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!
Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard
Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.
My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”
True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.
God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.
When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.
For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?
Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.
It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.
Langauge Map of Ghana
Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.
In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.
So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.
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.
In July 2018, I attended a conference on the topic of the Old Testament in Africa. One speaker, Professor Kpobi, gave examples of how the Old Testament brings helpful corrections to some problems and excesses that are arising in Christianity in Africa. Among the examples he gave was the story of the healing of Naaman.
In African traditional culture, the person wanting healing would have to go through an ordeal. The purpose of the ordeal is to show that they are serious. So the healer might ask the person to bring the tongue of lion, or some other very difficult thing. The ordeal might also involve the person drinking something dangerous. But the story of Naaman shows that the prophet demands no ordeal at all. Dipping in the Jordan river is not an ordeal. In fact, it is so much the anti-ordeal that Naaman balks. African Christian healers who demand ordeals may not realize it, but they are borrowing from their African traditional religion and not from the Scriptures.
Professor David Kpobi of Trinity Seminary, Accra, giving his presentation
In South Africa, some people became very ill after a Christian healer told them that they must drink gasoline. The Old Testament stories of healing bring correction to such practices.
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
In his excellent YouTube video on good writing, Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out that the central problem of writing is “the curse of knowledge”. Here’s my favorite explanation of this curse:
The curse of knowledge means that the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing
A writer knows something that he wants to write down. Because he knows it he finds it very difficult to put himself in the place of his readers who don’t. That may lead him to leave out information his readers need because he wrongly assumes that they know it because he does.
The same thing happens with something called church language. It is quite common that Christians develop understandings of certain words in church. Then we speak them with the church understanding and hear them the same way. Some Christians will forget that people outside the church understand the words differently. Those Christians are suffering from the curse of knowledge.
I experienced this first hand in Burkina Faso. We were translating the story of John the Baptist. So I asked a local pastor how one said baptize in the language. He responded “bateezeng”. That is obviously just and adaptation of the English word. Aware of the problem of church language, I asked several people who did not attend church about ” bateezeng”. They all told me the same thing. It means to give a newborn its name on the 8th day. Of course, we can use “baptize” for naming in English too. I went back to the pastor and told him of the responses I got. He agreed that was what everyone understands by the word. We eventually found another word for baptize that communicated much better than bateezeng.
The curse of knowledge is one of the reasons why we have a step in the translation process called community testing. When a translator translates a passage, he does so knowing what he meant to say. He then finds it very hard to forget what he meant and read his translation for what is actually says. It helps to let the translation sit a while then come back to it, but a surer solution is community testing. The translators go out into the community and read each passage asking people what they heard. Because the people don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge, they will tell the translator what the translation really wrote, just like those people in Burkina Faso who told me that bateezeng meant giving a child a name.
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.