Eternally Diverse

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducts regular and highly respected research in the US. Their 2016 Values Atlas came up with unexpected findings which show that the denominations that say a lot about diversity are less diverse than denominations not known for their public stances on diversity – by a lot.

More than nine in ten Lutherans (92%) and roughly eight in ten Meth­odists (83%), Presbyterians (83%), and Episcopalians (80%) are white, non-Hispanic. In contrast, fewer than six in ten (58%) Baptists are white, and a sizeable share of members are black (30%) or Hispanic (5%). Similarly, only half (50%) of Pentecostals are white, while one-quarter (25%) are Hispanic, and 17% are black. Protestants who belong to non-denominational Protestant churches are also somewhat diverse: Two-thirds (67%) are white, 13% are black, and 10% are Hispanic.

According to the 2010 census, the US is population is 69% white, non-Hispanic. So Pentecostals and Baptists, at 50% and 58% white non-Hispanic, are more diverse than the general population. The PRRI also found that whites who attend mainline churches are less likely to have close friends of other races than those who attend churches that adhere more closely to historic Christian beliefs.

Woman from a small language in Ghana reading the New Testament in her language. Photo courtesy of Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance

I am not at all surprised by these findings. After all, the churches adhering to historic Christian faith believe that Jesus died for everyone and that God commands us to reach out to all peoples. So they have active outreach in their communities and around the world. Beliefs and actions like that are powerful antidotes to keeping others out of your church or out of your life.

Want real diversity? Join those who read their Bible regularly. There are not many groups of people more diverse than that one; speaking more than 3,300 languages in more than 150 countries, the rich and the poor, insiders and marginalised, educated and uneducated, the praised and the persecuted… I was just among the Siwu people of Ghana; numbering only 14,000 and unknown even in parts of Ghana. I heard them reading the Bible in their language and telling how it changed their entire people.

Join the Siwu and others who read their Bible regularly with faith and be part of a marvelous, diverse, and eternal throng.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9)

Translation and identity

I am an American. Sometimes people in Ghana asks me where I am from. I tell them the United States. I have not yet had someone ask me where that is. I have a national identity which is recognized worldwide by almost everyone.

The road to Baglo

The road to Baglo

It is not so for many who speak the smaller languages of the world. Some of you reading this might have to ask about Ghana were someone to tell you he is from Ghana. But what if someone told you he was Buem, Nawuri, Nafaanra or Sekpele? Those peoples have an identity, but it is not widely known. Even officials in their own countries may not know who they are. At the presentation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, a prominent chief of the Nawuri said:

“Politicians do not know us.”

What would it be like to have an identity which officials in your own country do not recognize? Many peoples who do not have a Bible in their language are in exactly that situation. They feel it. I have heard some of them wonder if they are cursed by God, or wonder why God would have them born into a minority. Does God have something against them? Some feel divided about their identity. On the one hand they speak their language and identify with others like them, but on the other they want the advantages and recognition that come from being part of a more well-known identity.

The crowd

The crowd

I recently attended the dedication of the Bible into the Buem (also known as Lelemi) language. There, I heard a lot of comments about identity. Some of the quotes can only be understood in the context of the unknown status of their Buem identity, such as:

When God confused the languages at Babel, the Buem were there.

The Buem understand this to mean that their language is not some unfortunate mistake.

God intended the creation of the Buem language. So their identity as Buem is not a curse, a mistake or an oversight. When the Apostle Paul was preaching in Athens, he said:

From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

People with their Buem Bibles

People with their Buem Bibles

If you think about it, that is a very strange thing to say in evangelistic preaching – for an American that is. Yet the Apostle considered it a key thing to preach to Athenians – that God created all peoples, that he decided what their status should be at various points in history. The Buem spoke this message to each other at the dedication. If the Buem language was created at the Tower of Babel, then it is God’s deliberate and good creation; not a curse or an unfortunate oversight. God himself created the Buem language and identity. Another Buem person said:

We are gaining our identify in God’s people.

When I quoted the Nawuri chief above, I left out the end of his statement. Here’s the whole:

“Politicians do not know us, but God know us! We have now been included among the People of God!”

Daniel Asiama, MP

Daniel Asiama, MP

A translation of the Bible necessarily represents both the language in question and God. It is, therefore, an identity bridge. Through the translation of the Bible into their languages, smaller language groups around the world are weaving their ethnic and linguistic identities into an identity with the people of God. And this is not new. The Apostle Paul spent a whole chapter on identity in his letter to the Romans, including this quote:

For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many peoples.” (Romans 4:16b-17)

Cheifs

Cheifs

All those who have Abraham as their father have a common identity. The dedication of the Bible into Buem attracted ordinary people, ministers of the Gospel, choirs, politicians, business people, and traditional chiefs. Why, because here is something very important – the most published and translated book in the world and the holy book of the largest religion in the world – in the language of their identity.

“Let’s all be happy, because the Bible we receive today is more than food and drink to us.” -Daniel Asiama, Ghana Member of Parliament from the Buem constituency

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

As God came down to be born in human form, now the Word has come down into Buem form. That act offers to all Buem the wonderful opportunity to weave the thread of their identity into the rich, colorful and varied cloth that is the people of God – to become one of the peoples who have Abraham as their common faith father. They can connect their small (by the word’s standards) identity to the largest and most permanent of all human identities – that of the faith children of Abraham.

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Multiethnic churches are the norm

Over 60 languages are spoken in Ghana. That means more than just 60 languages. It means that many different people groups, each with their own ethnic identity and religious beliefs. You might imagine that each of those people groups lived in its own area with nice, discrete boundaries. The reality is much more complex.

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

People groups often overlap, at least near the borders of each group. Many people from nearby areas, or even far away, move into small towns, creating a rich tapestry of ethnic identities. On Sundays, churches deal with believers from multiple languages and with multiple traditional beliefs. The idea that each language group has its own area where people worship in their own language is still accurate in some places, but its is fast becoming the exception.

In the photo, taken at a church conference in Indonesia, the Scriptures are for sale in 13 different languages, which probably does not cover all the languages of the Christians at the conference. In Africa, the meetings at such conference is conducted in a national or regional language. Delegates are chosen who speak that language.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Figuring out how to be one, unified church while making sure that everyone hears the message in a language they fully understand is a challenge. There are many approaches, such as having more than one service each in a different language, then once a month having a unified service in a regional or national language. Some churches conduct services in two languages. But translating everything is time consuming plus it is difficult for listeners to stay focused when every other sentence is in a language they don’t understand. Others have church services in a regional or national language, and home Bible studies in local languages. There are no easy answers. But some ignore the issue altogether and do everything in a regional or official language. But that leaves those most disadvantaged in that language to fend for themselves. It is hard to imagine how a person can become a thriving Christian while understanding only a fraction of the Bible and the teaching and preaching in church.

Engaging the church in Africa in dialog about its multilingual environment is an important part of seeing that Bible translation in African languages are used to their full potential. Bringing new Christians still steeped in their traditional religion into a full understanding of their faith and into joyful walk with Christ is a stiff challenge if the language of the church leaves them out. Effectively addressing the complex linguistic situation facing the church is crucial to a healthy future for the church in Africa, one of the world’s largest.

That is why one of our strategic goals is that “use of the translations in the mother tongue will be sustained and growing”. To that end, I am one of a small team working to organize a conference of church leaders in November which will raise awareness of this issue and try to find ways to address it.

Three older two younger

I had just met a Burkinabé man named Samuel who was visiting friends in our home town. As we chatted, I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. His response:

Three older and two younger

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Have you ever had anyone answer that question in that manner? When I ask that question of a fellow American, I expect to get a number, and possibly the number of brothers and the number of sisters. I have had people ask where I came in the birth order with my two brothers and two sisters, but that comes after the number of brothers and the number of sisters, not before.

There is a very good reason why Samuel answered the question the way he did. In his culture, the relative age (older or younger) of one’s siblings is very important. In fact, it is more important than whether they are brothers or sisters. There is a very clear pecking order due to the hierarchy that is a strong part of his culture.

We assume that certain realities, such as family, are universal. In the broadest sense, they are. But the differences in specifics can lead to misunderstanding. Ask many adult, married Africans about “their family” and they might tell you about their parents and their siblings, not their spouse and their children. So even the primary content of the word “family” changes from culture to culture.

When I hear American preachers on the radio on Africa expounding what the Bible says about the family, I have to wonder what is being miscommunicated. Jesus crossed a great gap to come and live with us, be one of us, speak the language of the people, live inside the culture of his day. So we need to do the same, including wrapping our heads around the answer:

Three older and two younger

Mother tongue day 2014

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Today is International Mother Tongue day. That is a good thing for believers to celebrate. Why do I think so? Follow this link for the answer.

https://heartlanguage.org/2013/02/21/mother-tongue-day/

Isn’t everyone learning English?

This week, we return to answering the questions I was most asked while I was last in the US.

It is natural to think that everyone is learning today’s world language, English. When I travel, I mostly find people who speak English. It has been assumed that the Internet would result in everyone learning English.

World languages graphicAbout 560 million people speak English as their first language, as this graphic shows. Estimates of the number who speak English as a second language range from 375 to 600 million. It is important to note that most of the people who speak English as a second (or third, or forth) language have no intention of making English their primary language. They may speak it at work, but not at home, with their friends or when shopping, for example.

Microsoft blogOne would think that modern technology would be a force for people to learn English. But some technological developments may be making it easier for people to keep their languages. Microsoft has a “Local Language Program” which seeks to produce versions of its Windows operating system in more and more languages. One can download a free “language pack” Windows which includes African languages such as Hausa, Sesotho, Swahili and more.

According to a 2012 report from Common Sense Advisory (CSA), in 2009 it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it took 48 languages to reach the same percentage. CSA also indicated that the “English” slice of the Internet language pie is getting smaller each year. Since 2009, English is down from 48 to 36 percent. Figures just released by MIT indicate that only 1/3 of tweets on Twitter are in English. These trends call into question the assumption that the Internet will cause everyone to learn English.

Ghana and Ghana in Africa

Ghana in Africa

English is the official language of Ghana. If you are in Accra, it will seem that everyone speaks English. Elsewhere, it is a different story. Most Ghanaians who speak English learn it in school, not at home. According to UNESCO, 42% of children attend secondary school. Even if we assume that all of those graduate and therefore speak good English (both are very generous assumptions), then 42% of young people in Ghana speak English competently. That is after 60 years of spending a good part of the budget on education.

So, is everyone learning English? Not even close.

But even if  they were, that might not be a good thing for faith in Christ. For a millennium, Latin enjoyed the place in Europe that English now has in the world. It was the language of government, church, education and commerce. But the church stagnated during that time. The translation of the Bible into the languages of the people was part are overcoming that stagnation. Researcher Patrick Johnson, Editor of Operation World, has written:

The use of liturgical languages and Scriptures across many cultures and multiple centuries such as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Slavonic provided continuity and impressive ceremonial church services, but damaged the transmission of the truths they contained and hastened the nominalization and even demise of Christianity

Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society has come to a similar conclusion. She writes:

Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

It appears that the lesson of history is that when one language becomes widespread, like English or Latin, that is good for government, commerce and even the church as an organization, but not for true faith.

Mother Tongue Day

Tower of BabelToday is International Mother Tongue Day which gives focus to minority languages. But we all have a mother tongue even if it is not a minority language.

Of course, the Bible has something to say about the fact that we all speak different languages. Everyone knows the story of the tower of Babel. As a reminder, here is the passage:

God said, “These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.” So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name. (Gen 11: 6-9 CEV)

I have heard quite varied interpretations of this story. According to a common interpretation, this is the story of a curse. Those who hold this interpretation also hold the view that the multiplicity of languages is a curse, or at least a hindrance. This interpretation, however, does not square with other parts of Scripture. I’ll come to that in a minute. But even if it is true that the multiplicity of languages is a negative thing, that does not make it a curse. God’s actions to correct us are not curses! They are loving attempts to get us back on the right track. So if speaking many languages helps us to follow God, that would be a good thing.

Wait! The Apostle Paul pretty much said that:

From one person God made all peoples who live on earth, and he decided when and where each people would be. God did all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)

So the Apostle is saying that

  • God made all peoples, and
  • He decided where they would live and when, and
  • He did this so that they would search for Him and find Him.

These verses do not mention language, but language is an integral part of the identity of a people. The verses are clear. God divided the human race into ethnic groups (most with their own language), so that they would seek and find him. Making it easier to find God is not a punishment! If God says (through Paul) that the multiplicity of ethnic identities leads to more seeking of God, then we should listen to that carefully and allow that to influence our view of language. Too often, we let our views on language diversity be determined by our politics or our patriotic sentiments, and not by the Scriptures. Because our linguistic and ethnic identities are designed by God to help us seek and find him, we dare not disdain, neglect or ignore them in any sphere but especially not in the ministry of the church or in missions.

Number of languages spoken in the world today

Number of languages spoken in the world today

That there are multiple languages on the earth is not a disorder. It is not an aberration, a problem to be solved, nor a hindrance to human development. It is part of God’s purpose to bring people to know him. Interestingly, people from major languages do not get this. But those from minority languages often do. When their language is written and translated, they feel recognized and elevated. See my blog Counted for one example.

We who speak international languages often do not know what it is like to speak a language others consider unworthy or useless. The thing is, that is never God’s opinion. He created our languages and cultures for a purpose. As my colleague in translation, Eddie Arthur, wrote:

The God who was not ashamed to be born to a peasant woman and laid in a manger is not ashamed to speak Kouya, Jamaican patois or even modern-day English.

Whatever the reasons others celebrate Mother Tongue day, let’s celebrate the good gift of our mother tongues and our ethnic identities. And let’s use that good gift the way He intended – to seek Him and find Him and to help other seek and find him.

PS: I often use the phrase “heart language” instead of “mother tongue” because some take “mother tongue” to refer to a historic or ancestral language which they sometimes no longer speak.

Span

The span is amazing. In fact, the span is spectacular – every bit as much as this bridge in France.

Across Africa, learned believers with strings of letters behind their names are working on the same teams with believers with no formal education. Their purpose? To translate the Bible into African languages.

Without the learned members of the teams, some parts of the job would be impossible – such as developing an alphabet for the many previously unwritten languages. In some cases, African churches have started their own translation efforts only to find them stymied. They rightly realized that using just the English alphabet their language could not be written in a way that could be read back. But they did not have the scientific knowledge to know what to do about that. When we sent them a linguist specialized in such matters, the problem was solved.

Siwu traditional authorities

Siwu traditional authorities, near Hohoe, Ghana

The team members without formal education bring another kind of expertise which is just as valuable – they know their languages and what their people believe. Their role is to make sure that the translation communicates clearly. I saw this powerfully a few weeks ago when a paramount chief congratulated us on producing a translation that spoke deeply to them. Of course, it was not because of us, but because of the hard work of some his own subjects.

I saw it again in the Congo when we showed the Jesus Film (which is really an abridged translation of the Gospel of Luke). When Jesus would speak, people were saying, “I can understand clearly!”

In fact, sometimes “educated” people bring in English words and that can obscure the meaning. For such reasons, an “uneducated” viewpoint can bring clarity.

I can’t think of another endeavor which benefits from the direct involvement of people of such divergent educational levels. The span really is amazing. God’s very diverse gifts and callings working together in a beautiful way with powerful impact.

The unlearned believers translating the Bible and putting it into practice are the foundation of the explosion of the church in Africa. Yale historian Lamin Sanneh (himself from The Gambia) has called the results of their work “incalculable”.

God seeth not as man seeth. He hath chosen the foolish things of the world, the weak things of the world, the base and despicable things of the world, men of mean birth, of low rank, of no liberal education, to be the preachers of the gospel and planters of the church.
(Matthew Henry Commentary, regarding I Cor 1:27)

On day 50, it got all crazy

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. Why? Well, here is the story.

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking the magnificent acts of God in our own languages.” They were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What could this be?” But some sneered and said, “They’re full of new wine!”

Ever since this event, with some exceptions, believers in Jesus and followers of him have followed the lead of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles in speaking the magnificent acts of God in all kinds of languages. Followers of the risen Jesus have one Lord, one faith and one baptism, but many languages and many cultures. The number keeps increasing all the time.

On that day, the idea that faith in Jesus required that everyone speak the same language, or have the same culture, got smashed. From time to time some try to put the pieces of that shattered relic back together, but mostly those who live in the life of the risen Savior live that out, share it with others, and create praise in their own languages and cultural forms.

It looks like the world thinks that it is discovering the value of diversity. God’s language and culture diversity project, centered around his son, Jesus, started 2,000 years ago. I think that it has a head start.

God speaks into the African context in African idiom, and that it is through hearing in African mother-tongues ‘the great things that God has done’ (Acts 2:11), that African theology emerges to edify not only the African church but the church world-wide – Dr. Kwame Bediako (Ghanaian theologian)