All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

Go north

When I go to missions events in Ghana, the mission speakers call for missionaries to “go north.”

The mission events are held in the South of Ghana because that is where the churches are. The southern half of Ghana is very different from the northern half. The south has many churches and Christians, the north has few. The south is much more prosperous; a much higher percentage of its people are educated; it has better health care, roads and schools. In addition, the north has had some highly-publicized ethnic conflicts, making some people from the south fearful of going there.

Because the northern areas are poorer and lack the roads, schools and other infrastructure of the southern areas, sending someone to the north is seen as a punishment. Indeed, it has been used that way. A government primary school teacher who does something wrong might be transferred to a school in the north as punishment. I read in a news paper article that a good percentage of government doctors assigned to clinics in the north never show up to take up their positions. I interviewed a job applicant in Ghana who said that in the past she had been offered a job in the north and was so afraid and unsure that she went to look without even packing a suitcase. But she liked it and stayed. Her family had to ship her things to her. “The north” has an undeserved aura of remote desolation.

West Africa

When we factor in the recent attacks in the countries just north of Ghana’s border, and the ongoing skirmishes in parts of Mali (a country north of Ghana), we add hostility and danger to the north’s aura. But “the north” is also a place where there are not that many churches or Christians. If we go far enough north we reach countries on the southern banks of the Mediterranean where Christians and churches are very far and few between. North is also where there are still languages without a translation of the Bible.

As in many cases for Christians in other places, Ghanaian Christians face an challenging missions call because going to where the Good News is scarce also means going to places less advantaged, less comfortable, less inviting and sometimes less safe than the places Christians already are.

I was born there!

citzenshipIt may appear at first glance that missions is a last-minute add-on to the Gospel – something Jesus announced at the last minute in Matthew 28: 18-20 as a kind of “Oh, by the way”. But it only takes a little looking in the Old Testament to find the idea that the respect and love the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will spread all over and that peoples from all over will be included in those called God’s people. Psalm 87 is a rather striking example of the inclusive vision of the Old Testament.

Zion was built by the Lord
     on the holy mountain,
and he loves that city
    more than any other place
    in all of Israel.
Zion, you are the city of God,
    and wonderful things
    are told about you.
Egypt, Babylonia, Philistia,
    Phoenicia, and Ethiopia
are some of those nations
    that know you,
    and their people all say,
    “I was born in Zion.”
God Most High will strengthen
    the city of Zion.
    Then everyone will say,
    “We were born here too.”
The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
    “This one was born there.”
All who sing or dance will say,
    “I too am from Zion.”
Jerusalem panorama, photo: Malkalior at English Wikipedia

Jerusalem panorama, photo: Malkalior at English Wikipedia

It is obvious that the people of Egypt, Babylon, and the other places mentioned were not born in Jerusalem (called Zion in this Psalm). Yet they are claiming “I was born in Zion”, “We were born here too” and “I too am from Zion”. These people want to be identified with the God of Jerusalem – the God of the Bible.

But this is more than just a wild claim. God himself will put in his record book that they were indeed born in Jerusalem.

The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”

God writes the official record so that it shows that their birthplace is in Jerusalem.

Here we have the precursor to what the Apostle Paul was to write centuries later:

This makes Abraham the father of all who are acceptable to God because of their faith (Romans 4:11 CEV)
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Romans 4:16 CEV)

In Romans Paul says that those who are not biological descendants of Abraham, the man God chose to be the father of his people, are nevertheless counted as his descendants. That is very parallel to Psalm 87 which says that those not born in Jerusalem will nevertheless be able to claim it as their birthplace and God will write the birth records to reflect that.

i-am-a-citizenThe Old Testament casts an inclusive, worldwide vision for people knowing and honoring the God. That implies some kind of action (which we call missions) to make that a reality. When we all engage in missions by whatever means (praying, giving, going, encouraging….) we are not fulfilling some obscure command of Jesus, but fulfilling God’s vision for the world found throughout the Bible. I myself am a result of the Old Testament’s inclusive vision. I am not a descendant of Abraham nor is Jerusalem my birthplace, but I can sing, dance and say, “I too am a citizen”, plus I can invite others to become citizens too!

What is really needed

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an incident where a missionary raised money for something that was not needed. You can read it here: https://heartlanguage.org/2016/07/07/when-understanding-fails/.

It is extraordinarily difficult for an American to understand what people in the developing world really need. A church audience was easily convinced and their hearts moved so they opened their wallets. I love their hearts, but that doesn’t make their action effective. In his book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers wrote: “The poor deserve more than gifted amateurs with their hearts  in the right place”.

Ebola in Africa - MapLet me give you an example of something that has proven really useful, but probably doesn’t look that way to most Americans. That is the new rapid test for Ebola. During the recent Ebola outbreak in some countries of West Africa, researchers were looking for a rapid test for Ebola. Eventually one was discovered and put into use. It takes 15 minutes. You might imagine that it would be nice to know if you had Ebola or not in minutes rather than days. But it is even more important than you imagine. In fact, it was the game changer, in my opinion.

You may have heard that people resisted the efforts of the public health officials trying to combat Ebola. In fact, in local mobs in Guinea killed some. People attacked ambulance drivers and paramedics. They hid sick relatives from the authorities. Crazy you say? Well, you’d be wrong. Their actions were quite understandable, at least they were before the quick Ebola test.

Ghanaian newspaper

Ghanaian newspaper

Let’s say you have a child with symptoms that might be Ebola. At the outset, the symptoms of Ebola are like those of many common diseases. So you can’t know what the child has. Before the rapid test, if you took your child to a Ebola center for treatment, they would examine him or her, and if the symptoms could be Ebola, your child would have blood drawn to check for Ebola. But the test took several days. Because of the danger of contagion, they won’t let you take your child home. Instead he or she is held in an isolation ward with other sick people who are also waiting for their Ebola test results. That means that your child will be housed with sick people some of whom almost certainly have Ebola. If your child doesn’t have Ebola, he or she could well contract it at the Ebola center. That’s why people resisted sending their family members and friends to Ebola centers.

Let’s say that you live in an area where there is no Ebola center, but you do have a local hospital. People who are suspected of having Ebola are keep there while awaiting the results of their Ebola tests. Do you want to go to that hospital? Send your child there? One of the side effects of the Ebola outbreak was the people died of treatable diseases because they were afraid to go to clinics and hospitals.

Ebola poster I saw in GhanaBut the rapid test changed that. In 15 minutes Ebola could be diagnosed or excluded. People came, got tested and left or were admitted. Public health crews going door to door could administer the test on the spot, eliminating the need to take every sick person to the hospital.

The rapid test was not just a rapid test, it was a tool that changed the relationship between the public health officials and the public. It is possible, I think, that the changed dynamics between officials and the public was what eventually brought an end to Ebola outbreak. We use the phrase “game changer” too loosely, but the rapid test was a real game changer. Not only is it rapid, it also works without electricity so it can be deployed anywhere.

I see the same thing in Bible translation, the things that have profound impact (small literacy programs, printing orthography guides in local languages, courses for pastors to teach them how to read in their own languages…) don’t sound like much to many American ears. I have heard the representatives of US-based translation agencies say they don’t fund those things because American Christian donors aren’t interested.

Like I said, I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for people in one place to understand what will change life for people in another place. Be honest, if you had wanted to give to the fight against Ebola and you had been presented with three choices – contributing to the development of a rapid test, to a Christian doctor or nurse traveling to effected countries to help, or giving money to support an Ebola center – which would you have chosen?

When understanding fails

An African friend told me about a trip he made to the USA. In the course of the trip he was the guest of a missionary who works in his country and the missionary took him to a church meeting where the missionary was speaking. The missionary made quite a point of the bad relationships between different ethnic groups. He cited instances where he saw and heard people from different ethnic groups insulting each other. The missionary explained that he planned to help with reconciliation through the Gospel. The church audience was very moved and gave a large offering.

My African friend was shocked. He didn’t say anything during the meeting, afterwards he spoke to the missionary. He told him about a common cultural practice in West Africa known as “joking relationships“.

Chief in the Ghana's Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

Chief in the Ghana’s Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

I ran into joking relationships early in my missionary career. We had traveled from our village to a nearby town to buy supplies. We went into a little restaurant for lunch. At one point, a man came in and started insulting two of the patrons. They began insulting him back. It looked serious. I thought that a fight was about to break out, so I was gathering my things to leave when they all started laughing and the man who had just came in sat down with them – all friendly like nothing had happened.

When I told an African friend about the event, he explained that there is a joking relationship between some ethnic groups in which they insult each other, each trying to find the wittiest insult. The insults are given and taken in fun. It reminded me of how relationships between men can work in the US. The right way to give a complement to a manly man in some circles is backhanded – in the form of a disparaging remark such as “I’ve seen worse” or “Who would have thought you could do good work like that?”

It turns out that the joking relationship in Africa can be the foundation for overcoming conflict and producing reconciliation.

So, that missionary didn’t understand the joking relationship, thought that the insults were for real and raised money to solve a problem that didn’t exist.

I am reminded again that as an outsider, I need to take time to understand and consult local people before coming up with my own ideas about what needs to be done. In recent weeks, I made at least one mistake because I didn’t do that.

My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.
(James 1:19 CEV)

Slow feedback loops

Feedback can change our behavior. If I put my fingers on something hot and burn them, I get immediate feedback in the form of pain; causing me to jerk my hand back. I remember not to touch that thing again! A fast and strong feedback loop causes behavior change.

A slow feedback loop is not as effective in motivating us. The danger of HIV/AIDS is that it can take years for the disease to have its first noticeable negative effects. The same is true of a poor diet. It takes information and discipline to make changes in our lives for things that have slow feedback loops. So we have to know the dangers of high blood pressure, for example, and take our blood pressure (information), then we have to have the discipline to change our diet and/or take medication to keep it under control.

Johan Christaller

Johan Christaller

Missions – the effort to make Jesus known everywhere – suffers from a similar problem. An evangelistic campaign with a big public meeting might result in many people accepting Christ. That is quick and positive feedback. Reporting those numbers will motivate Christians to give to the evangelist. But research shows that the number of those who continue in their faith can be quite low. That information is part of a slow feedback loop, so it tends to have less impact on Christians who are deciding where to send their mission dollars. Like slow feedback in health issues, for slow feedback in missions to affect how Christians give to missions, there is a need for information and discipline.

German missionaries first translated the Bible into languages of Ghana. Johan Christaller’s translation of the Bible into the Twi language was published in 1871. Translations of into other languages in the south and central parts of Ghana were completed in the early 20th century. Over the next 100 years, many Ghanaians became Christians through the use of those translations.  Large and solid churches were established. 100 years is a really slow feedback loop. The organization Dayle and I are on loan to, GILLBT, published its first New Testament in a language of Ghana much later – in 1976. It published Scripture in a number languages over the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Around 2000, some Ghanaians started studying the impact these translations were having. The results are quite remarkable. I have blogged about them and spoken in churches about them, so I won’t repeat them here.

Think about the slowness of that feedback loop.

Year translation
work started
Year translation
was published
Year the research
was done
1962 1976 1998
Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

The research to show the effectiveness of the translation appeared 36 years after the translation started. The translators must have worked in faith that the translation would have an impact. They probably had some stories of impact the translation was having on some people, but they could not know if the effort was going to effective until it was done. In fact, not until years after that! (We are hoping to speed that loop up in the future, but it will still be relatively slow.) A friend of mine who has done quite a bit of research on the impact of Bible translations in Africa says that the biggest impact of translations start about 10 years after they are published.

But the feedback loop is even slower than that. The translation done in 1976 continues to have impact even after the research about its impact was completed in 1998. We know that from anecdotal information. But we don’t know when that impact will be formally evaluated again. It is probable that the feedback loop on many translations will be so long that those who did the translation and all who supported it through prayer and finances will have left this world before all the feedback is known, if it ever is.

Any mission work that has sustained impact over decades will have a very long and slow feedback loop.

I am working on a project with a church in northern Ghana that builds the methods proven effective in the long-term to reach out to the two least evangelized peoples of Ghana with a total population approaching 1.5 million. That really makes me excited, even though we may not see significant results for another 3-5 years.

Hypothetical missions programs, both with fast feedback loops

Hypothetical missions programs, both with fast feedback loops

Some people may give to missions and Christian ministries when there is a dramatic and quick feedback loop, but not much otherwise. That kind of giving is good for emergencies and disasters, but it doesn’t work well to produce sustained impact. For that, regular and well-targeted giving is better.

 

It is written, but where

After his resurrection, Jesus was walked with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus when he said to them,

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke 24:46-47 CEV

Jesus says “it is written”, meaning that it is written in the Bible. But what Bible? When Jesus said that the New Testament had not yet been written, Jesus is saying that the Old Testament says that

repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

Jesus had to show his disciples that proclaiming the Good News to all nations was right there in the Old Testament from the beginning. They had missed it. But consider these verses:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. Psalm 22:27

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here am I, here am I,” to a nation that was not called by my name. Isaiah 65:1

This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? Isa 14;26 – 27

Missions, including local and world outreach, are not an optional add-on — something tacked on in an “Oh, by the way” fashion. They are not an afterthought Jesus added at the last minute before he went back to heaven. Rather, outreach is God purpose and intention, indeed His own mission, from the beginning and throughout.

Ladies' Bible study in the Nouni language of Burkina Faso in fulfillment of OT prophesies

Ladies’ Bible study in the Nuni language of Burkina Faso in fulfillment of OT prophesies

Earth, receive your king

Someone pointed out to me that Joy to the Word is much more than a Christmas carol – it is a song about God’s mission in this world. Just read the lyrics and think about them.

Christmas-Sunday-Joy-to-the-WorldJoy to the world! The Lord is come:
let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing.
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns:
let men their songs employ
while fields and floods rocks hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy
repeat the sounding joy
repeat the sounding joy

No more let sins and sorrows grow
nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found
far as curse is found
far as curse is found

He rules the earth with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love
and wonders of his love
and wonders of his love

The Party Line

Some time ago, I listened to someone in missions aviation tell the story of the introduction of the first helicopter. At the time, the party line was that helicopters were too expensive to operate, and so were unsuitable for missions aviation. He then told an amazing story of the need for an aircraft to go into a place where it was not possible to build an airstrip and God’s amazing provision of a helicopter well under market price. And so that particular party line about helicopters faded into history.

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

The party line is an interesting concept. People in organizations, especially political organizations, are expected to “toe the party line”– to say in public only things that follow the party line – the organizations policy or mission.

I have been there.

I was living in Burkina Faso doing Bible translation under the model where each person raises support for their ministry. The Wycliffe website says:

Wycliffe missionaries do not receive a guaranteed salary from our organization. Instead, they rely on God to provide through the gifts of interested individuals and churches

Because of this model, we had very little money for anything but the ministry of each missionary. At the same time, young people from Burkina Faso were coming to me saying that they felt God calling them to ministry. They wondered if their might be a place for them in Bible translation. They were mostly university students engaged in their churches and campus ministry. I told them the party line which went like this:

It is great that you want to serve our Lord. But we don’t have any way to involve you in what we are doing because of our financial structure.

It was more elaborate and polite than that, but you get the idea. I would also pray with them and send them on their way. I had come to Africa with a call to do Bible translation. My call, or rather my understanding of my call, did not include finding ways for Africans to be involved. No, I was going to do the translation myself.

Meanwhile, more and more young, educated Burkina Faso Christians kept coming to talk to me. Their stories became more and more compelling. Worse (or better!), the call of God on their lives was evident. One day, one came with an incredible story. You can listen to it here.

Samy Tioye and Ed

Samy Tioye and Ed

After hearing his story, I knew that I could not give him the party line. I could not say to someone with such a clear call of God for Bible translation on his life that I could not be involved with helping him move that forward. I came to the conclusion that party line had become out of step with what God was doing. Today that has changed, but changing it required some doing.

Having a party line for a ministry is actually a good idea. It gives direction and helps keep us focused. The thing is, we have to always pay attention to our circumstances because God might be using them to shift our party line, even one that is longstanding and justifiable. The Bible is full of stories of God changing the party line, including when he did that with the Apostle Peter. The trick is to be less thickheaded than I was. God had to put me in front of the same situation many times before I recognized it as His doing.

If you liked this, you might also like Why Nationals, Nessiel Nodjibogoto, or Undeserved.

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

Funny or stupid

When you are in a cross-cultural situation and you see something that strikes you as funny or stupid, do three things:

  • Assume that the “funny” or “stupid” thing makes sense from some perspective
  • Assume that it seems funny or stupid because of something you do not know – that it is a sign of your own lack of knowledge of the other culture.
  • Start learning

Sign - The Property Is NOT for SaleLet me give an example. When we arrived in Ghana I stared seeing signs “This land is not for sale” or “Not for sale. Keep off” I had seen many For-Sale signs, of course, But Not-For-Sale-Signs seemed odd and funny. My next step was to wonder what I did not know and my third to start asking questions. As it turns out, there is a very good reason for all those Not-For-Sale signs – real estate fraud. Using forged documents and other tricks, unscrupulous people will sell you real estate belonging to someone else as though it were theirs. Legitimate land owners have found people moving onto their land, or into a house they own, claiming that they bought it. Indeed, they believe that they did buy it from the legitimate owner. Such matters go to court, but that can be a long and expensive process which does not guarantee a just outcome. Some people who were not very good at keeping records have lost their land.

Taken in Accra, GhanaSo painting a prominent Not-For-Sale sign on a wall where it is hard to remove is a very good way to keep unscrupulous people from showing uninhabited property.

When I asked my Ghanaian friends about this, I got interesting stories about problems they, or someone in their family, had with fraudsters trying to take their land. It was a good occasion to get to know them better, and commiserate with them about a trying circumstance. Following those three simple steps gave me understanding and better relationships.

  • Assume that the “funny” or “stupid” thing makes sense from some perspective
  • Assume that it seems funny or stupid because of something you do not know – that it is a sign of your own lack of knowledge of the other culture.
  • Start learning

People who come back from a missions trip only to talk about all the funny things people did, are showing that they failed to dig a little, understand and really connect.