Missions and curiosity

Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.

My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.

My favorite statement about curiosity comes from blogger Seth Godin who wrote:
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”

True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.

God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.

When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.

Barrier to bridge

For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?

Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.

It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.

In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.

So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.

Literacy, school, poverty

Literacy class. Photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

For many years, the Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, has done adult literacy in the various Ghanaian languages. Among the many benefits is the fact that it helps to children succeed in school. The benefit works two ways. First parents who attend a literacy class and read the Bible in their language are much more likely to put their children in school and keep them there. This is true even in parts of Ghana where some children never attend school even though it is obligatory.

Second children who fail and drop out of school often then attend an adult literacy class in their language. They return to school with their improved reading skills and succeed. This is in spite of the fact that the literacy class was in their language and school is in English.

In fact, this path to success in school has been so successful that it has been formalized in a government program known as Complementary Basic Education (CBE). Children who fail in school and drop out then attend a few months of instruction in reading and other subjects in their mother tongue then returned to the regular school system; not infrequently skipping grades after returning. GILLBT partners with the government in implementing CBE.

GILLBT does adult literacy so that people can read the Bible. As I have reported in this blog (links) , that has been wildly successful in both spiritual and practical terms.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Ghanaian teachers, nurses, pastors and others who initially failed school, but then succeeded after learning to read in their mother tongue in a GILLBT literacy class. I even know of one university lecturer. They and their families were lifted out of a life of poverty through literacy and the Bible in their language. This is all the more impressive because it is happening in the poorest parts of Ghana; places where the poverty rate reaches as high as 90% and half of those live in extreme poverty.

Bibles in church

In 2017, the Ghanaian organization I work with (GILLBT) received a letter from a pastor of a congregation composed of believers from the Buli language. Here’s the gist of that letter:

This is to inform you that last Sunday during the Bible study period, we noticed an unusual thing that about half of the adults had their Buli Bible and each was eager to read whenever a reference was made. It was so good and pleasant to see that. I wish to say thank you GILLBT for this wonderful thing you have done. Long live GILLBT.

This is amazing for three reasons.

First, far fewer than half of Buli adults can read. In fact it’s probably less than one in five. It is likely that many of the people in church got there through a literacy class.

Second, the church in question is in Accra, a long distance from the area where the Buli language is spoken. Historically, people moving out of their area to a city learn the language of the city in order to find work and interact with their neighbors. Quite a few people, including pastors planting churches, think that local languages are therefore irrelevant to church planting in cities. It turns out that the opposite is often true – that local languages are very effective in evangelism of people newly-arrived from rural areas.

Third, because these believers can read, they have much better job opportunities. The effects are obvious. Christians do better economically than other recent, uneducated rural people moving to cities.

Lastly, these Christians will not be swayed by false teaching because they check everything the preacher says from their Bibles. By the way, the Buli Bible was dedicated two years ago this week.

Language and Christmas

Two stories typify Christmas. One the the story of the Shepherds and the other the story of the wise men. In both stories angels spoke, giving the wise men and shepherds information and instructions. We know that there were many languages spoken in the Middle East at the time, as there are today. So, in what languages did the angels speak? We can safely assume that they spoke in the language(s) of the shepherds and wise men because they intended to be understood.

It is almost certain that the Angels spoke to the shepherds in Aramaic as that was the language of most people.

For the wise men, it’s more complicated. The Bible says only that they came from “The east”. Without a location, it’s difficult to say what languages they spoke. But it’s more complicated than that. At that time people spoke different languages depending on their status in society. (Even today, that’s common in many places.) In any case, it is highly unlikely that God spoke to the wise men in Aramaic.

The Bible prophesies about the birth of Christ were written in Hebrew – a language the Angels did not use to speak to the shepherds or nor God to warn the wise men.

So, the first Christmas happened through translation.

On Christmas day this year, the story of Christmas will be told and celebrated in thousands of languages because of translation. Better, that number continues to grow. That transforms. One of my African friends tells of how his people first adopted a form of Christmas celebration from Western culture. Christmas was a time of wild, drunken parties. When the New Testament was translated into the language and people read it, the celebrations were radically transformed.

Let the red reduce

I was with some Ghanaian colleagues presenting Bible translation at a Christian College in Accra. After the presentation, the dean of the college was taking an offering. He told the students “Let the red reduce”. This sentence is an example of implicit information. When something someone says or writes relies on information that is not directly expressed in what they said or wrote, then the meaning of their words depends on implicit information. In this case, the implicit information is behind the word “red”. Here’s how. The money of many countries has different colored bills for different denominations. Ghana is one of them.

Here are the bills, so that you can interpret the dean’s comments for yourself.

Just like all language, the Bible also contains passages that imply information that is not found in the words themselves like this one:

But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country; And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms. Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day. (Acts 27 ESV)

The fact that the water was getting rapidly shallower confirmed that they were approaching land, but the text does not state this obvious fact. Approaching the land at night is dangerous, but the passage doesn’t say that either, although it does say that the sailors are concerned about shipwreck and take action – they drop anchors. The anchors are designed to stop or slow the ship, another piece of obvious and therefore implied information.

What if you were translating for a landlocked people who had never seen the ocean and had no lakes? Would they know that the decreasing depth of the water meant land was approaching, that this was dangerous and that dropping anchors would slow the ship and help prevent disaster? For them, this passage might be as obscure as “Let the red reduce” was for most of you.

The Dean also said, “Give me brown, I will smile.”The Dean’s comments are analogous to an American preacher encouraging people to put fewer Georges in the offering and to even throw in some Bens.

By the way, we used to use the Acts 27 shipwreck passage in seminars on advanced translation principles in Burkina Faso – a landlocked country where most people have not seen an ocean or a lake large enough to navigate with a ship.

Parking under mango trees

Mango trees make great shade

A Ghanaian colleague of mine was making contacts in a rural area for Bible translation. In one particular village, he didn’t know anyone. So he parked his pickup under a handy mango tree for the shade. He made his contacts and left.

He learned later that the village chief had passed away some time earlier and that two men were vying for the position. The mango tree under which he had parked belonged to one of them. That man then said that the vehicle parked under his tree showed that he had received an important visitor.

He used that as a reason why people should support his bid for the chieftancy. My colleague unwittingly got involved in a bit of political intrigue.

Working in cross-culture ministry means acting with insufficient information, especially at the beginning. You never know how people are going to interpret your actions. So some missionaries start out with a lot of trepidation that they will make a big mistake and ruin their ministry. That is highly unlikely. In any case, there’s not much you can do about it.

Actually, there’s a lot we can do. Pray that missionaries will have wisdom and good relationships. When I trust God and have his wisdom I can live my life without worrying if I’m parked under the wrong mango tree.

 

The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.

Galamsey

The word of the year for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries, was post-truth. In 2013 is was selfie. Whether we agree with these choices or not, one thing is very clear – English is adding new words and some of the new words are very widely used. In Ghana, an English word invented by Ghanaians is getting lots of exposure. That word is galamsey. But you won’t find galamsey in any of the major on-line dictionaries of English. It is absent from Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionary on-line, even though the latter lists other Ghana-isms such as outdooring.

Galamsey refers to illegal or informal mining, usually for gold. Ghana is known for its gold as its former name, The Gold Coast, implies. There are gold mining companies, but there are also other kinds of mining. One is informal mining carried out with hand tools by Ghanaian individuals, not companies. These mines are not regulated. They are both unsafe and they pose some environmental risks. The conditions are sometimes deplorable as you can see by doing a Google Image search for galamsey.

But galamsey is not just informal mining by hand. Some unregistered mining operations use large machinery. These can degrade the local environment to the point where local people start complaining. There has been a recent push in society and by the government to put a stop to galamsey. Even though the word has been around for years, I heard it for the first time in the last few months and now I hear it all the time.

The human mind and human societies are language factories constantly churning out new words and phrases and taking a plow to the settled ground of old words and phrases, turning them over and over. Did you know that “nice” meant “precise” in the 18th century and until fairly recently some English teachers taught that was the correct meaning? Or that in the 14th century it meant “foolish”, then “wanton” or “lascivious” in the 15th century?

So even though a translation stays exactly the same, it’s meaning is changing. To keep the meaning the same, sometimes the words need to change. That is why modern translations such as English Standard Version are updated regularly. By updating the translations where words have changed meaning, the translators are working hard to keep the meaning the same. For the same reason, translations in Africa will need to be revised when the languages change.

Here are some other words Ghanaians use in English to talk about things in their context for which English does not have good word or phrase:

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.