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.

Power Encounters

broken-chainDuring my last weeks in Côte d’Ivoire, two Ivorians friends told me about the experiences of their parents who were some of the first believers in their areas. Their parents had told them of numerous power encounters – events where God intervened by his power to validate and protect them as they evangelized. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel tells of a power encounter.

My friends’ parents told of going to villages on evangelism trips. They ate when people offered them food, but unbeknown to them, the people had poisoned the food. However, they ate it with no ill effects. After they ate, the people who had offered the food thought that it must be okay, so they ate the rest. But they became very ill and some died. My friends said that their parents told them lots of such stories when they were growing up.

This story came up because one of my friends is helping with conflict resolution in an area of the country where there is a conflict over religion. Those who follow traditional religious practices are insisting that others, including Christians, also respect those practices. Christians who don’t are being harassed and even attacked. He is working with others to resolve the conflict before it escalates, but they’re not having a lot of success.


The Ghanaian symbol for God the exceptional – Gye Nyame

My Ivorian friends are seeing the return if some religious practices they thought had disappeared with their parents and grandparents generation. This matches my observations in Ghana where traditional religion is making a bit of a comeback. A survey in Ghana showed that a higher percentage of educated people believe that sorcery has real power. And this is at a time when more Ghanaians have more education than ever before. It seems that education is not the answer. But then, we knew that.

That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.

A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.

They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.

Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.

Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.

Learning to read

Learning to read

Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.

They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.

Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.

The Picture Window

A Particular Glory - John PiperJohn Piper has written a book about the Bible entitled A Particular Glory. I find the book fascinating partly because it echoes some of my experience with the Bible that I have not been able to articulate, and partly because it offers a very fresh break from the “battle for the Bible” that has dominated Evangelical teaching and writing about the Bible for more than a few decades.

Piper shifts the focus of the discussion to the view of things (of god, of human beings, and of creation) presented in the Bible. That view, he says, is compelling because it is rich in the glory of God.

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures.

I have stood in front of this window all these years, not to protect it from being broken, or because the owner of the chalet told me to, but because of the glory of the Alps on the other side. I am a captive of the glory of God revealed in Scripture.

John Piper is a well-known pastor and theologian with a seminary degree. He has written numerous books. This book, A Particular Glory, has received endorsements from leading evangelicals.

But poor, uneducated, subsistence farmers in northern Ghana (among others) beat him to the idea and to the experience. It is only in recent years that the Bible has been translated into the languages of northern Ghana (and not yet all of their languages). But when it was, many of them accepted it and the truth it contains, not because they had some fancy, logical defense of its inspiration and historicity, or because of who brought it (they had long rejected the Christianity brought by Western missionaries), but because what it says gives them a compelling new way to see God and all of life.

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, who did his doctoral research on the impact of new Bible translations in northern Ghana, told a conference in 2012 that for those peoples in northern Ghana:

The Bible now provides the key to understand the world.

Before John Piper wrote his book, those poor farmers were already standing in front of the large and clear picture window which is the Bible in their language, joyfully compelled by the glorious view it provides. At a church meeting in Ghana in 2014, I saw their joy they read and talked about the Bibles in their languages they all held in their hands.

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.

If you send your child

Some time back, one of our Ghanaian colleagues said to Dayle: “If you send your child, you send yourself.” He was referring to a specific circumstance. But Dayle did not understand what he was saying, so she asked him to explain. He explained that he had sent someone on an errand, but the person he sent couldn’t handle the matter, so eventually he had to go himself and he was able to handle it.

At first, Dayle had thought that he was saying that if you delegate your child to do something, that is as good as going yourself. But he was saying exactly the opposite – that if you send your child (or by extension a subordinate) to do something, you will eventually have to go do it yourself.

We can paraphrase our colleague’s comment like this: “If you send your child to do something (you should do), you’ll eventually have to go do it yourself anyway.” We have a roughly equivalent expression in English – if you want something done well, do it yourself.

Now I don’t know what you think of that, but one thing is clear. We can’t understand our colleague’s statement: “If you send your child you send yourself” by examining the words, no matter how scrupulously we examine them. We can only understand what he meant when we understand his cultural perspective.

My journey in ethnodoxology

Ghanaians composing songs in their language

Ghanaians composing songs in their language

Ethnomusicology is the study of the music of different cultures. Christian missions have created a specific type of ethnomusicology called ethnodoxology. According to the International Council of Ethnodoxologists:

Ethnodoxology is the theological and anthropological study, and practical application, of how every cultural group might use its unique and diverse artistic expressions appropriately to worship the God of the Bible.

The parts of the word illustrate its meaning – “ethno” refers to people of different ethnic backgrounds and “doxology” means praise.

Even as a missionary, I initially considered ethnomusicology and ethnodoxology nothing more than interesting sidelines to real mission. But when I saw how people connect to God when they worship in their own music styles and what happens when they don’t, I changed my tune (pun intended). When Ghanaians sing Western hymns, they are subdued. When they switch to their own languages and music styles, worship comes alive. One missionary observed that when people sang in their own language and musical styles:

“the whole church starts singing—even the children”

I used to think that ethnodoxology was about people singing the kind of songs they prefer, or the kind that brings back great childhood memories. I eventually came to realize that it is about worshiping in the language and music styles that allow people to express their deepest emotions and thoughts. Translators for the Lala language in Nigeria reported that when Lala youth started singing worship songs in their language and musical styles, many repented and became Christians. Jesus said:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)

Singing brand new songs

Singing brand new songs

Music is an important way that people express their deepest things in their hearts and souls, especially in places where music is less what people consume and more what they do. I came to realize that it must be difficult, if not impossible to express “all your heart” or “all your soul” (emphasis mine) in a language or in music styles a person does not fully master. If it is necessary to have the Bible in the heart language, then it must be necessary to worship in that language as well. Furthermore, songs do much more than express emotion. A Christian song – We Shall Overcome – galvanized the civil rights movement in the US and in other places. Martyrs singing worship songs while being burned to death caused an explosion of Christianity in Uganda.

The opposite is also true.

I found that when people are only allowed to worship in other languages and in music styles that are foreign to them, they can start to feel like they have become like others to worship God. They may start to believe that God doesn’t like their music – that he prefers the way others do it. The idea that “God doesn’t like worship in my language and musical styles” becomes “God doesn’t like me” or even “The Christian God has cursed my people and me”. That is so sad.

Joseph Gyebi and family

Joseph Gyebi and family

A Ghanaian musician and friend, Joseph Gyebi, wants to change that. He has already helped Christian musicians from two language groups in Ghana develop worship and praise music in their languages and music styles. He is doing that while being a full-time student and serving part-time as a pastor to a congregation in Accra. The Ghanaian organization we work with wants to help him do more. We’re working on that.

There won’t be preaching in heaven, because we will know in full. But ethnodoxology? Oh, there’ll be lots of that!

And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation, (Rev 5:9)

“Missions exists because worship doesn’t. – John Piper

Here’s a video of some believers (not in Africa) worshiping to the first praise songs in their language.

What value for unity

Road to Siwu country

Road to Siwu country

Shortly after we arrived in Ghana, we travel to the Volta Region to participate in the launch of a reprint of the New Testament in the Siwu language, the first printing had sold out. The Siwu are a small, people group in Ghana’s Volta Region. They number about 36,000. In spite of being small, they were a divided community. At some point, a number of them had moved some distance away where they established new Siwu towns and villages. Even though it was not that far, the new and the old Siwu communities did not have that much contact with each other.

Then rivalries developed. Siwu from one community did not go to the yearly festivals in the other, which is rare, Worse, they no longer went to the funerals in the other community. In Ghana, everyone goes to funerals. People go to the funerals of distant relatives and even the family members of people they work with. They even go to the funerals of people they don’t like or get along with. Not going to the funeral is a powerful statement of separation. The Siwu were very divided.

Siwu New Testaments being auctioned

Siwu New Testaments being auctioned

What brought the two Siwu communities back together was the process of translating the Bible – not the teachings of the Bible mind you, but the process of translating it. The two sides collaborated on the translation. People from both Siwu communities started coming to translation events. Both communities sent people to be involved in the translation. The same translation was distributed in both communities. Literacy was organized in both. And then, of course, they started coming to other events in each others’ communities.

I have heard this story over and over with variations. The most usual is Christians and church leaders saying that the effort to translate the Bible into their language caused churches to work together who had not cooperated ever. At dedications of Bible translation, the most often cited impact of the translation program I have heard is the unity the translation program brought between churches.

Siwu chief at the launch

Siwu chief at the launch

At first I did not think that much of an impact. It was not one which motivated me personally. Other results, like people coming to faith, church growth, reduced drunkenness, and less domestic violence are big motivators for me. But unity as a motivation kind of fell flat. On the other hand, Africans have a high value for unity. This does not necessarily mean that they are more united. It does mean that they have strong feelings of loss when unity is absent, and they rejoice more when it is regained. The repeated and joyful comments about unity regained at that Siwu event confirmed their value for unity and gratefulness at its return.

Jesus prayed for unity for his followers:

I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me. I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. (John 17:21-22)

Young Siwu man with traditional drums

Young Siwu man with traditional drums

Unfortunately, Jesus’ value for unity hadn’t rubbed off on me. I’m too American, valuing individualism more than unity. Also, I’ve been taught to be wary of approaches to unity which negate Jesus’ teaching. But years of hearing the joy of Africans at regained unity among their churches has finally rubbed off on me. Unity is one of the wonderful results of translating the Bible. It is one of the ways Jesus’ prayer for unity among believers is worked out in practice.

The Doctor

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Doctor Browne is a real doctor. By that I mean a medical doctor. But these days he is also a minister of the Gospel with Lighthouse Chapel International, a church that was started in Ghana, and is found throughout Ghana and in other countries. Doctor Browne is a doctor’s doctor. Before becoming a minister he taught at a medical school and consulted on difficult cases. For a while, he was responsible for all the churches belonging to Lighthouse Chapel International in northern Ghana.

As soon as he was given that responsibility, he started learning one of the most important languages of northern Ghana – Dagbani, the language of the Dagomba people.

That is an interesting thing to do. Northern Ghana is not as prosperous as the part of Ghana Doctor Browne is from. Many Ghanaians with credentials not nearly as impressive as Dr. Browne’s don’t want to work or live there. Also, learning Dagbani is a big step down the social ladder. But Dr. Browne saw value in learning Dagbani, of identifying himself with them. In a few months, Doctor Browne learned Dagbani better than others in his church who had been there for much longer.

Doctor Browne’s actions are all the more amazing when compared to the actions of others. For example, some ministers in Ghana will only use English because it is prestigious. They preach in English even when they know that people don’t understand. They would never learn Dagbani, or any other Ghanaian language. Also, many Ghanaians with his education and credentials dread, as I wrote above, being assigned to northern Ghana because of the lack of services. Instead, many are emigrating to the USA or to Europe.

The continued use and impact of translations in the languages of Ghana depend on ministers of the Gospel like Doctor Browne who are more interested in communicating the Gospel than in prestige or their careers.

While others are heading up, Doctor Browne is going the other direction. Actually, his direction is the real up – the direction Jesus took:

Think the same way that Christ Jesus thought: Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others. (Phil 2: 5-9)


Announcement in a church bulletin

Announcement in a church bulletin

In Ghana, some churches announce banns of marriage. Three Sundays in a row there is a public announcement of the names of the couple to be married with the planned date of their wedding. The announcer tells the congregation that if they know of any reason why the couple should not be married, they should inform the church leaders If the couple are from different churches, the banns are announced in each church.

If the church uses a projector, the name of the couple is projected and sometimes a photo. If the couple is present, they are asked to stand. At that point, it is not uncommon that people in the congregation cheer, whistle, clap their hands, trill or otherwise show their joy. There may also be laughter or giggles.

The word “banns” comes from a middle English word meaning “proclamation”. So “banns of marriage” is just an archaic way of saying “public announcement of plans to get married”. One might think that the word banns would be dropped in favor of a more up-to-date word, especially given how close “banns” is to “bans” – the spelling is different, but the pronunciation is the same.

Churches tend to be very attached to certain words, like banns. That can have an effect on translation.

©2013 GospelGifs

©2013 GospelGifs

Imagine a place where the Gospel has never been preached. Missionaries come and preach to the people through interpreters. The missionary doing the preaching uses the word “sin” and the interpreter has to find the equivalent word in the language. Very often and unfortunately, the interpreter has to find the word on the fly with no preparation. So he chooses a word. It might be a good choice and it might not. Unfortunately, few missionaries take the time to consider what words their interpreters are using for key Bible concepts. The interpreter picks words for other key ideas – salvation, savior, heaven, Holy Spirit, etc. using this same haphazard process.

It was in this hit and miss way that specific local words for key Bible concepts were “chosen” in some places. And sometimes those first choices stuck and became tradition, just like banns. In contrast, the method used to chose key terms for English was quite different. Many of them were chosen by an Oxford scholar who knew Hebrew and Greek – the languages in which the Bible was written. That scholar was William Tyndale.

Places where there are Christians, but not yet a translation of the Bible, the accidental process by which words are chosen for key Bible concepts sometimes had the result that different churches use different words than others for the same Bible concept.

Bible translators have to sort this out. Each church may be quite attached to the words it uses. It may not even have thought about the slapdash way the words were chosen nor have considered that there are better words than the ones they use. As we have seen with banns, church tradition in the use of words can be very important to people. If the translators are not careful, some people might reject at translation if it does not use the words they prefer, even when their those words do not have the right meaning. In insisting on their words, church leaders and Christians will say that they are protecting good teaching. In reality, they are protecting their tradition.

Pray for Bible translators. In the matter of key Bible terms, they not only have to find the best words, they often end up having to be negotiators and peacemakers to the get best words accepted over church tradition.