The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.

What makes for great results

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

For decades, organizations doing Bible translation did little evaluation of the impact of their work. The fact that translating the Bible into a language for the first time has impact, is not in question. The anecdotal stories are too numerous to doubt that. But the lack of evaluation did mean that we did not know what enhanced impact and what hindered it.

Fortunately, more and more evaluation is being done. Some patterns are emerging. One pattern came out clearly in an evaluation carried out by OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors translation. It found that when a translation program is controlled by the local church and community, it is more likely to produce great impact. By “controlled”, we mean that local churches appoint their own committees, select the translators, and decide on the how, when and where of each step involved in translation. This is not the first time an evaluation has resulted in similar findings.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Let’s be clear. This means that others cannot be making those decisions – not the missionary involved, not the translation agency (Wycliffe or another), and not churches back in the US supporting the project with finances. This may seem easy, but it is actually quite hard. Not that long ago I talked to a missionary who proclaimed his disagreement with a local choice and vowed to overturn it. He did. We all think that we know what is best.

The findings of the evaluation carried out by OneBook confirm an ongoing initiative in which we are involved. That initiative aims to strengthen local decision making. We are doing that by:

  • Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Bringing onto the local committees people who are more representative of local churches and the local community

  • Making sure that local translation committees are recognized by churches
  • Putting more decisions in the hands of local translation committees
  • Giving translation committees representation at national meetings
  • Helping translation committees develop a clear mandate and responsibilities
A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

Dr. Michel Kenmogne with the Wycliffe Global Alliance wrote:

“The recommendations arrived at make sense to me. The emphasis on church participation and local ownership, as well as the crucial role of functional literacy, are not negotiable if we want to achieve holistic transformation.”

I agree. We do not carry out translation for the sake of translation. We do it to see lasting impact, and that means putting more decisions in the hands of local churches.

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana