be for adults or children?
  • Should it be for the whole community or only the church?
  • Should teachers be paid or they should should they be volunteers?
  • Should primers be sold or given away? If sold, for how much?
  • How should teachers be recruited? Trained?
  • Should the classes be at night or during the day?
  • Should arithmetic be included?

And on, and on, and on.

If any one of these questions is contentious, discussions can stall. Factions can form. Each side develops more reasons to bolster its position. The situation resembles the following chart.

We have reached the limits of reason and persuasion, but nobody has noticed. All evidence to the contrary, both sides still think they can reason their way through the issue.

The reasonable (pun intended) thing to do is experiment. Try A and B, then evaluate the results. Sometimes we find God’s will by doing, in addition to praying and thinking. After all, it’s called walking with God.

I am tying a remote assignment. I work in Bible translation in Ghana, but live in the USA and make several trips a year to Ghana. I’ve asked around. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Why is a bit of a mystery. So we’re trying it then we’ll evaluate.

On losing authority

Missionaries get respect. We are held in high esteem in many churches in the USA. Plus missionaries are respected in many places in Africa. Officials, local people, even those who follow other religions give us deference. However, our ministry of Bible translation undermines our authority, as Yale historian Lamin Sanneh says:
“Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert.”

In fact, translating the Bible is the perfect way for a missionary to lose the position of expert, even if he or she is still appreciated.

Otabil’s church starting to fill up on Sunday – 2nd service

Earlier this year, I took American friends to the very large church of well-known Pastor Mensah Otabil in Accra, Ghana. He said that his ministry focuses on raising up leaders. He defined a leader as a self-directed individual. I took that to mean someone who takes responsibility before God for his or her actions. Someone who is not dependent on others in an unhealthy way. Someone who has confidence in God and in the Holy Spirit within. Otabil said that he did not want the members of his church to depend on him for every little thing.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 including McKeown, courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

A famous missionary to Ghana, James McKeown, often told new Christians who tended to depend on the him as their missionary for everything:

I have not come to create beggars but to make men Sons of God.

The members of the church McKeown founded still quote that today to encourage themselves to take hold of the responsibilities God has given them.

Research into the impact of translating the Bible into African language has found that those who read the Bible in their own language take more initiative. They are more likely to witness to their neighbors and to start small businesses. Women speak up more in their families and churches. They are more likely to resist pressure from the proponents of traditional religious practices. They become self-directed individuals, as Otabil put it, or children of God as McKoewn put it.

When we translate, we joyfully and deliberately undermine our authority by putting people in direct contact with a much better authority.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)

Misalignment in understanding

About a month ago, I wrote about alignment. Some of you understood me to mean that I was leaving Wycliffe. That is not the case. In fact, I am very proud of Wycliffe, it’s mission and its accomplishments. Like all human organizations, it has the problem of being composed of people, including me. I wrote about a lack of alignment I encountered in one particular place in Wycliffe. I ended up moving on to a different place, still in Wycliffe.

Alignment is still something I think about, however. I wonder if I am aligned with God’s action in the world and specifically in Bible translation. Or if I might be more aligned with my own desires and ideas. I am on loan from Wycliffe to a Ghanaian organization (GILLBT). That only works because Wycliffe, GILLBT and I find ourselves in alignment on a set of principles, goals and priorities. Lots of other parts of Wycliffe and GILLBT can be out of alignment with each other but if the central pieces are aligned, it works anyway. In fact, it would be a bad thing if a Christian organization based in the US and one based in Ghana were perfectly aligned on every point. If that were that case, then one of them would be out of alignment with its context.

Alignment, it seems, is not an absolute good. The trick is to align only what requires alignment.

The start of an era

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