Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

What makes me foreign

flagglobeAs a white person living and working in Sub-Saharan Africa, I am immediately identified as a foreigner by the color of my skin. When I first came to Africa, the organization I world for was staffed almost exclusively by white people coming from North America and Europe. We hired some local staff for low-level jobs, but all the missionaries were white. It was very obvious that the organization itself was foreign. Over the years the situation has changed radically. Most of the staff in the offices, on the translation centers and in the translation projects are Africans.

But it’s still a foreign organization.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. Let’s say that a foreign government sets up an office in Washington DC to lobby for its interests. It hires an American lobbyist and sets him up with other American staff – a receptionist and so on. The lobbying office is still a foreign thing even though all the staff are Americans. What makes it foreign is who it represents, and where it gets its orders.

image

Image courtesy of Superyoyo

What continues to make Bible translation foreign in Africa is no longer that it is staffed with foreigners. It is that the shots are still called somewhere else. One of my African friends likens what is happening to a conveyor belt. Money, people and ideas about Bible translation are put on a conveyor belt in the West and conveyed to Africa where offices staffed by Africans receive the ideas, add little by way of African ideas or resources then deliver the packages throughout the continent in the form of translation programs guided and resourced by the ideas and money put on the conveyor belt somewhere else.

As long as this situation persists, Bible translation will stop when those in the West stop putting their ideas and money on the conveyor belt, it will be reduced they they reduce what they put on – just like a delivery office (such as Fedex) can only deliver the packages it receives. It will go bankrupt if no one sends packages. The real work of making Bible translation less foreign is more radical and more difficult than changing the staffing of the delivery office. Someone will have to change the delivery service into a factory producing its own product to deliver. The next step in removing the foreignness of translation in Africa is having churches and Christians in Africa owning and shaping translation to fit their reality.

By the way, in this scenario Westerners still have a role to play because the issue is not where the staff comes from but rather who defines the vision and calls the shots. I see my primary focus, whatever my role, in facilitating a process where Africans and their churches design and implement their own translation programs.

I am fascinated to watch how this is starting to happen – here and there, slowly at first, picking up speed.

What do we do

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language - a step in language development

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language – a step in language development

I work in Bible translation. I find the complexity of language and translation intriguing. I love the linguistic and cultural sleuthing required to find exactly the right word to translate biblical concepts like salvation and righteousness. But that is not my real passion. If Bible translation were only that, it would not be enough. This came home to me in while I was part of the process of recruiting a new director for the translation work in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of that process included interviews with selected candidates. One of those interviews stayed with me.

The person’s knowledge of the organization and Bible translation was impressive, even though they had not worked in Bible translation or been closely associated with it. The person described our goals and the nature of our work with a level of detail that I did not expect from someone who had not worked in the organization. This candidate talked knowledgeably about the role of language development in Bible translation, for example. He had obviously taken time to study the organization.

changeBut there was something missing. For this candidate, translation work had great value because it preserved an important part of African culture – the language. It kept languages from dying out, he said. But there was something big missing – something that came out in the interviews with the other candidates; even those who did not cite our goals in such great detail. They all talked about the transforming effect of translating the Bible into African languages. This candidate did not mention that.

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Where the Bible has been translated into the heart languages of the people, change has followed and sometimes very big change. Churches sprang up in places were there was longstanding resistance to the preaching of missionaries; churches spang up or held on under intense persecution; believers got newfound joy, peace and fruitfulness in their lives; societal ills like drunkenness declined. In some cases translation was an important contributor to the creation of political and religious freedom.

Translation is what we do, but transformation is what we pursue … lasting, authentic, God-fashioned transformation.

PS: The candidate in question is still has the same job he had before the interview.

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Things have changed

i-zAt the end of my time as Director for Côte d’Ivoire, I was moving from files for the incoming Director. That meant labeling a file drawer. The drawer was previously labeled “Members “I-Z”. That meant that when that label was made, it took two file drawers to contain the personnel files for the members (meaning missionaries from the West) who worked in Ivory Coast and this drawer contained those whose last name started with a letter from I to Z.

I was amused. It took me back to the time when Bible translation was lead and motivated by missionaries coming from the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and other western countries. In fact, that situation lasted for the first 20 years I was in Africa. This simple file drawer label took me back to that time.

Handing over to the new Director

Handing over to the new Director

Dayle and I were in Ivory Coast temporarily and I had just handed over to an Ivorian Director. There was one another American couple here and they were temporary too. Besides the four of us, there were no western missionaries residing in the country doing Bible translation. It only took a few hanging folders occupying a small part of one file drawer to contain all their paperwork. But there are translations ongoing in 19 languages and those files are voluminous.

One of the big changes in Bible translation in Africa over the last two decades is the ascendancy of national translators and related personnel and the steep decline in the number of western missionaries working directly or indirectly in translation. This change was foreseeable from the early 1990s. It began happening in the mid 1990s and accelerated after the year 2000.

change-is-bad-goodI have met a number of missionaries working in Bible translation who found these changes troubling. They ask what we are doing wrong, or what the church back home is doing wrong. Once, when I described the changes, a fellow missionary told me “You do nothing but discourage me.” This was in spite of the fact that we had a number of highly trained Africans ready to fill the gap; some with more training and experience than some missionaries.

The Bible has some interesting stories about people living in what they considered very bad situations but God said that the situations were good. One of my favorites is in Jeremiah 24 which starts like this:

The Lord spoke to me in a vision after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had come to Judah and taken King Jehoiachin, his officials, and all the skilled workers back to Babylonia. In this vision I saw two baskets of figs in front of the Lord’s temple. One basket was full of very good figs that ripened early, and the other was full of rotten figs that were not fit to eat.
“Jeremiah,” the Lord asked, “what do you see?”
“Figs,” I said. “Some are very good, but the others are too rotten to eat.” (Jeremiah 24:1-3 CEV)

Dried figs: Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

Dried figs. Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

You will agree with me that those who had been forcibly removed form their homes and taken to a foreign country were unfortunate while those who were left in their county were fortunate. But God goes on to say the opposite – that those who were taken away from the country and their homes by force are the fortunate ones; but those who remained in their country and their homes are unfortunate; the bad figs are really the good figs and vice versa. God has a radically different interpretation of the events and his interpretation was confirmed over coming decades.

When we experience disappointment or other negatives, we need to ask God to give us his view of the events.

One of the challenges in missions is for missionaries to seek God’s view of the trends that are happening rather than relying on our gut instinct. I have come to the conclusion that shrinking missionary workforce and the increased number of nationals is not someone’s mistake. It is God’s doing. If we try to fix it we are actually working against God.

Now this does not mean that there is no room in Bible translation for Western missionaries. Quite the contrary. God calls who he calls without regard to nationality, race, gender or anything else. The question is not whether there is a place in Bible translation for Westerners, but rather whether God has called you and whether as a missionary you will work to promote the directions God is taking Bible translation or work against them.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

Role ending

The new director and her husband

The new director and her husband

As many of you know, I was unexpectedly asked to serve as acting director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire and I have filled that role for the last six months. That ended on October 1 when I handed over to an Ivorian, Mrs. Pierrette Ayité (pronounced ah-yee-TAY). One of my principle responsibilities was to work with a group of Ivorian Christians to recruit a new director. It was with great thankfulness to God and a sense of satisfaction that I handed over to her because I believe that she will do a great job.

I have been reflecting on these last few months. I could say lots of things, but one reflection keeps coming back to me. I’ll get to it in a moment.

For a couple decades, our ministry has focused on helping African churches and African Christians understand the role they can play in Bible translation and perhaps receive a call from God to be involved. We did not come to Africa with that focus, not at all. Instead it flowed out of a set of personal experiences and out of seeing how God is growing his church on this continent – both in terms of numbers and in terms of depth.

My time in Côte d’Ivoire confirmed another reason why we pursue this focus. In familiarizing myself with the translation work after my arrival, I discovered a rather serious lack in some of the translation programs. The thing was, it was the Ivorians who saw the lack, not we white missionaries. As I dug into it, I came to be convinced that they were right to be concerned. At the end of September we has a meeting with church leaders where they fully confirmed that the lack was real and that it was crucial that it be dealt with. We should not be surprised that they saw the problem first. This is their country, their languages and their churches. They will understand them in ways we do not.

Ed working with Ivorian staff

Ed and other staff members preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

A very good reason to involve local people in Bible translation is that they will make it more effective because will see problems and opportunities we don’t. That is the reflection that keeps coming back to me. By the way, that reflection is confirmed by recent research showing that translation has more impact where local people are more involved in decision making. If you are interested in working in a cross-cultural team where each person and culture contributes and all are appreciated, ask God if working to produce lasting impact through Bible translation is for you.

PS: Dayle and I will stay in Abidjan for a few more weeks before returning to Ghana.

If you liked this post, you might also like Why Nationals? or Span.

 

As serpents

I recently developed a new understanding of a saying of Jesus that I’ve always found a bit odd:

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16 ESV)

APN front page - colorizedI am serving as interim Director of translation and language development work in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). A few weeks after arriving, I started getting small indications that there was something not quite right in our cooperation with churches in some of the languages where translations are in progress. I found that we have written agreements those churches. In some cases, we have written agreements with local associations that represent the churches. On a hunch, I started studying the articles of incorporation of those associations. My head was full of phrases about Annual General Meetings, Executive Committees, Internal Auditors, quorums and so on. I also got a copy of the standard articles of incorporation and by-laws recommended by the government for the sake of comparison.

The articles of incorporation for the association for the Nghlwa language (cover pictured above) are exemplary. But in a couple of cases, while the associations pretend to represent their members (churches and interested people), key parts of the standard documents had been changed so that the associations are effectively controlled by a small number of individuals and in one case by only one person. No wonder some churches and key people were starting to say that they were being frozen out.

Dedication of representative translation committees in three Ghana languages, 2014

We have known for a long time that involving local churches in decision-making is a key element in the success of a translation. Yet I found that we are working with associations purporting to represent churches but which in reality are controlled by a small number of people who are making all the decisions. If allowed to continue, this will limit the use and impact of the translations, perhaps severely. I guess that being “shrewd as snakes” includes checking to see if articles of incorporation have been carefully crafted to be something other than what they appear on the surface.

Now, I need a substantial shot of serpentine circumspection to set things straight.

Forced changes

I am filling in temporarily as the director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast). If things go according to plan, we’ll be back in Ghana in a few months.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Ivory Coast is coming out of prolonged period of conflict and civil war. During a good part of that time, many missionaries and almost all Westerners doing Bible translation left the country. That left the Ivorian translators on their own. Instead of stopping, most of them kept translating. Coming out of the conflict, we have a very different situation than we had going in. There are still outsiders involved, but like Dayle and I, most of them play limited roles.  Ivorians are the translators, they lead the translation programs, provide expert guidance, do the training and provide quality control.

But the change is more profound than than just changing the faces around the translation table. Churches here are picking up the will to do translation. They sponsor translation programs, choose translators and take care of some of the administrative details. Some have been quite active in doing adult literacy among their members. I am working with a group of Ivorian Christians who want to reformulate how Bible translation is done so that it fits their way of doing things. They think that will give the translations even more impact. I agree.

A number of years ago, the head of a successful African mission told me:

David could not use Saul’s armor. The church in Africa will not do Bible translation the way you do.

David was successful precisely because he abandoned the standard way, the “right way”, the king’s way, the way all the experts advised. King Saul told David:

 “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” (I Samuel 17:33)

Africa is considered inconsequential by many, just as Saul thought David inconsequential. Might Jesus’ church in inconsequential Africa devise a way to translate the Bible into its 1,800 languages that no translation expert would ever recommend and yet succeed by doing it their way? I believe that is exactly what will happen. The conflict in Ivory Coast forced some changes in Bible translation. Those changes are opening the door to more profound changes. I say: Be on the lookout for falling giants.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

Under girding positions

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe was the first person to translate the Bible into English. Christianity had been present for a long time, but no one had thought it important to translate the Bible into English. The Bible in Latin, accessible only to the educated, was thought enough by educators, church leaders, theologians and pastors. Wycliffe was himself an educator, theologian and pastor. So, why did he think that a translation was useful when his peers did not? Well, Wycliffe held ideas which were quite different from those of most of the elites of his day. He wrote:

the New Testament is of full authority, and open to the understanding of simple men

He also believed that everyday men and women can make a positive impact in their families, churches and communities if they are armed with God’s Word in their language.

The translation of the Bible into the language of the ordinary person flowed naturally from those ideas. Then Wycliffe organized a group of men who traveled around reading and teaching out of the new translation.

Wycliffe, as an intellectual, took a position that elevated non-intellectuals. This rings true of the Gospel and of Jesus life. Jesus worked with disciples who had no formal education. Translating the Bible into the language of everyday people follows in that tradition.

If we think that only the most educated can have an impact in our churches, we err. Both those with little education and lots of education had a significant impact on the early church. Both should have an impact today.

Church in Abetifi, Ghana

Church in Abetifi, Ghana

We are working with churches in Africa with the goal that they would run and support their own translation programs. But support for translation by a church in Africa must also flow from Wycliffe’s ideas.  Furthermore, without those ideas, there will not be long term use and impact of the translated Scriptures.

When people or a church restricts its conception of who can have significant, positive impact to the educated, it follows that translation into the mother tongue and reading Bibles in the mother tongue will become marginal activities. This is because the educated in Africa can read their Bibles in English or French, languages mastered only by the elite. If only they need the Bible, then English and French are enough.

The church in Africa will succeed in promoting the Bible in the heart language when it embraces the positions that the Bible is the final authority, that anyone can understand it, and that ordinary people armed with the Bible in their language can change lives. Of course, a church must not just espouse those positions, it must also align its practices with them.

So, we work with Ghanaians who hold those same ideas to get them heard in places where they have not yet firmly taken hold.

Unexpected

I came to Africa with pretty well-formed ideas in my head about how my career in Bible translation would work out. It hasn’t been anything like that. And that’s a good thing. This story is about one of the people who caused my career to deviate from the path I had assumed, Marc Zalve.

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

I was overseeing translation work in a number of languages where missionary-translators were working. In one of them the missionary-translators had to return to their home country, stopping the translation in that language. A short time later I received an unannounced visit from church leaders from that language. They wanted to restart the translation. They proposed that Marc Zalve lead it in the place of missionaries. He was the Director of a Bible School and an ordained pastor.

I agreed to look into it. I had to find funding and convince others that this was a good idea. The first was easier than I thought and the later much more difficult. In the end, Marc Zalve lead the efforts to translate the Bible into his language. Since then, he has helped translators in ten other languages to produce accurate translations.

The fact that an African church was willing to let one of their key pastors leave an important role to work on translation showed me that they were serious about Bible translation. It was but one in a series of actions by churches and individual Africans that did not conform to my well-formed ideas about my career and Bible translation. It took a lot of such incidents to get me to question my ideas and even more to reshape them.

Frempong and Zalve

Frempong and Zalve

This all came back to me powerfully when I ran into Marc again at the Dedication of the Bible into Sisaala in Ghana in 2013. That translation was lead by a Ghanaian, Justin Frempong (on left in photo). Justin was the first Ghanaian to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Ghana. To that point, that had been the realm of missionaries. And there was Marc Zalve (on right in the photo), the first to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Burkina Faso. When I greeted Marc, he reminded me of the struggle we had together. Not a few opposed this new thing, and some of them had quite a bit of influence.

When I first came to Africa, I thought that I knew all my call to Bible translation. But God was not through unveiling it and I still had more to learn about it. My call shifted from doing translation myself to being involved in mobilizing Africans and their churches to do their own translations. A missionary call, I came to realize, is not a static thing, any more than our God is static or my relationship with him static.

Primitive

Photo: Marc Ewell

Photo: Marc Ewell

In 1910, a major world missions conference was held in Edinburgh. Those present held hope for evangelism among the followers of eastern religions. The well-developed philosophical positions of those religions appealed to Europeans and American academics. Not a few Westerners romanticized Hinduism as a new world religion. We all know the attraction of eastern gurus in some segments of US society.

In contrast to the appeal of eastern religions, the missions conference came to the conclusion that the “primitive” religions of Africa would prove difficult ground for Christian faith. Many Western Christians find the masks, face paints, and rituals of African religion scary, barbaric and primitive – something so different from Christian faith that it could not possibly be fertile ground for evangelism – a religion that held no redeeming qualities such as eastern religions seemed to have.

Africa’s traditional religions are called “primal” religions by theologians, and anthropologists. Those at the conference saw Africa’s primal religions as rocky ground where the seed of the Gospel would struggle to survive, while the Eastern would produce a bountiful crop. It has not turned out that way; not at all.

Chart evangelicals in AfricaIn 1910 when the missions conference was held, only 9% of Africans were Christian. Furthermore, almost all of those were in just four of the many countries in Africa: Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Madagascar. Early missionary efforts had not borne fruit. But by 1970 almost 40% of Africans professed Christian faith. That number is for all kinds of “Christians”. What is more astounding is the growth of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Africa, as you can see in the graph.

Meanwhile, evangelism among those following eastern religions has been very slow.

But this is not just an African phenomenon. In the last century Christianity has spread the fastest among peoples who follow what theologians and anthropologists call “primal” religions. This is true in Africa and around the world. It seems that people who follow the so-called “primal” religions are the best prepared by their traditional religion for Christian faith. In any case, the conclusions of that missions conference in 1910 were way off the mark.

God has a delicious way of turning the human wisdom into obvious folly. In this case, he has chosen those whose religious practices we considered primitive, vile, even barbaric, and poured out his Spirit on them. Paul wrote about things like this.

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Cor 1:27)

Not only has Christianity flourished in Africa, churches in Africa are now sending out missionaries. Professor J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana has written:

“It is indeed a surprise that Africa, associated in Western minds with poverty, deprivation, squalor, political instability and barbarism, should emerge in God’s purposes as a leading player in Christian mission, including missions to the West.”

I believe that the confounding of the powerful and sophisticated is in full swing. But sometimes missionaries seem to miss it. I wonder if some mission activity in Africa goes on as though a major movement of God were not happening. The kind of growth in numbers, depth and capacity we see in the church in Africa must be matched by an equally significant shift in how we do translation here. Otherwise we effectively deny by our actions the marvelous thing God is doing. Let’s not make the blunder of painting our African brothers and sisters with the same mistaken brush used in 1910. Our methods and goals need to align with and celebrate the awe-inspiring movement of God’s Spirit among people who are coming out of primal religions.