In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gives a series of parables about his Kingdom. We might consider them an window into God’s action in this world. Here are two of them.
Then Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” – Luke 13:18-21
These parables present God’s action in the world as something that starts small and grows big, and as something that starts small and then permeates everything. This contrasts to the idea that God’s action in this world consists of big spectacular events. Big spectacular events are like tsunamis; they create lots of change. But even more change is created by the slow ebb and flow of water that causes erosion, digs riverbeds, carves gullies and canyons, and builds deltas. The tsunami seems more powerful only because it happens fast. .
Religious map of Ghana: Green is most Christian, red is least
Missionaries first came to Ghana in the early 19th century. They struggled. Not many Ghanaians were receptive to their message. But the missionaries learned the languages, translated the Bible, and trained the few that responded. They published the Bible in the Ga language in 1866, followed by the Twi Bible in 1874, and the Ewe Bible in 1914. By that time they had been in Ghana for about 80 years and still few had responded to the Gospel. Things begin to change in the early 20th century. And change they did. From 1900 to 1960 Ghana went from 5% to 60% Christian. The percentage is much higher still in the areas where the Bible had been translated.
The process looked nothing like a tsunami. The day-to-day changes were almost imperceptible. Certainly the hour-to-hour changes were. Nevertheless, the mustard seed has grown into a very large tree and the yeast has permeated the whole loaf, just as Jesus explained.
Sign at school in Ghana
For many children in northern Ghana school is a baffling experience. Because English is Ghana’s official language, that is the language used in school. But the children don’t speak English. Neither do their parents or friends. For many, the only place they hear English is in school. Furthermore, the teacher probably doesn’t know their language, so he or she can’t explain. Because parents don’t know English, they can’t help their children with homework. It’s sink or swim. Some schools even ban students from speaking their languages.
Somehow, this alien experience has come to be considered normal. So normal that students and their parents may be blamed for the poor results. And poor results proliferate – huge numbers fail and repeat grades, many drop out. For many parents, school is a lottery. You send all your kids hoping one will by chance succeed, get a good job, and benefit the whole family. That’s a load of heavy expectations to put on a first grader!
There’s hope. The Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, (link) is leveraging its experience and expertise in translation and literacy in Ghana languages to change all this. It is working with schools to teach students in their own languages for the first three years then transition to English. In fact, when I was in Ghana in July, GILLBT’s training center was overflowing with teams of Ghanaians each preparing teaching materials in their language.
The preliminary results are impressive. The number of second graders reading at the required level went from 15 to over 70 percent. Because you only learn to read once, the transition to English will go quickly. In pilot projects in other countries, children starting in their own languages spoke better English by grade six than those who started in English.
Besides, all those students will become adults who can read the Bible in their languages instead of the illiterate dropouts they would have become.
Children curious about me
In February 2018 I flew from Accra in southern Ghana to the north of the country. In the waiting area at the Accra airport and then on the plane I sat next to a friendly Ghanaian woman with her adorable, six-week-old baby daughter. Once she got seated on the plane, she started breastfeeding her baby in the matter-of-fact way I have seen so many times on this sensible continent. No complexes. No hint of embarrassment. No effort to be extremely discrete.
None of the other passengers, almost all Ghanaian and overwhelmingly male, paid her action the slightest attention. To say that the passengers approved would be to attribute to them far more agency in the matter than they actually exercised. When you drive your car do you consciously approve that the wheels go round and round?
Having spent most of my adult life in a place where breastfeeding in public is an unremarkable and assumed part of life, I am amused when it makes the news and has vocal advocates in the West.
It struck me that the best end point for true advocacy is not repeated (let alone shrill or virtue-signaling) statements in favor of the advocated change. It is not everyone standing up and agreeing. Instead it’s the blasé acceptance manifested by the passengers on that plane.
It also caused me to reflect that just as advocacy for public breastfeeding is irrelevant in Africa, so there won’t be advocates or activists clamoring for our attention in the new heavens and the new earth. Won’t that be refreshing!
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.
I grew up in a non-liturgical church. I was an adult before I attended in service in a liturgical church. When I got to Africa I found that there are quite a few liturgical churches here.
Presbyterian church in southern Ghana
For any of you haven’t experienced a liturgical church, one of their features is that they read a lot of Scripture during the service. In fact, many liturgical churches have a fixed set of readings that take them through much of the bible every couple years. Every Sunday, they read several different types of scriptures. For example, they might read a passage each from the Old Testament , Psalms , an Epistle , and the Gospels. Not long ago, I attended a liturgical church in rural Ghana. In the course of the service, five longish passages were read, first in a regional language, then in the language of the congregation. In another church service, the reading went on for 20 minutes.
This kind of worship is very well adapted to places where many of those attending church do not know how to read. For them, the liturgy is the only time during the week that they hear the Scriptures. In contrast, those attending a non liturgical church may hear only a few verses each Sunday, and they may get no overview of Scripture in spite of attending church for years.
In places where the Bible has not yet been translated, liturgical churches read the Bible in another language which sometimes is not well understood by the congregation. These churches are often the most ardent supporters the translation effort
What do the words “African Church” evoque in your mind? In 2015, I attended the centenary celebration of a Ghanaian church. Here’s what I saw and learned about the church.
- Emergency medical services organised by the church were available during the event as were free blood pressure, blood sugar, and hepatitis screening
- The event was live-streamed on YouTube.
- The church has a university and the rector was introduced.
- The church has 6 million members in Ghana.
- The church’s offices in Accra are its international headquarters because it has congregations in a number of other countries.
- The church offers scholarships to needy students.
- The worship was mostly in Ghanaian language and was very vibrant.
- The speakers had advanced degrees – Doctor this, Professor that.
- Economic woes, moral decadence, materialism, seeking after power, and corruption were all mentioned in the same breath – a manifestation of a profoundly holistic approach to ministry.
- An elder of the church is part of the government of Ghana. He’s the Minister of Housing.
- The leader of the event was the leader of a different, major denomination of Ghana; an amazing show of practical unity among churches.
- The event was held in a major conference center in downtown Accra with thousands in attendance.
- The unveiling of a new church logo included pyrotechnics
- The church has a relief and development arm.
Of course, all churches in Africa are not like this one. But whatever “African church” means, today it has to include this church and others like it.
If we ask how many languages have a translation of the Bible we get one number. But if we ask how many people have the Bible in their language we get a very different number.
Of the 7 billion people on our planet 6 billion have the Bible in their heart language, which is 86 percent. But only 9 percent of the world’s languages have the whole Bible. That’s about 650 out of 7,000 languages. Another 23 percent of languages have the NT. So close to 1/3 of languages worldwide have at least the NT.
The situation in Ghana is similar. 87 percent of Ghanaians have the Bible in their language; very close to the 86 percent worldwide. But that’s only about a third of Ghana’s languages.
The large differences between the percentage of languages and the percentages of people are due, of course, to the fact that there are big languages and small. All of the biggest languages in Africa, for example, have the Bible.
Although there are still some larger languages without the whole Bible, translating the Bible into more languages is mostly about the smaller and often marginalized peoples – “the least of these”. Each new translation is not so much an attempt to change the world, but rather to create in-depth and lasting transformation in one place – to connect at the deepest level for lasting impact. It is also about including those not yet included in God’s kingdom.
Language size. Source: Wikipedia