Valid even here

This week I continue observations of the Northern Outreach Program which uses literacy in the heart language to carry out urban evangelism. If you missed the introduction, you can find it here.

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Many have observed the rapid rate of urbanization in Africa and around the world. There is obviously a need for effective evangelism and mission in the urban environment. Urbanization brings together people from many languages and creates a favorable environment for the emergence of a lingua-franca, a common language which serves them all. The spread of Twi in Ghana, of Dioula in the southwest of Burkina Faso, of Bambara in Mali, of Hausa in the north of Nigeria, of Lingala in the Congo, of Swahili in east Africa and of other languages in other places, all point to the emergence of lingua-francas as important languages of communication.

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

The emergence of a lingua-franca is so obvious that it leads Christians, pastors, church leaders and missionaries to make the untested assumption that the heart language (people’s mother tongue) is irrelevant to the church and evangelism in cities and towns. But the Northern Outreach Program uses literacy and Scriptures in the heart language and that approach has been very successful. It is important to note that other approaches to evangelizing migrants from the north in Ghana’s cities have failed, or had only very modest success. They have not been successful in stemming the predominant trend of conversion to other religions. The significant difference between the failed approaches using a lingua-franca and the Northern Outreach Program is precisely the heart language, which the Program uses in its literacy program, in its evangelism, in its teaching and in its worship.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

Many observers fail to notice that the urban environment is not homogenous. It is certainly homogenizing, but it is not yet homogenous. It may be on a course to become homogenous in two or three generations, but today the urban environment in Ghana, and in many other places, is made up of ethnic, religious and linguistic niches which often keep their identity in the face of the homogenizing influences of the urban environment.

The success of the Northern Outreach Program, predicated on the heart language, shows that the heart language is an effective tool for reaching those niches.

Especially as approaches based on lingua franca, the homogenizing language, have proved much less successful.

John Agama

Who spreads the Gospel to places where it has never been? Missionaries, right? Actually…

Protrait of John Agama

Portrait of John Agama painted by the son of a missionary. it is hanging in John Agama Hall on the GILLBT Training Centre in Tamale, Ghana

This is a portrait of John Agama, now deceased. He was the national chief of police in Ghana for a number of years. He was also a leading Christian and was nationally known as such. While the Gospel was preached in the southern parts of Ghana, from which John came, even from the early 1800s, in the mid 1900s it still had not penetrated into the northern parts. This concerned him.

So along with some other leading Ghanaian Christians including William Ofori Atta, they invited Wycliffe members to come to Ghana and they asked them to concentrate their Bible translation efforts in the north, which they did. The first came in 1962, exactly 50 years ago. I could tell a similar story for other countries where the work of Bible translation got started through the initiative of national Christians. Missionaries came and led the work, but the vision for it came from within the country and nationals did much of the real translation with the training and quality control supplied by specially trained missionaries.

John Agama

John Agama

We see a similar story for one of the largest churches in Ghana, The Church of Pentecost. It was started by James McKoewn and has grown to be one of the largest churches in Ghana. It has been self-supporting from the beginning. It now runs schools, clinics and even a university which it funded only with money it raised in Ghana. It has outreach in at least 80 countries worldwide, all funded from within Ghana. James Mckoewn as the only missionary it ever had. All of the other pastors and evangelists have been Ghanaian. James McKoewn did a marvelous work, but he only did a very small percentage of the evangelism and discipleship himself. He concentrated on mentoring a small group of Ghanaians who evangelized and each developed their own small group to mentor. We see the missionary, McKoewn, but the majority of evangelism and discipleship was done by Ghanaians and they carried the vision long after Mckeown was gone.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 James McKoewn center and his brother on the right. Courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

I met a man in the town of Tamale whose father was the first pastor from the Konkomba people. The Konkomba resisted the Gospel for many years. As the first pastor this man was persecuted, reviled and rejected. Threats were made against him. The man I spoke to remembered growing up in a household that the community at large rejected and insulted. They were though to be traitors. People believed that by rejecting traditional religion they were putting the community at risk from spiritual forces. So they were thought to be a threat that needed to be expunged. But his father stuck to it.

Some of us read and are inspired by missionary biographies. That is great. Unfortunately, there are many, many untold stories of their first converts who suffered as much or more and who did more to champion the Gospel than the missionary and for a longer time. Not that the missionary failed, but by the nature of things the nationals had more impact and stayed longer.

Today in northern Ghana there are many places where the Bible has been translated and the missionary has left. But dedicated Ghanaians are doggedly, without pay even though they have little themselves, running night literacy classes so that their fellow believers can read the Bible and even so that non-believers can have the benefits of knowing how to read. They do this year after year. There is no missionary to tell the story to those who sent out the missionary. But the story will be known in eternity. It will, I believe, be shouted from the rooftops.

One of the lessons of these observations is that missionary impact is extended greatly when the skills and vision are passed on to nationals. Asking a missionary how many converts he has made is okay, but it might also push the missionary to do more primary evangelism to please his supporters, but long-term and sustained impact will come from mentoring and training a small group of local people.

Eternal life

From 1978 to 1980 Dayle and I worked in the Cerma (pronounced Care-Mah), language in Burkina Faso. We lived in a place named Niangoloko.  The official language of Burkina Faso is French, but it was only used in government offices.  There are over 70 languages spoken in Burkina Faso.  Cerma was only spoken by about 70,000 of the then 7 million people in Burkina Faso. So, on the street people who did not speak the same mother tongue used a regional language called Jula.

Donkey cart on Niangoloko street

We were cooperating with a mission which had been in the area for quite a few years.  They were doing church planting and evangelism while we did Bible translation.  There were few Christians among the Cerma.  At one point, the mission announced that they were going to organization an evangelism campaign in Niangoloko.  We offered to help how we could.  In the end, we housed a missionary couple in our small place for a week.

Email helping Ed figure out the Cerma langauge

The evangelism campaign was being put on by American missionaries and pastors from Burkina Faso.  The main activity took place in the evening.  There was preaching and sometimes the showing of a film in the main town square. Quite a few people came and listened.  Some responded to the message, but not a lot. Because none of the missionaries or national pastors spoke Cerma, all the preaching was in Jula.  We were even told that ,”Everyone speaks Jula”.  Neither Dayle nor I spoke it at all.

During the week of the campaign, we continued working on language learning and analysis of the Cerma language in preparation for translation.  We were working with a young Cerma man name Emile.  One morning, he told said that many people were asking about a word which had been used in the preaching in Jula the night before. He wanted me to find out what it meant.  When I suggested that he ask directly, he insisted that I ask.

So I wrote down the Jula word and in the course of the day I posed the question to the missionary staying at our house. He was surprised.  The Jula word meant “eternal life” and that had been the subject of the preaching the previous evening.  Well, I guess that was one sermon no one understood!

In the course of my years in Africa, I have come to realize how precarious communication can be when one depends on a regional language like Jula.  People may speak it fluently for everyday matters – family information, shopping, farming – but lack the vocabulary for other topics which never come up when speaking the regional language.

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