Knock-on effects

When we think of the effects of war on civilians, we think mostly of deaths and injured caused by bullets and bombs. But those are often a relatively small part of the negative effects. Usually, many more people die in the weeks, months or even years after the bullets and bombs stop.

When an event or situation has a knock-on effect, it causes other events or situations, but not directly:

Say a bomb knocks out a bridge, preventing people on the “wrong” side of a river from getting to a hospital. When someone who lives on the wrong side come down with appendicitis several months later, has to take a much longer route to the hospital because the bridge is out, and then dies before getting to the hospital, that death may be attributed to the war, at least indirectly.

Of course counting such deaths is not an exact science. Perhaps the person would have died even if the bridge was still intact and the operation could have been done quicker. That difficulty is why a Harvard study pegged hurricane Maria’s death toll in Haiti in an astounding 10-fold range – between 800 to 8,500.

Displaced person camp in Congo where we used to work. Photo: MONUC

The fact that it is difficult to get exact numbers should not detract from the fact that failing to take knock-on effects into account leaves us with a very wrong idea of the real impact of a disaster or armed conflict.

Right now in Burkina Faso, about 150,000 children are out of school. Armed conflict in parts of the country has closed over 1,000 schools. It is too dangerous to go to school. It looks like quite a number of schools will be closed for a while. This is a big personal blow to the children and their families, and a blow to a poor country in need of a more educated citizenry.

The same forces are slowing and displacing translation efforts and other Christian ministry. Burkina Faso Christians are braving the dangers just like Africans in other places. Knock-on effects usually don’t make the news, but they do make life and ministry difficult or even dangerous. They are having a significant negative impact in three countries where I have worked, and I personally know national translators who are affected including some for whom knock-on effects have resulted in personal tragedies. Those translators are on the cutting edge of advancing the Gospel, even though the knock-on effects aren’t making the news.

I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” – Revelation 6:9-10

Why nationals

You’ve heard these:

  • • It costs less
  • • They already know the language
  • • They already know the culture
  • • There are not enough missionaries from the West
  • • There are more and more nationals with good training

I could add to this list of reasons why we should work more with nationals and not send missionaries. It is a pretty impressive list of reasons. I agree with all of them, although some are overstated or simplistic.

In spite of the good reasons, I still find the list unsatisfactory. It is very pragmatic. Nothing wrong with being pragmatic, but missions is about vision – God’s vision – for this world. It is much more than just pragmatic. If our decisions were only pragmatic no missionary would spend a decade or more in a small minority to translate the Bible. That kind of action flows out of something much deeper than a need to be pragmatic.

So, a list of pragmatic reasons for a mission strategy leaves me hungry. I need something more.

So let me propose two reasons for working with nationals which are based in what the Bible says. (I could use a fancy word and say that they are theological reasons.)

First, God is calling them. If one takes the time to talk to some of the nationals involved in Bible translation across Africa one will quickly find evidence of God’s hand in their lives. The first time this dawned on me was many years ago. A national told me how he became a Christian in middle school, started to feel a call to Christian service in secondary school, ended up studying linguistics at university wondering why God pushed him through that door, worked for a while in adult literacy and then studied theology. God had led him to the perfect preparation for Bible translation without him knowing it. I had to admit that God’s hand in his preparation was clear. Other Africans involved in Bible translation have similar, if sometimes less dramatic stories to tell. You can read one in detail in an article about Mozambican Bonofacio Paulo in Word Alive magazine.

Besides, we have made mistakes when we have involved Africans because it cost less and they already knew the language without asking ourselves or them about their motivation. It is better to follow where God is leading, even if it costs a bit more. Being pragmatic has its limits.

You might find my second non-pragmatic reason is less convincing. It took me years to be convinced by it myself. That is probably because I come from an individualistic culture (Southern Oregon in the USA) and I did not grow up in a major denomination. Most of my early experience was with independent Bible Churches and a church loosely attached to a smaller denomination. That left me with an understanding of the church which I have come to see as deficient. Not wrong, just not all that it should have been.

Where there is a church, we need to involve national Christians, especially church leaders, in decision-making because they represent Christ’s church. Now, there are false churches, corrupt churches, weak churches and churches with all kinds of other defects. So one needs to be wise and discerning. But where there is a group of true believers and they have leadership they respect, it necessary to assume that God will speak helpfully through them. I have been disappointed when operating under that assumption, but far more often I have found godly and wise counsel in addition to enriching my life. Even where the advice was bad, I believe that I honored God by working with his church. In the cases where I have been disappointed, I have often found that sticking with it for a while (2-3 years) turned that situation around.

So, instead of looking primarily at pragmatic issues like cost, I now first look to see what churches God has in the situation that I might consult and second who He might be calling. The pragmatic stuff follows, rather than leads.