On losing authority

Missionaries get respect. We are held in high esteem in many churches in the USA. Plus missionaries are respected in many places in Africa. Officials, local people, even those who follow other religions give us deference. However, our ministry of Bible translation undermines our authority, as Yale historian Lamin Sanneh says:
“Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert.”

In fact, translating the Bible is the perfect way for a missionary to lose the position of expert, even if he or she is still appreciated.

Otabil’s church starting to fill up on Sunday – 2nd service

Earlier this year, I took American friends to the very large church of well-known Pastor Mensah Otabil in Accra, Ghana. He said that his ministry focuses on raising up leaders. He defined a leader as a self-directed individual. I took that to mean someone who takes responsibility before God for his or her actions. Someone who is not dependent on others in an unhealthy way. Someone who has confidence in God and in the Holy Spirit within. Otabil said that he did not want the members of his church to depend on him for every little thing.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 including McKeown, courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

A famous missionary to Ghana, James McKeown, often told new Christians who tended to depend on the him as their missionary for everything:

I have not come to create beggars but to make men Sons of God.

The members of the church McKeown founded still quote that today to encourage themselves to take hold of the responsibilities God has given them.

Research into the impact of translating the Bible into African language has found that those who read the Bible in their own language take more initiative. They are more likely to witness to their neighbors and to start small businesses. Women speak up more in their families and churches. They are more likely to resist pressure from the proponents of traditional religious practices. They become self-directed individuals, as Otabil put it, or children of God as McKoewn put it.

When we translate, we joyfully and deliberately undermine our authority by putting people in direct contact with a much better authority.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)

Ashamed

Apostle Opoku-Oninyah

A couple of years ago, I was in a meeting of the Ghana Evangelism Committee. Most of those present were representing Ghanaian churches. As the name of the committee suggests, it was discussing evangelism. But at the end of the meeting one of those present raised a hot button moral, social and political issue. He wanted to see action taken so he asked that the committee discuss what that might be. The man leading the meeting responded, “Just preach the gospel.”

He had full confidence the gospel was enough to solve the problem. I know the man and I know his church. It is one of the largest churches in Ghana but it was founded by a lone missionary who espoused an unusual mission strategy – that as a missionary would only preach the gospel. That is, he would not undertake any social endeavors such as medical work. He believed that if he founded a solid the church that church would develop social ministries. And that is exactly what happened. Today, the church he founded, The Church of Pentecost, has schools clinics, programs to reduce poverty, and more.

So the man’s confidence that the social and political issue could be solved by just preaching the gospel has deep roots in the history and experience of his church, not to mention in his faith in the power of God.

In Romans 1:16, the Apostle Paul wrote that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God. I have always heard that this means that the Apostle was not embarrassed to speak the Gospel. But there is another way to be ashamed of the Gospel. That is by not having confidence in its power to solve real problems in this world.

Political and social action have their place but they should not displace our trust in the Gospel as the power of God to save eternally and from all kinds of problems here on earth. So, there are two ways to be ashamed of the Gospel:

  • Bring embarrassed to witness
  • Having lost confidence in its real power of the Gospel

I would go so far as to say that if you have a political view on how to solve a problem but not a parallel Gospel view, you might be ashamed of the Gospel. So if you have a political opinion about terrorism, but don’t have equally ardent desire to support Christian ministry to the places from which terrorists come, then maybe you are ashamed of the Gospel.

Last month in Ghana, I heard a leading pastor say that he was asked how the church can contribute to national development. His answer? Through obeying the Great Commission. He went on to talk about how evangelism transforms.

It seems that confidence in the power of the Gospel can be found throughout Ghana.

 

 

It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: “The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.” – Romans 1:16 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans1:16&version=MSG

Staying awake

Siwu translators at their translation desk

Back in February, we visited the area where the Siwu language is spoken. Siwu is a small language surrounded by a much larger language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay). So everyone speaks both Siwu and Ewe. We spoke to the two men translating the Old Testament into Siwu. (The New Testament appeared a few years ago.) I asked what caused them to be interested in translating the Bible into their language. One said that previously he was a pastor and he used to preach in Ewe. But he occasionally preached in his own language. When he did, people did not fall asleep. In fact, they were very attentive.

So when it was announced that there would be a translation into his language he jumped at the chance.

What preacher, I thought, wouldn’t jump at the guarantee that his audience would all stay awake.

Corruption conundrum

Banner for change Attitude Ghana

During the five weeks I’m in Ghana, I’m renting a room from a man who is a leader in a Ghanaian organization called Change Attitude Ghana. It is fighting corruption, which a continuing problem. As its name indicates, Change Attitude Ghana seeks to solve the problem by a personal change of attitude in Ghanaians. I applaud this approach.
Laws have their place, but they can rarely eradicate widespread societal problems, as I noted in my post about FGM. One of the ways corruption is embedded in culture came up in a conversation I had with a Ghanaian passenger on my flight to Accra. He noted that people put pressure on the politicians and civil servants who come from their region, people or clan demanding jobs or other benefits the civil servant controls. If the civil servant does not comply, he or she becomes known as an evil person who does not take care of their own. This is a very potent charge because sharing and generosity is are highly valued and people without those traits can be considered as bad as murderers. The passenger noted that even if the civil servant does not want to be corrupt, the pressure from his friends, family and clan may push him or her into it anyway.
What makes this more insidious, is that those putting on the pressure often consider their actions virtuous. After all, they are looking out for the well-being of their family, clan or region. They might even cite I Timothy 5:8:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8
So tackling corruption must include a change of attitude in the people, not just the civil servants and politicians. A narrow approach won’t work.
It is no coincidence that the man who is a leader in Change Attitude Ghana is a solid Christian who is active in his church and various Christian organizations. He is the leader of the Christian Business Men’s association for my part of Accra, for example. He knows the power of God to change people in profound ways. He believes that profound change is key; that Christianity in Ghana must produce people with new attitudes. He does not want Christianity
having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. – 2 Timothy 3:5
All that is why he is also in favor of translating the Bible into all the languages of Ghana. As the tag line for our website says, translation is “connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact.”

New thoughts on Old

Early in July, I attended a one-day conference on the subject of the Old Testament in Africa and Christ’s message. We easily forget that Jesus preached exclusively from the Old Testament for the simple reason that the New Testament did not exist yet. The conference was organized by the Ghanaian organization I am on loan to. All of the speakers were from Ghana.

As I have written before, the Old Testament is particularly relevant to African culture. That came out again at this conference. But I learned new aspects of that. Some speakers pointed out that the Old Testament is relevant to the most pressing issues in Christianity in Africa. For example, one speaker showed how the Old Testament is most helpful in guiding the many African Christians who have retained some of their traditional religious practices. Another showed how the Old Testament prophets and Old Testament teaching about prophecy bring a much-needed correction to modern day prophetic ministries in Africa which are rapidly expanding. Yet another pointed out that of the healing of Naaman speaks directly to abusive practices of healing found in some African churches; bringing a healthy correction to them.

Another speaker informed us that there are 650 languages in the world spoken by a half a million people or more (the rest have fewer than that). Of those, 250 have a translation of the New Testament but not of the Old Testament. His point was that at least those languages should have the whole Bible.

The representative of a Western translation organization shared the results of a survey his organization did of churches in Africa and elsewhere asking for translation in their languages. When asked how they would use translations if they were done, the most common response was evangelism. If those, 62 percent said the Old Testament is preferred for that purpose.

I came away with a new appreciation for the Old Testament . As a Ghanaian speaker said, the Old Testament is needed for the spiritual, political and intellectual transformation of Ghana.

Nationalism and Bible Translation

In 2011, I took an assignment in Ghana with a Ghanaian organization – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT).

I started working with Ghanaian Christians committed to seeing that everyone in Ghana has the Bible in their language. They are also very attached to their country. They are nationalists. So are their churches. Church leaders address national issues and say that the church is important to national development.

The mix of Bible translation and nationalism creates some benefits I did not expect. It turns out that the nationalism I found was one that is focused on responsibility. For example, one of the leaders in GILLBT told me:

It was our responsibility to learn from missionaries and take on the work ourselves.

GILLBT’s first translators were missionaries from Europe and North America. My colleague was saying that it was right and good that missionaries came, but that Ghanaians should eventually take responsibility. From other conversations, I have learned that it is a matter of nationalistic pride that Ghanaian churches take financial and other responsibility for Christian witness and ministry in Ghana.

GILLBT board of directors

When Ghanaian Christians learn that most of the money for translation in Ghana comes from elsewhere, their immediate reaction is to want to change that – to have Ghanaians “take on the work” in all its aspects.

Interestingly, the Ghanaian Christian nationalism I have seen is not exclusionary – it does not exclude others. Missionaries and outside money are still welcome, but on the condition that they don’t undermine Ghanaian responsibility. I like this brand of “take responsibility” nationalism. It feels empowered, bold, welcoming and full of faith.

Pointing

After all these years in Africa, I still struggle to give directions Africans understand, and I don’t understand very well when they give me directions. I am still unsure about the meaning of hand motions, pointing and some body language. When I see police along the road here in Ghana, I get apprehensive that I will misunderstand their hand motions and give them cause to give me a ticket, or worse offend them. In fact, that has already happened to me.

In addition to pointing, there is another behavior of police and parking attendants that I find difficult. They will stand right in front of the car where they want you to drive. They expect you to drive right at them, slowly of course, and then they move out of the way as you approach. It took me a while to figure that out. I would never drive right at a policeman in the US! A policeman standing beside the road motioned me to pull over, but he was standing in the only spot where I could. I stopped for a second, remembered what to do, and drove right at him, slowly. He moved out of the way, but looked puzzled that I had stopped. One parking lot I entered had a barrier across the exit to keep inconsiderate motorists from blocking it. As I was leaving, the helpful parking attendant moved the barrier but then stood right in the middle of the exit. It took me a second, but I realized that I had to just drive straight at him. As I did, he got out of the way.

To help reduce crime, there are sometimes police checkpoints on the city streets at night. The drill is simple: roll down your window, turn off the radio or music, turn on your dome light and greet the policeman who is carrying a flashlight. He will wag the flashlight up and down in minute movements to indicate that you should stop, then wag it left and right, also in minute movements, for you to move along. The movements are to small that the flashlight appears to flicker.

Not long ago I was parking at a very busy place. Helpfully, the business I was patronizing had placed a parking attendant in the street to assist customers with parking and getting back onto the busy street. Nice. Except that when I headed for an empty parking spot, that person pointed at it and wagged his index finger “No” quite vigorously. I stopped. He looked puzzled so I pulled into the parking space and he was happy. In that way, I learned that wagging one’s index finger does not indicate “No”, but rather “Go”. I think it was the equivalent of wagging a flashlight back and forth.

Maybe I’ll finally understand it all if I stay another 40 years. Or maybe not. The Mossi people of Burkina Faso have a proverb:

The foreigner has big eyes, but he doesn’t see anything.

Leverage

Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi

About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.

Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.

Praying for the Cedi

Poster for a recent Duncan-Williams event

Recently, a storm of criticism erupted on social media when a week of prayer and fasting was declared in Zambia to fight a cholera outbreak. The idea was mocked and ridiculed, even by some Christians, because they would prefer to see efforts directed toward better public sanitation. A similar thing happened a few years ago when the Ghana currency, the Cedi (pronounced see-dee), was losing value against the dollar. A falling Cedi causes inflation in Ghana. Everyone was talking about it and it was constantly in the news.

One day, I saw in the news that a well-known charismatic preacher had prayed for the Cedi, commanding it to stop falling in value. Most newspapers and radio stations carried the story. I heard conversations between Ghana Christians on the topic.

The critics said the government should exercise more fiscal responsibility; that praying for a miracle was not the right way forward. Others expressed their support. Being a fiscal conservative, I thought the criticism raised some valid points. But I also thought that criticizing prayer was unnecessary. That’s because I don’t have any confidence in the understanding or desires of those who pray, including leading pastors or even myself. But I do have confidence in God. He will hear the prayer and respond based on his infinite wisdom and from his heart of righteousness and love.

It strikes me as both unnecessary and prideful to try to get our prayers exactly right. But insisting that others get their prayers right strikes me as dangerous – something likely to reduce faith and discourage prayer. God is all-wise. So why do we think people have to pray exactly the right thing? The critics expected the people praying to understand the factors that influence exchange rates and pray for the right factor(s) to change. Of course, even economists disagree on what should be done, so good luck getting that one right. I prefer to count on God.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words, (Romans 8:26)

Maybe my old age is making me lazy, but I now like to pray for things that bother me even when I don’t understand the issues at all.

PS: I accidentally sent out this post by email some months ago. My apologies to those who are getting it for the second time.

Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.