All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

Beyond aid

His excellency the President of Ghana

Ghana elected a new president a few months back – Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. He has announced a new agenda for the government – Ghana Beyond Aid. Here’s what he said to business leaders in Ghana on March 20 of this year:

“We want to build a Ghana beyond aid; a Ghana which looks to the use of its own resources. We want to build an economy that is not dependent on charity and handouts, but an economy that will look at the proper management of its resources as the way to engineer social and economic growth in our country.”

Many African countries rely heavily on international aid. Right now, I have colleagues helping with a program to increase the quality of primary school education in Ghana financed by USAID.  Kenya just opened a new, 3.6 billion dollar railway 90% funded by China. The link between the words development and aid is so strong in Africa that that many Africans assume that all programs of economic, industrial or other development are funded by some other country. Front page or leading newspaper articles in Ghana newspapers regularly report that this or that country is granting Ghana a large sum of money for something. I have sometimes wondered if some Africans believe that their continent can only progress by the efforts and inputs of others.  So the idea that Ghana will get to a point where it will not depend on outside funding for its own development can rightly be called “a big idea.”

The president’s Ghana-beyond-aid mentality comes at a time when Ghanaian Christians had already been discussing the same thing for Bible translation. On the one hand, they are deeply grateful for the missionaries who left their homes and suffered deprivations to translate the Bible into their languages and for the Western missions who continue to send people and money. On the other hand, they believe that the time has come for Ghanaian Christians to supply the funds needed to translate the Bible into the languages of Ghana. The are a bit ashamed when they learn that a very small percentage of the funds for translation are coming from Ghana. This idea had been spreading among church leaders, Christian business people and others well before the President announced his Ghana Beyond Aid agenda. It might be the first time politics has imitated missions.

Piggybacking on the president’s phraseology, Christians are now talking about Bible Translation Beyond Aid, a phrase that captures the idea they already had; and which expresses their deepest motivations for both their Lord and their country. It looks like the President has, inadvertently, given a big  boost to the movement to have translation in Ghana funded from within Ghana. However inadvertent from a human standpoint, I believe that I see God’s hand in this turn of events.

Go north

When I go to missions events in Ghana, the mission speakers call for missionaries to “go north.”

The mission events are held in the South of Ghana because that is where the churches are. The southern half of Ghana is very different from the northern half. The south has many churches and Christians, the north has few. The south is much more prosperous; a much higher percentage of its people are educated; it has better health care, roads and schools. In addition, the north has had some highly-publicized ethnic conflicts, making some people from the south fearful of going there.

Because the northern areas are poorer and lack the roads, schools and other infrastructure of the southern areas, sending someone to the north is seen as a punishment. Indeed, it has been used that way. A government primary school teacher who does something wrong might be transferred to a school in the north as punishment. I read in a news paper article that a good percentage of government doctors assigned to clinics in the north never show up to take up their positions. I interviewed a job applicant in Ghana who said that in the past she had been offered a job in the north and was so afraid and unsure that she went to look without even packing a suitcase. But she liked it and stayed. Her family had to ship her things to her. “The north” has an undeserved aura of remote desolation.

West Africa

When we factor in the recent attacks in the countries just north of Ghana’s border, and the ongoing skirmishes in parts of Mali (a country north of Ghana), we add hostility and danger to the north’s aura. But “the north” is also a place where there are not that many churches or Christians. If we go far enough north we reach countries on the southern banks of the Mediterranean where Christians and churches are very far and few between. North is also where there are still languages without a translation of the Bible.

As in many cases for Christians in other places, Ghanaian Christians face an challenging missions call because going to where the Good News is scarce also means going to places less advantaged, less comfortable, less inviting and sometimes less safe than the places Christians already are.

Operation Cover the Land

The organization I work for in Ghana has adopted something they call Operation Cover the Land. The name is loosely based on Habakkuk 2:14

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)

The “earth” in this case means the land of Ghana. Covering it means making sure that all the languages of Ghana have the Bible.

After all, it is difficult to imagine how a place can be filled with true knowledge of God’s glory without people having access to book that covers that topic in depth – the Bible.

Operation Cover the Land asks Ghanaian Christians to imagine what it would be like to be part of fulfilling Habakkuk’s 2,600-year-old prophesy and, even more, seeing that happen soon. And it could be very soon indeed because Operation Cover the Land envisages having translations ongoing in all the languages of Ghana without the Bible by 2020. After that, the scope  will increase to include all of Africa with Ghana providing resources for Bible translation across Africa. It is very ambitious, but then so is Habakkuk’s prophesy.

Outsider churches

I used to think that the meaning of “missions” was clear. I have learned that different people mean different things – very different things. Some months back, I asked someone who teaches missions in several Bible schools and a seminary in Africa, what new students thought of missions when they started the course. The answer did not surprise me even though it dismayed me. Those from one particular denomination often think that missions means going to a place where there is no church of that denomination but to which people who grew up in that denomination have moved, and starting a church of that denomination by gathering them together.

imageLet’s back up a bit. Some churches have been limited to some parts of some countries. The Southern Baptist Convention is a good example in the USA. The same thing happens in Africa, but there it causes something else. Africa has at least 1,800 languages and ethnic groups. So if a church is found only in one part of a country, it will necessarily be associated with the ethnic group(s) in that part of the country.

Let’s say that church CH has become associated with ethnic group EG because that church was started by CH missionaries in the EG area. It has church services in the EG’s language and its pastors necessarily come from EG. Now lets say that some people who are members of church CH and who are also part of the EG move out of the area. Perhaps they are government officials or teachers and they are assigned to another part of the country. Or maybe they move to another part of the country because of economic opportunities. Anyway several move to the same town where there are no Christians and no church. So, they ask church CH to send a pastor. The church does, and of course the pastor is from the EG. He unites the displaced members of EG into a CH church with services in the EG language.

This new congregation has been established by outsiders to resemble the churches in the place the outsiders came from. Services are conducted in the language of the outsiders. The church and its members have very little connection with local people. This kind of church has very little hope of bringing Christ to the community around it. It is quite good, on the other hand, at giving people from EG living far from family and friends a taste of home every Sunday.

exclusiveNaturally, this new congregation becomes known in the community as something for people from another ethnic group. After all, only people from ethnic group EG are members and the services are conducted in their language. If this situation is repeated in several towns in one part of the country, and no churches are established that reach out to local people or use the local language, local people will eventually conclude that church and therefore Christianity are not for them.

Once that happens, it is very hard to reverse. The people have been inoculated against Christianity by a church that effectively excludes them. This the challenge of some places in Ghana. By translating the Bible into the language and working with national church offices wanting to plant churches that are part of the community, we are starting to see a breakdown in the misconception that Christianity is only for others.

Anomaly

The growth of Christianity in the central and southern parts of Ghana is astounding. The map to the right is based on information from the Joshua Project.  Each dot represents the geographic center of a people group. The color of the dot shows the percentage of Christians in that people group – darker being a higher percentage. People groups without very low percentages of Christians are not shown. You can see that the central and southern parts of Ghana have a high percentage of Christians. The virtual absence of dots in other parts of Ghana is telling. But it would be a mistake to measure the growth of the church in Ghana only by percentages and numbers of Christians; because the church has grown in so many other ways.

Many churches in Ghana now have international missions. One is doing missions in over 90 countries! It’s headquarters in Ghana is, in fact, it’s international headquarters. In addition, these churches have significant social ministries including schools, clinics, hospitals, Bible schools, seminaries and even universities. They have publications, TV stations and radio stations. They have social programs designed to reduce poverty and help those in need. They design and implement their own Sunday School programs and curricula. Some of their churches have thousands in attendance on Sunday. Some seem to have a congregation on every other corner of Accra. All of this is created, funded, and run entirely from within Ghana.

But there is an anomaly. That anomaly is Bible translation. While every other ministry of the church – pastoral care, evangelism, social ministries,  education, etc. – is created, funded and run from withing Ghana; the translation of the Bible into the languages of Ghana is created and funded with resources from abroad, mostly the US and the UK. Western agencies have a better understanding of the number of languages in Ghana and which still need translation, than do churches in Ghana.

Churches that saw a need for a university to train their people, then raised the funds from within Ghana to build and staff the university, did not see the languages without translation on their doorsteps. They saw social needs, poverty, the need for solid training for pastors and stepped into those gaps too. But their lack of engagement in  Bible translation stands in awkward and anomalous contrast to their engagement in so many other ministries.

Recently, Ed has been involved with some Ghanaians in a big push to change this situation. Together that group has developed a definitive list of the remaining translation needs in Ghana together with an estimated budget to translate the whole Bible into all of them over the next 18 years. In a few weeks, Church leaders and Christian business people will meet in Ghana at a fund-raising event where we hope to raise the funds for the first few years.

Beyond that, we want hope to get the churches to engage with Bible translation and guide it the same way they give attention to other ministries. Here’s to normalizing the anomaly.

Learning going the wrong way

Dedication of representative translation committees for three Ghana languages, 2014

Launching translations in three small languages in Ghana’s Volta Region that no on ever learns, although the people who speak these languages almost always learn the regional language.

In Africa, people who speak small languages learn larger languages, but the reverse does not usually happen.

When a missionary whose language is English learns a small language, that speaks volumes. Not only has the missionary learned the language, he or she has done something counter their own interests. Learning the smaller language is a step down the social ladder. When Africans learn smaller languages to minister to people, that also speaks volumes about humility and service. I have written about a specific example.

An African translator told me how a church leader mocked him for volunteering to help in literacy in his “little language”. The person told him that such activities have no value because his language is so small.

But the things that are growing the church in rural areas in northern Ghana and northern Côte d’Ivoire are translations and literacy in those “worthless” languages that no one will bother to learn. It’s another delicious example of God’s subversion from below:

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 Corinthians 1:27)

It turns out that the things people readily dismiss as useless provide the real leverage for transforming communities and bringing Gospel life.

Dead-End Translation

Presbyterian Bible translator

Last week, this blog was about how Bible translations done in Ghana in the late 1800s contributed to dramatic church growth in the first half of the 1900s. I also noted that after a first wave of translations carried out by German Presbyterian missionaries, there were no translations started in other Ghanaian languages for 50 years. The churches that grew on the basis of those translations, who used them widely and enthusiastically did not take up the task of translating the Bible for their fellow Ghanaians who still did not have the Bible in their languages.

This situation is not unusual. The Bible was translated into the Ge’ez language (also called Ethiopic) of Ethiopia sometime in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. It was one of the first translations of the Bible coming just after Jerome did his translation, the Vulgate, into Latin.

It was also followed by a time when no more translations were done, but the stoppage in Africa lasted over 1000 years! Having been blessed with a translation in their own language, Ethiopian Christians did not start other translations. Exactly the opposite! Even when the Ge’ez language died out sometime before the year 1300, the church and Christians in Ethiopia continued to use and revere the Ge’ez translation that no one understood except a few academics. Not only did they fail to translate the Bible into the Amharic language which became the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, they insisted that the incomprehensible Ge’ez translation was the only real Word of God.

Ge’ez translation

History shows that it is the usual pattern that people who receive a translation of the Bible from missionaries and use it enthusiastically, do not then decide to translate the Bible for others. In fact, they might insist that others use the Bible in their language, even when that translation becomes archaic or the language even disappears. In this sense, translating the Bible is often a dead-end task. Oh, it bears fruit in terms of faith and the growth of the church where that language is spoken. In that way it is anything but a dead-end.

But translating is most often a dead-end in terms of prompting the beneficiaries to do a translation for a language next door or in the next country. There are probably many American Christians who are deeply blessed by the Bible in English but who have not thought about making sure those who speak other languages have the same blessing.

Our role in Ghana is to work with Ghanaians to show the churches here the dead-end sign they have erected without thinking about it so that the Holy Spirit might prompt them to take it down and build a continuation of the road missionaries started by translating the Bible into the Ghanaian languages that still don’t have it, and then continue beyond Ghana’s borders.

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.

Tired of the Bible

One day back when we lived and worked in Burkina Faso, I found myself traveling through a town where the Bible was being translated into the local language. The translation was being done by another organization, but I knew the translators – a  great team of local men. So I stopped to see them and perhaps encourage them. I found them busy in their translation office. It was great to spend a few minutes with them finding out how they were and how the translation was going.

imageWhen I asked what book they were translating, the said Job. When I asked how that was going, they looked completely fatigued, their shoulders drooped, they hung their heads and one of them mumbled in the feeble voice of an old man. “We are so tired of the philosophy of Job’s friends.”

I get it. When reading Job I’m tempted to read the first two chapters then skip the next 39 to finish with chapter 42. If reading chapters 3 through 41 can be tiresome, can you imagine translating sentences like this day after day?

For with sons of the field is thy covenant (Job 5:23 YLT)

The by-word of American culture these days appears to be “exciting”. Everything is supposed to be exciting. Exciting is good. Boring is bad. Tiring is, well, tiring. But, I think that those Bible translators from Burkina Faso were on to something. Maybe fatigue is an appropriate response to the unbroken flow of mistaken opinions from Job’s friends. After all, they made God angry:

The Lord said to Eliphaz: What my servant Job has said about me is true, but I am angry at you and your two friends for not telling the truth. (Job 42:7 CEV)

God has emotions. When God speaks to us through his Word, that can cause an emotional response. Let’s not think that only certain emotions are allowed – that we have to have only “holy” emotions. I find it instructive that those translators found the opinions of Job’s friends to be tiring. God wants our honest reactions to his Word.