The same, but different

On March 16 we arrived in the US for our regular “furlough” – a time when we speak in churches an other groups about Bible translation and our ministry, visit family and even take a little break. Then we go back to our overseas assignments. This time though, things are a bit different. Ed will be going back, but differently, and Dayle won’t be going back at all. We closed up out apartment in Accra and sold our stuff there, but kept our little SUV for Ed to use whenever he’s in Ghana. That’s because he will be making regular trips, including a six-week trip beginning in late June.

Ed’s will continue in his assignment to the national organization to which Wycliffe has loaned us – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. He will be working from the US and making regular trips to Ghana.

Ed has a number of projects on his plate. The biggest of those is coordinating the creation of training curriculum and materials for local translation committees. Each Bible translation has a local committee of volunteers guiding it. A lot depends on that committee functioning well. Experience and evaluations of translation programs tell us that translations will be more widely read and they will have more impact when the committees effectively engage the churches and communities in various ways, including in decisions about the translation, such as the selection of the local translators and which books of the Bible to translate first.

But not all committees work well.

Michael, one of the GILLBT staff Ed works with, addressing a rural church about translation into their language

For some time, Ed has been working with GILLBT staff to put in place more effective committees. The next step is to develop training for them because now there is none. This project is a high priority for GILLBT’s Director who wants to get the translation closer to the people it serves, and make it more responsive to their needs. Ed will be leading the development of the training. He will be working directly with him and with other staff. He hopes to have the training ready for his next trip to Ghana in late June. Then he will help give it to selected committees to test it.

After that, he will revise the training based on feedback, give it to more committees on subsequent trips to Ghana, and then serve as a resource while Ghanaians give the training.

GILLBT Director, Thomas Sayibu Imoro

This is not our retirement yet, but it certainly is a big first step in that direction. We will be looking at that every time we do our annual evaluation with GILLBT Leadership and Wycliffe. Missionaries are made for leaving, and so we want to leave well – in a way that honors the Lord, our supporters and the ministry we have been privileged to undertake. Ask the Lord to give us wisdom

We appreciate so much all those who pray and who provide financial support, especially during this new phase of our ministry. Contact us if you have questions about specific financial needs related to our new mode of ministry.

Side effects

The Annual General Meeting last year

The Ghanaian organization I work for (GILLBT) has a general meeting every year where key decisions are made. Other organizations with similar interests send delegations to bring fraternal greetings. At the last general meeting, the Assemblies of God church sent a high-level delegation. When they took the floor they said how much they appreciate the translations of the Bible done by my organization because they allow their churches to succeed. Then the said something amazing:

“Some communities turn to Jesus Christ just because they were taught how to read and write in their mother tongue through GILLBT.”

This was the third time I have heard a very reliable source close to the situation claim that GILLBT’s literacy efforts are effective evangelism. The thing is, the literacy classes were not designed to evangelize. They contain no religious or Bible content. But learning to read in the heart language and having the Bible also in the heart language have an unintended side effect. Unintended but not undesired!

These Christians were reached through literacy classes in their languages. Here they are reading Bible in their languages at a church meeting.

This side effect is common enough that some churches in Ghana have created very effective evangelism programs whose core component is literacy classes in people’s heart language. In fact, the next man to speak at the general meeting represented the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. He said that his church holds literacy programs for the purpose of evangelism. Those literacy classes are like GILLBT’s with primers made by GILLBT and staff trained by GILLBT. In fact, I helped them expand that program. Even though the literacy classes are just literacy classes, the result is churches full of newly literate new believers avidly devouring the Bibles in their heart languages.

I love side effects! Well, at least this one.

All or nothing

For most of my career, agencies involved in Bible translation have had a binary approach to deciding which languages get a translation of the Bible. After a field survey, we declared that some languages needed s translation and others did not.

Languages determined to need a translation received significant resources, often a highly trained missionary-linguist for a significant period of time, sometimes for decades. The others got nothing.

Relatively early in my career, it became obvious that this binary approach did not fit reality. Languages do not group themselves nicely into those whose speakers don’t know any other language and those whose speakers all speak another language perfectly. Or into languages that will quickly die and those which will continue for another thousand years. There are all kinds of gradations. There are languages which show signs of dying, but not strongly or not everywhere. It is not easy to know what percentage of a people speak another language well enough to understand the Bible in that language. Besides, how well is that anyway? Then we have cases where translations in the mother tongue produced transformative impact even though the people all knew another language and read the Bible in it for decades without the same positive changes.

Because we were trying to fit all languages into just two categories, we had endless discussions with colleagues over whether specific languages fit in one or the other. We reclassified some languages several times. I even saw a case where a missionary became distressed after spending a few years learning a language, developing an alphabet, and starting translation only to come to the conclusion that we had put him in a language which did not need a translation. We disagreed with him, but that didn’t help.

Then there are the pastors and Christians who come asking for a translation in their language only to have us tell them that we missionaries thought it was unnecessary.

No one wants to be the one who says that this moment will never happen for a language because the translation is not needed

Fortunately, the binary approach is dying. Encouraged by that, I worked with a Ghanaian colleague to develop a set of graded responses to languages without translation in Ghana. We are dropping the binary all-or-nothing response in favor of four separate responses. One puts high priority on languages where there are very few Christians. In such cases we will put significant amounts of effort, expertise and funding into the translation. Another response is for languages where there are many Christians who are using the Bible in another language. In such a case, we will demand a lot more of the churches. They will have to organize themselves and raise a very significant part of the funds. We will supply training and quality control.

It’s not perfect. We will still find gradations the four responses don’t address perfectly. But they will be fewer and less shocking. Plus, we will probably use kingdom resources a bit better.

Motivation for giving

If you look at the websites and publicity put out by missions and charitable organizations, you will see that many use the “problem” approach to raising funds. That approach emphasizes the lacking, negative or even disastrous aspects of a situation. Then say they need your help to fix it. When I talk to groups about Bible translation, I use several approaches including the problem approach, but I don’t emphasize it nor do I use guilt-inducing emotional appeals, or fear tactics (If you don’t give something disastrous will happen). I prefer an approach which emphasized the beneficial effects and successes of translation, inviting people to join something significant, successful and blessed by God. The Bible says:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Andy Ring, who started the translation into the Buem language, being honored at the dedication of the Buem Bible

Here in Ghana, I have discovered that Ghanaians involved in Bible translation use a fascinating type of motivation. It is based on the fact that dozens of Westerners (Germans, Americans, Dutch, British, etc) came to Ghana to do Bible translation. Many were highly trained. My Ghanaian colleagues often mention this fact, emphasizing that highly-trained missionaries often poured their whole professional lives into translation and they did it in difficult places where most educated Ghanaians would refuse to live or work. Ghanaian Christians find this inspiring. If high-prestige Westerners do this for Ghana, they conclude, then Ghanaians should do as much or even more.

After all, it is their country. This is a motivation based on nationalism, specifically, that Ghanaians should take responsibility for Ghana.

I would have thought that telling the missionary story would demotivate. My logic would have been that if missionaries are doing it, then it is taken care of so Ghanaians won’t need to give themselves or their money. I have heard some of my Western colleagues express that same concern. But we are mistaken. The missionary story motivates Ghanaians very powerfully. It’s a good thing I was not in charge of communication for fundraising.

Being a bibleless Christian 

Photo Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe

We think of peoples without the Bible as being without the Gospel. While that is often the case, it is sometimes the case that people are evangelized using a language they understand to some degree. Churches are formed that use the other language. This situation can go on for a long time without the Bible being translated into the language of the people.

What is it like to be a biblesss Christian – a Christian who has to read the Bible in another language, or for whom there is no Bible in any language he or she speaks? I really don’t know because I grew up with the Bible in my language. But, I have talked to bibleless Christians and read things they said. So here’s what I have learned.

A older Congolese Christian told me he never thought his language would be written and therefore the Bible would never be translated into it. In one language in Burkina Faso, people walked for miles to see the first literacy class because they did not believe that their language could be written. Many were Christians. It is not uncommon that bibleless Christians believe that their language is defective and that is why it is not written like “real” languages.

If the language is defective, then perhaps it is not suitable for communication with God. Thomas Atta-Akosah reports that:

An indigenous Ghanaian Christian from a minority language group prayed: “God in heaven, we thank you for all the good things you have done. But you know that I do not speak Akan well and I know you do not speak my language. So I am finished. Amen.”

That Christian knew that the Bible had been translated into Akan and that Akan was therefore suitable for praying.

The opposite also happens to bibleless Christians. They have no doubt that their language is suitable. Perhaps they have never questioned its suitability, but existing churches insist they worship and pray in another language. One African wrote that his people had to push back for decades to worship in get their language and get the Bible translated into it.

Christians in dominant groups that have translations may not see the need, or they may worry that the church will be divided. One of my colleagues had a church leader tell him that with his translation he was trying to divide the church. Since that comment was made the Bible has been translated into several smaller languages in that area with no sign of dividing the church. But, a group did split off that speaks the same language and uses the same Bible. I have witnessed quite a few situations where church leaders and even missionaries oppose worship and translation in a local language.

So bibleless Christians often have struggle through barriers to translation they either erect for themselves or that others throw up in their path. Prayer is our most powerful tool for overcoming those obstacles because they are based in the heart.

Top Six Things I Learned

#6: It’s a seller’s market

That is the fifth most striking thing I learned from half a day of new car shopping in Accra on February 22. The showrooms are mostly hard to get into. It is not easy to find a place to park, and sometimes we had to walk a certain distance. It was also not always obvious where to find the front door. On the other hand, the sales people were friendly and fairly knowledgeable. No pressure at all.

#5: The dollar reigns

All prices were in US dollars and in one case also in Euros. The Ghanaian currency, the cedi, was nowhere to be found. Dealers are protecting their precious assets by pricing them in the currency in which they buy them.

#4: Cars are expensive

Toyota had a Camry for $63,000. I must admit that I walked past the Audi and Mercedes dealerships without getting figures, so my data is incomplete. Taxes are a big reason for the prices. The cheapest car we found is a Renault Logan at just under $14,000. We did not stop at the dealers in Chinese (Ssangyong) and Indian (Tata) vehicles.

#3: Financing? Not really

All dealers offered financing. The terms: half down on delivery and the rest to be paid in six months, sometimes without interest. Some had connections with banks where the going interest rate on vehicle loans is 20% with terms up to 60 months. Ouch. This probably explains the lack of pressure. Either the prospective buyer has the cash or they do not.

#2: I am white trash

My white skin sends the false message that I can walk in the door and drive out with a new car. In a flash, the sales staff figure out my real buying potential.

And the #1 thing I learned: I’m looking for a used car.

Fraternal greetings

When Dayle and I attended the annual meeting of the national organization we are loaned to, we  were witnesses to a part of it called “Fraternal Greetings”. Churches and organizations can send representatives to the meeting. Near the beginning they are each given the opportunity to bring “fraternal greetings”. In 2010, when I attended without Dayle, it was one of the best parts of the program. This year was not quite as dramatic, but inspiring nevertheless. Here are some of the fraternal greetings brought by churches and Christian organizations.

  • “The work of our organization is discipleship. Discipleship cannot go forward without the Bible. The Bibles you translate make a big difference in the lives of our disciples.”
  • “Bible translation is the most important part of our church planting efforts.”
  • “Because of Bible translation, people are free. They are lifted up and they are knowing Christ. May translation work grow!”
  • “The Word of God should be in the most understood language. People are reading God’s Word in their language and understanding it in their cultures.”
  • “We have been re-awakened”.

Mind you, these impacts took decades of hard work and sacrifice. Many of those involved were no longer around when the results started coming in. Some of those who gave financial support and prayed won’t know about the results in this life. I was reminded to stick to it (persevere in biblical terms), to look for a long-term and solid payout, and to remember that God brings results we don’t ever see.

The New Churches

Economist magazine headerOn July 1, 2010, the Economist magazine published an article entitled “Slain by the spirit: The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa“.  The article notes that “… about 17m Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970. Today the figure has soared to more than 400m, which accounts for over a third of Africa’s population”.  An increase of 383 million born-again Christians in 40 years is a “revival”.  If one-third of Americans became born-again believers in 40 years it would not go unnoticed.

The article notes that most of the growth is happening outside the mainline denominations in what the authors call “the new churches”. The Economist takes an interest in this growth of the church because it is starting to have political and economic influence – as the Economist puts it, “they are now having a noticeable effect on public-policy debates in east Africa”.  Among the influences of the church cited by the Economist are:

  • Their insistent calls for self-discipline and education
  • Their prominence in anti-corruption campaigns
  • Their resistance to repressive political regimes

The Economist notes that the new churches believe in the spiritual world and in engaging in spiritual battles.  (Although the authors mistakenly attribute this to elements of traditional religion creeping into Christian faith.)  Like the Economist, others have noticed that “the new churches” believe the Bible, believe in God’s action in this world, and believe that evangelism is a primary call of the church.  Indeed, these churches undertake their own successful evangelism and missions activities.  A CNN blog – the Gospel according to Kenyan cabbies – notes the similar things happening in Kenya.

The Economist accurately notes that these churches display weaknesses.  There are plenty of hucksters.  One finds posturing for political or economic gain by church leaders.  But then, the Apostle Paul noted some of these same problems way back in the first century.

So what?  Why is this news important?  What does it mean?  Answering those questions would take many pages.  So I will limit myself to two.

  • First, one of the main reasons to support missions is that in the long run it is hugely successful so you will get big bang for your giving dollar.
  • Second, it changes the way we do Bible translation.

The “new churches” are key partners for Bible translation.  They have educated people, can raise lots of prayer support, and they already run successful outreach programs.  Doing translation in Africa without involving them would be like trying to engage in real estate or house construction without business partners that give mortgages.  The days when Bible translation can be done successfully as an isolated way by someone coming in from the outside are gone.

I am privileged to be doing some work in Ghana to enhance the involvement of the churches there .  Their leaders are convinced that the time is now for them to take the lead role in getting the  Bible into all the languages of Ghana.  Helping them understand how to do that is great fun and a wonderful privilege.  I just love it.

Does this information surprise you? Encourage you? Let us know.  (Click on any of the pictures to see more photos taken in the same city.)

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