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

From job to something bigger

“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.

The same, but different

On March 16 we arrived in the US for our regular “furlough” – a time when we speak in churches an other groups about Bible translation and our ministry, visit family and even take a little break. Then we go back to our overseas assignments. This time though, things are a bit different. Ed will be going back, but differently, and Dayle won’t be going back at all. We closed up out apartment in Accra and sold our stuff there, but kept our little SUV for Ed to use whenever he’s in Ghana. That’s because he will be making regular trips, including a six-week trip beginning in late June.

Ed’s will continue in his assignment to the national organization to which Wycliffe has loaned us – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. He will be working from the US and making regular trips to Ghana.

Ed has a number of projects on his plate. The biggest of those is coordinating the creation of training curriculum and materials for local translation committees. Each Bible translation has a local committee of volunteers guiding it. A lot depends on that committee functioning well. Experience and evaluations of translation programs tell us that translations will be more widely read and they will have more impact when the committees effectively engage the churches and communities in various ways, including in decisions about the translation, such as the selection of the local translators and which books of the Bible to translate first.

But not all committees work well.

Michael, one of the GILLBT staff Ed works with, addressing a rural church about translation into their language

For some time, Ed has been working with GILLBT staff to put in place more effective committees. The next step is to develop training for them because now there is none. This project is a high priority for GILLBT’s Director who wants to get the translation closer to the people it serves, and make it more responsive to their needs. Ed will be leading the development of the training. He will be working directly with him and with other staff. He hopes to have the training ready for his next trip to Ghana in late June. Then he will help give it to selected committees to test it.

After that, he will revise the training based on feedback, give it to more committees on subsequent trips to Ghana, and then serve as a resource while Ghanaians give the training.

GILLBT Director, Thomas Sayibu Imoro

This is not our retirement yet, but it certainly is a big first step in that direction. We will be looking at that every time we do our annual evaluation with GILLBT Leadership and Wycliffe. Missionaries are made for leaving, and so we want to leave well – in a way that honors the Lord, our supporters and the ministry we have been privileged to undertake. Ask the Lord to give us wisdom

We appreciate so much all those who pray and who provide financial support, especially during this new phase of our ministry. Contact us if you have questions about specific financial needs related to our new mode of ministry.

All or nothing

For most of my career, agencies involved in Bible translation have had a binary approach to deciding which languages get a translation of the Bible. After a field survey, we declared that some languages needed s translation and others did not.

Languages determined to need a translation received significant resources, often a highly trained missionary-linguist for a significant period of time, sometimes for decades. The others got nothing.

Relatively early in my career, it became obvious that this binary approach did not fit reality. Languages do not group themselves nicely into those whose speakers don’t know any other language and those whose speakers all speak another language perfectly. Or into languages that will quickly die and those which will continue for another thousand years. There are all kinds of gradations. There are languages which show signs of dying, but not strongly or not everywhere. It is not easy to know what percentage of a people speak another language well enough to understand the Bible in that language. Besides, how well is that anyway? Then we have cases where translations in the mother tongue produced transformative impact even though the people all knew another language and read the Bible in it for decades without the same positive changes.

Because we were trying to fit all languages into just two categories, we had endless discussions with colleagues over whether specific languages fit in one or the other. We reclassified some languages several times. I even saw a case where a missionary became distressed after spending a few years learning a language, developing an alphabet, and starting translation only to come to the conclusion that we had put him in a language which did not need a translation. We disagreed with him, but that didn’t help.

Then there are the pastors and Christians who come asking for a translation in their language only to have us tell them that we missionaries thought it was unnecessary.

No one wants to be the one who says that this moment will never happen for a language because the translation is not needed

Fortunately, the binary approach is dying. Encouraged by that, I worked with a Ghanaian colleague to develop a set of graded responses to languages without translation in Ghana. We are dropping the binary all-or-nothing response in favor of four separate responses. One puts high priority on languages where there are very few Christians. In such cases we will put significant amounts of effort, expertise and funding into the translation. Another response is for languages where there are many Christians who are using the Bible in another language. In such a case, we will demand a lot more of the churches. They will have to organize themselves and raise a very significant part of the funds. We will supply training and quality control.

It’s not perfect. We will still find gradations the four responses don’t address perfectly. But they will be fewer and less shocking. Plus, we will probably use kingdom resources a bit better.

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. 

Missionaries are made to leave

Missionaries are made to come and go, or at least they should be. Jesus had about three years of ministry and then he left. The Apostle Paul went from town to town. There’s a bifurcation in modern Western missions between missions lasting two weeks and those lasting 20 years or longer. I worked with situations where a Western missionary has worked in the same language for 20, 30 or even 40 years. Sometimes my American friends express admiration for missionaries who spend many decades in the same place, but I’m pretty sure that is not always a good thing.

A missionary’s role should change as he or she trains local people with whom they are in ministry and they take on more responsibility. We see this in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. After announcing the Good News and seeing some converts, he named and mentored leaders for the new Christians before going on to the next place. He then kept in contact, prayed for those he left and visited them when that was possible. Leaving did not break his relationships. Another aspect of Paul leaving well was that he incorporated some of the new believers from the place he was leaving in his mission to the next place. He also brought all of them into praying for it.

We shouldn’t follow Paul’s example slavishly, but we ignore it at our peril. Depending on the type of ministry (translation develops slowly), a missionary might stay in one place for a long time. But even a long stay should be preparing for a good departure. Bible translation not infrequently takes place where there are low levels of education, making it difficult to train local people in all the complexities of translation. But difficult does not always mean impossible, especially when the time frame is 20, 30 or even 40 years.

A while back, a missionary told me that another missionary should be allowed to stay where they were because that had become home. Being in a place that feels like home is a good thing, but it is not a valid missionary goal. In fact, it sounds like a way to justify staying long after one’s missionary goals have been accomplished. Missionaries who stay in one place for a long time may do so because they like it, they are comfortable, or because they get respect. Recent research found that 96% of missionaries reported that they were functioning well in the society where they are conducting missionary work. Moving would disrupt that. A few times in my career, missionaries faced with a potential change of location have said to me that they want to stay put because “God has called me here”. In every case,  that “here” was a situation that they found personally fulfilling.

Dayle and I with Abidjan staff a few days before our departure. They gave us traditional Yacouba outfits.

I recently took an interim assignment in Côte d’Ivoire. I was given a very specific six-month mandate – take care of current matters and work with a national committee to recruit an Ivorian director. When those things were done, Dayle and I returned to our assignments in Ghana. We had an advantage. Our assignment specifically demanded a transition. We had no choice. Perhaps all missionary assignments should be like that.