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.

Introductions

Ghana and Ghana in Africa

Ghana in Africa

I have been told that a study conducted in the United States found that one of the most frequent reasons given for not attending church is the fear of being asked to stand and be recognized.

If you come to Ghana and go to church, you might be asked to stand. What’s more, you might even be invited to go to the front and say something.

That’s what happened at a church I attended in Tamale. Along with other visitors, I went to the front, faced the congregation, where I was invited to explain who I was and why I was in their town.

Unity Presbyterian Church, Tamale

Unity Presbyterian Church, Tamale

Mortifying? Well, a bit uncomfortable. The others introducing themselves were Ghanaian. They seemed to welcome the opportunity. The congregation looked interested in their stories and the greetings they brought from churches in other parts of Ghana. I was seeing the “church” as a nation-wide, even international, community of believers.

If that study were done here, it might show that people prefer to visit a church where they will be asked to stand and say something.

A Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa – the rest of the story

Not long ago 60 Minutes did a report called Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle. If you have not seen it, you should. But the rest of the story is even more interesting.

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

The name of the orchestra gives us a big clue. It is the “Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra”. The Kimbanguist Church (that’s right, a church) is perhaps the largest African Independent church at 5.5 million members. It was founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  then the Belgian Congo. They are known for their brass bands, such as this one I found parading in the city of Isiro.

Kinshasa SymphonyIt was the leader of the Kimbanguist church himself who gave the instructions to start music groups with more variety that eventually led to the formation of the symphony orchestra. They had vision, but not much else: few instruments, no one who could read music. More, even Congolese laughed at the idea of classical music, saying that it just puts people to sleep. But they kept at in and they are making a sensation. You can buy a DVD documentary of the orchestra on Amazon!

All this happened in a country where corruption, abuse of human rights, sexual violence against women and poverty are rampant. The Kimbanguist Church has lost its way a bit, but it seems that there are reform movements in the church that could bring it back into the mainstream.

Christianity is growing fast in much of Africa. Up to now, that growth has mostly been in numbers. But now there are many signs of growth in depth. The world may not take Africa seriously. It may not take Christianity seriously. But just watch and you will see the suffering, poor, patient, and faithful people of God in Africa will do impressive things in the middle of the messes made by their leaders. A symphony orchestra?  You ain’t seen nothin yet!

Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? (I Corinthians 1:27-28, The Message)