Change the world

I am tired of the admonition to “change the world”. Everyone, or so it seems, is inviting me or telling me that I should get involved in changing the world. That the world needs change is not in question. Something is seriously wrong. I look at this world and I identify with the cry found in Isaiah:

“Open up, heavens, and rain. Clouds, pour out buckets of my goodness! Loosen up, earth, and bloom salvation; sprout right living.” – Isaiah 45:8

Perhaps you have noticed a contradiction. How can I be tired of the admonition to “change the world ” and yet see the world’s problems and want them replaced with “buckets of goodness”? I’ll try to answer that.

I’m tired of the admonition to change the world because of its implied subject – I am to change the world, or we are supposed to change the world. After calling on the clouds to pour out buckets of goodness and the earth to bloom salvation, Isaiah notes:
I, God, generate all this.
God can and does change the world. I am not tired of God changing the world, nor am I tired of trying to be some small part of that. Not at all. But the thought that I am to change the world makes me tired.

Here’s the problem. I don’t know the answers to the world’s problems, or Africa’s or even those of my home town. In fact, I’m not so sure that I could correctly identify all the problems let alone the answers to them. How could I change the world on so flimsy a basis? Or if I thought I understood the problems and knew the answers, why would I listen to others? Wouldn’t I consider their ideas or objections mere obstacles I needed to overcome? Wouldn’t I become a tyrant, albeit a very petty tyrant?

Well-known American journalist H. L. Mencken wrote:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.
Others have pointed out the dangers of the “change the world” mindset in less dramatic terms. The former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, wrote:
If [help] can’t be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.
She had experienced having Western benefactors tie lots of strings to international aid for her country because they thought that they alone knew the answers. Christian mission efforts are not immune to trying to change the world in ways that dominate others, often unintentionally.

When I first moved to Ghana, I was impressed by Ghanaian Christian leaders who welcomed Westerners like me, but who made it politely clear that they set the agenda. That did not mean that I had no voice, but it did mean that I should listen and seek to understand first. I was invited to speak, but my voice was not the most influential. I found that liberating.

Let me be clear, I don’t mean that I withdraw. In fact, I’m quite allergic to the idea that difficult tasks ought to be left to heroes or experts, even if we consult the latter. But mostly I have confidence in God. So, I try to connect people to God through his Word, together we seek God: then God changes us and our world.

Want to change the world? Join yourself to God.

I’m the only God there is— The only God who does things right and knows how to help. So turn to me… ‘Yes! Salvation and strength are in God !’” – Isaiah 45:18

Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

Life is fragile

In 2016, I took a short assignment in Cote d’Ivoire. Because Dayle had to stay in the US I was alone for several weeks before she joined me. The time difference meant that I would get up in the morning and look at the videos of my grandchildren that had arrived during the night. Then I would go to work.

So it was that one morning after enjoying my grandchildren’s antics, I went to my office and opened an email from one of our national translators. It informed me that he had lost one of his grandchildren after a short but severe illness. My buoyant mood was shattered.

Unfortunately, I have experienced this far too often. Endemic tropical diseases and weak healthcare systems leave children (and adults but especially children) at risk. The translator in question had chosen to live in a rural area because that is where the translation is happening. He is an educated man and many Africans with his level of education would not live in remote rural areas precisely because they lack good services such as health care.

Taking the Bible everywhere has risks. Are the risks too high? Let me answer the question this way. This man was living with exactly the same risks as the people he was serving. They live with those same dangers day after day, year in and year out. For many bibleless peoples, life where they live is fragile and they regularly experience that in very painful ways. The only way to be certain to avoid their risks is to cease to minister to them.

Church service in rural Ghana

Contingencies

Way back in early 2009, we were working in the Congo along with other Wycliffe colleagues. A civil war was ending which had caused all missionaries to flee. We were slowly trickling back into the country. In order to move back safely, we needed to develop a contingency plan. Contingency planning is a well-defined process for identifying and ranking the dangers in a specific environment, finding ways to mitigate them and then making plans for each important danger in case it happens.

Contingency planning participants

We decided to do the planning together with the staff of a Christian University, all Congolese. That worked out well because they foresaw things we didn’t. The first part of exercise involved making a list of disruptive events that might happen. We were all together in a room and each person was calling out disruptive events as they thought of them. One of the Congolese offered “a riot by the police or military”. It stopped me in my tracks. One of my Wycliffe colleagues questioned the item. All of the Congolese firmly defended it being on the list. So on the list it went.

Once we had listed all the disruptive events, we proceeded to estimate the likelihood that each would occur at least once in the coming five years. The Congolese all agreed that there was a 100 percent chance that the police or military would riot in the coming five years. It was less than two years afterwards that there was a riot by the military in the very town where we held the planning.

Working with Congolese clued us in to an event we would not have anticipated. I thought of this recently when I saw a newspaper article about police and military fighting each other in the streets of Haiti. Living in a country where the forces of order are governed by law is actually not that common in this world. Seeing the police or military riot was so far from my experience that I would have missed it completely were it not for the Congolese helping us with contingency planning.

For granted

Title page of first Twi Bible

The Bible was first translated into the most widely spoken language of Ghana, Twi, in 1871. So when I arrived in Ghana in 2011, those people already had the Bible for 140 years. Children growing up in Christian families just found the Bible. Hardly anyone wondered how they came to have the Bible in their language. No one ever preached on the history of the Twi Bible. So it was just an unquestioned feature of their lives.

Not only that, most Twi Christians assumed without evidence that other languages in Ghana had the Bible too. All this makes Ghanaian like many American Christians who read their Bible without wondering where it came from or if it has been translated into other languages.

Meeting with pastor after presenting Bible translation to his church

When we began presenting Bible translation to Ghanaian churches, people were astonished. We frequently heard surprised voices realizing that they had never wondered how they got their Bible. They were even more surprised to learn that a number of languages in their country did not have the Bible. Knowing the role the Bible in their language played in their personal lives and their churches, they were dismayed that some of their compatriots lacked that same blessing.

On hearing the facts, church leaders sometimes committed their churches on the spot. They just needed to hear facts they didn’t know and to be challenged about things they had assumed or taken for granted. Besides, those who value the Bible in their own lives make the most ardent supporters of Bible translation.

Systematically putting out the facts to the right churches and church leaders is a key way to include them in the worldwide Bible translation movement. Growing that movement is speeding translation dramatically, outpacing even the speed increase from technology

Is Development Human?

Once when we lived in Burkina Faso, I made a trip to a rural area. After my arrival, I was told that another westerner had visited earlier that day. He was evaluating some development projects in several villages. If I remember correctly they were water projects, wells perhaps. Anyway, he had left his air-conditioned room in a nearby city with the idea of quickly stopping at each village and being back in his comfortable room the same evening. But the villagers where the projects were located had been other ideas. To express their joy and appreciation, they had prepared food and cultural dances. The man knew that if he stayed to eat and celebrate with the people at each village he could not visit all the villages in one day. So, at each village, he excused himself from the celebrations prepared for him and continued to his next stop. The villagers were devastated.

In Ghana a few years ago, I was in a meeting where a Ghanaian man was talking about the development project he had been hired to lead. It had been designed by a university in the US to improve the soil in northern Ghana, a region of chronic food shortages, so that crop yields would increase. It sounded really helpful. But he said that after being hired he read the entire description of the project – its goals and methods with all the technical details. He found that it contained no component to involve the farmers it was designed to benefit. Their knowledge was not solicited, nor was their feedback on the findings and proposals the project would make. The project was all bout the soil and not at all about the farmers. The Ghanaian man hired to lead the project said that he immediately wrote the farmers into the proposal and got the revision approved.

These experiences and others cause me to ask questions – is it legitimate to “help” people in a way that excludes them from celebrating the help; or from giving their opinion or feedback? Would we want someone to “help” us while they remained oblivious to the impact (good or bad) their “help” really had? Doesn’t the Golden Rule apply? In addition to it being right and good to involve those we try to help, it is also often more effective. A study in the US found that church programs are more effective in reducing homelessness because those involved get to know the homeless personally. Research into the impact of Bible translation has found that it is greater where local people have greater input into decisions about the translation.

Also, if we do help a group of people, shouldn’t we plan to share their joy and recognize their appreciation? If they are Christians, shouldn’t we praise God and celebrate his goodness together? If we send a person to evaluate the help, shouldn’t we plan that they have the time and spend the time sharing the joy (or other reactions) of the people being helped?

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

Bible translation, and other attempts to make the world better, should never let things or techniques crowd out the people, unfortunately it is not uncommon that they do.

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…