Recipe for transformation

I don’t put much stock in the idea that there is some recipe for doing missions that will make it successful everywhere and always. Doing mission means caring about the people to whom one is ministering. If I care, then I seek to understand the specifics of their situation. But a recipe is meant to work everywhere the same. The danger is that it can remove the need to understand people and their circumstances and by that eventually remove the need to care and then caring itself. On the other hand, we ignore successful mission endeavors at our peril because they point us to ways the Holy Spirit might be working.

In 2014, OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors Bible translation, did an evaluation of the translation programs they sponsor in nine different countries. The evaluation focuses on whether the translation programs were effective at producing transformation in the communities they served.

The answer to that question was an unqualified yes, but there was more. Some translation programs had more impact than others. Furthermore, the ones that had more impact had some things in common. They were:

  • Local decision making
  • Adult literacy
  • Immediate distribution of the translation
  • National leadership

These findings match my own personal observations of dozens of translation programs in Africa.

The translation programs with the most impact all had a great deal of local decision-making. Churches, for example, had control over who was chosen to be a translator and other key program decisions. Assurance of the accuracy of the translation stayed in the hands of the translation organization, but many other decisions were turned over to the churches (for translation) and chiefs (for literacy). I have seen other evaluations that came to the same conclusion.

Translation programs which produce significant transformation in the language community also were those conducting small-scale, inexpensive adult literacy programs. These literacy programs often started in churches and were attended by church members wanting to read the new translation. But they then spread to the community at large and then eventually into primary schools. Literacy programs mean that people can read the new translation, an obvious key to the translation having impact. But they have many, many more benefits.  Literacy classes were the main sources of health teachings for the economically poor and those attending had more knowledge and exhibited the best health care practices, Furthermore, 76% of those attending reported having benefited economically, almost as high as the 79.8% who reported spiritual benefits.

Another key was immediate distribution of the translation. This is a relatively new idea for many translation programs where the translation was not distributed until a whole book was translated and even then some books were not printed and distributed until the whole New Testament or Bible was distributed. It was not unusual for whole books of the Bible, translated and ready for people to read, sat on the translators’ desk for years before being distributed so that people could read them. Immediate distribution does the opposite. As soon as a passage is translated, it is distributed. So the parable of the lost sheep might be distributed as soon as it is translated; before the rest of the chapter in which it appears is even translated. It might be distributed by printing off a few copies and giving them to pastors or read in church, or to literacy classes to read in the class.  Or a translator might quickly record it on their phone and share it with others on their phones via Bluetooth or NFC. In turn, they share it with others causing it to spread rapidly. A constant flow of new passages into the community can have a powerful effect.

Having the program be lead by a national rather than by a missionary from another country did not create greater or lesser impact, but it did reduce the cost significantly.

So, here’s one recipe for real gospel transformation of communities. It is the basis for the translation programs in Ghana we are helping to implement. I believe that anyone doing translation in Africa should try it out. It might work other places too, but I can’t speak to that.

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

When does it start?

GILLBT Projects 080 ChumbrungI am very interested in what enhances, and what inhibits, the impact of a program to translate the Bible into a language in Africa. A while back, I was reading an evaluation of the impact of a translation of the Bible done in Ghana, for the Chumburung language. It was very interesting, but one thing puzzled me. The researcher doing the evaluation used the year 1989 as a baseline because that was the year the New Testament in Chumburung appeared. The Old Testament came later. But the translators started work on the language in 1972. So a period of 17 years (1972 to 1989) is left out of the evaluation. Presumably because the evaluator thought that the impact would start with the publication of the Bible. Bible translation is a long-term endeavor with long-term impact. Still, 17 years before seeing the first benefit seemed way too long.

Town of Banda where the Chumburung Bible was translated

Town of Banda where the Chumburung Bible was translated

In fact, the process of doing the translation usually has impact. In November, Wycliffe put a series of stories on their blog in which national translators in Papua New Guinea tell of the changes in their own lives. Changes which started around the translation table. In one of them, a national translator resisted a cultural imperative to revenge the burning down of his house, because of what he had learned while translating the Bible.In another case, a church leader listening to the draft translation being read so that they could comment on it (a step called checking), said:

“Wow! It would be very good if all the church leaders were here checking this translation! We would be evaluating ourselves, not just the translation. We leaders might think that we are righteous men in the eyes of the people, but in the eyes of God, it may not be so!”

In Congo, one group was under a tree practicing reading various parts in preparation for the recording of the Jesus Film. A crowd gathered to listen to the practice. Some people came to faith and one person who had left the church and Christian life repented and renewed his faith.

The very first translation in the Nyangbo language, written on a blackboard

The very first translation in the Nyangbo language, written on a blackboard

Too often, missionary translators have seen the positive impacts of the translation process as wonderful by-products – encouraging ‘accidents’, but they make few, if any, planned or systematic effort to use the translation process itself to impact the community. In fact, some might consider that a distraction.

Fronting and deliberately planning early use and impact of translation is coming to the fore in Africa, with some interesting results. Translators have tried several approaches, including translating the Gospel of Luke, then producing the Jesus Film, based on the Gospel of Luke. There are also attempts to get more pastors involved in the testing process. Recently, a Cameroonian friend posted on Facebook that they had recorded the first 100 verses translated in the Mpumpong language. He wrote:

[We] went out on the dusty streets of Yokadouma to test it out. And before we knew we had gathered a crowd – they were all excited to hear the Word of God in Mpumpong! The people shared what they had heard, what it meant and what they thought about it.

This story points to the impact that can happen when the translation gets into the community quickly  – as soon as even one story from one Gospel gets translated, then bringing out more little pieces as they become available – getting them read in the church, recording them and playing them in the streets, performing them as skits, reading them to listening and discussion groups, or getting choirs to make new praise songs from them. In fact, a translator in Tanzania printed a few chapters, took them to a funeral and read them with amazing results. Here’s a short video of what happened: https://vimeo.com/13483359

Planning and implementing immediate use and impact into translation programs in Ghana is one of Ed’s tasks.