Jumping ship

In 2010, I worked for an organization that was like a well-run ship. The crew was well-trained and beyond competent. The equipment might not have been the latest, but it was fully functional and well-maintained. Relations between crew members were cordial. All the safety equipment was in place. But there was a problem. The captain said we were headed to New York but it looked to me like we were going to miss New York by a very long ways.

Paul Opoku-Mensah

It was in this quandary that Paul Opoku-Mensah, the director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), asked me to come to Ghana twice to do some training of his staff. During my trips to Ghana, I had the opportunity to talk for hours on end with Paul, including twice on 14-hour drives between the north and the south of Ghana. Paul’s organization was nothing like mine. It had recently been rescued from nearly sinking and it was still leaking and listing. The crew suffered from factions and discord, even threatening to mutiny against the captain. But Paul had a plan for getting to New York I found compelling. His plan was similar in some ways to what I was thinking, but involved a number of things I had never heard of. When Paul asked Dayle and I to join the crew of his ship, we were faced with a stark choice – we could stay on our sleek ship going the wrong direction or join the fractious crew of a troubled derelict taking an uncharted course. We prayed and jumped ship.

Our “New York” destination involved engaging the church in Africa in translating the Bible into African Languages, and sustaining the use of the Bibles being translated.

A few days ago, Paul, the man who has been our captain for the last 7 years,  moved on to something new. So I am looking back and evaluating the progress the ship has made. First, it didn’t sink! And while it hasn’t yet arrived at its destination, it is a LOT closer. Churches in Ghana have been engaged. They are giving money. It’s not enough yet, but it is growing substantially every year. Because churches understand and support ministry in Ghana languages, sustained use of translations in those languages is much more likely. 

In addition to being fruitful, the journey has been intellectually stimulating. Paul taught me a lot about the theory and the practice of sustainability and engaging the church in Africa,

In 2011, God put before us a very uncertain path. That was not at all a bad thing. 

Sustainable consulting

On June 23, I wrote about changes that came out of the conflict and civil way in Côte d’Ivoire. Those changes have sparked some interesting conversations in my temporary role as country director. Ivorians and other Africans are doing most of the translation checking. Translation checking is a quality control process where a person with high level training and lots of experience looks over a translation verse by verse to check that it is faithful to the original and that it is clear and natural.

One of the Africans doing that is doing it part-time. He has a very good job doing something else, but that job  allows him time to check translations and train translators. Someone expressed the opinion that this indicates that he is more interested in money than in translation. Historically, translation checking has been done by full-time Western missionaries or consultants with the Bible Societies. It is new that Africans are doing it part-time while making their living at other jobs. It is not the first time that a colleague has expressed to me a similar opinion.

Seeing part-time translation experts as less than ideal encounters some problems:

  • First, we are short of consultants and we don’t have the money to hire more. So part-time consultants actually fit better. In fact, there are other Ivorian who could be part-time consultants with a little more experience or training, but that hasn’t happened out of concern that it we trained them we wouldn’t have money to hire them. There is enough money to bring them into part-time positions.
  • Second, and more importantly, that is how Africa works including the church in Africa. I meet a good number of Africans who have good jobs or small businesses who also serve as pastors to local churches who cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor. In fact, one is on a committee giving me advice in my temporary role. A Bible College in the Congo found that the churches made most of its graduates headmasters at church schools because the schools receive a government subsidy for headmasters and teachers. The graduate then pastors a church on a part-time basis. Whether we think that this way of doing things it good or bad, it is the way things work.

Historically, the most of the first Bible translations done in European languages during the reformation were done by part-time translators. John Wycliffe, who did the first translation into English, did his translation while teaching at Oxford, lecturing and pastoring. Martin Luther did his translation into German while employed as a priest and university lecturer. Even the King James translators were not employed full-time on the translation. People serving part-time in translation is a long-standing practice in the church worldwide, even if it has been eclipsed by full-time translators in the last 200 years.

Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, an anthropologist and friend of Bible translation, came to Africa and taught on partnership. He told us that we ought to be doing “organisational exegesis” with our African partners. That is, we need to understand how African churches and other partners work – how they make decisions, how they pay staff, etc.  It seems to me that a serious look at the church in Africa reveals that having part-time staff is a regular part of how it operates. Because of that, it seems inevitable that as the church here exerts more decision-making in Bible translation, more part-time staff will become part of the picture.

We westerners who are used to the full-time-ministry model need to stop thinking of those who work part time as less than fully committed.

Sustainability and Language

This week, I continue with observations about the Northern Outreach Program. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.

At least two Ghanaians and an Australian have done research into the impact of translations of the Bible into the languages of northern Ghana. One Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic and another, Dr. Thomas Atta Akosah, produced several papers.

Rural church

Rural church

To understand the results of their research, we need to understand the context they studied. The peoples of northern Ghana have low levels of education. Those who do receive an education, then leave the area to find work. So rural churches in northern Ghana often have few members who have finished high school or even primary school. Where there is no translation in their language and no literacy, discipling local believers into leadership roles is a long task. Many do not know how to read. Even if they learn to read, the Bible is only in a language they do not know. Everything depends on a pastor as few others can lead a Bible study or teach a Sunday School class. The most foundational tool for Christian growth, the Bible, is inaccessible to most believers. Their context is full of information about their traditional beliefs, but it is meager in information about their new, Christian faith.

Dr. Sule-Saa research reveals that where there are translations of the Bible in the language, churches sustain themselves and even expand of their own initiative, but other churches where there is no translation in the language of the people need constant help from outside and even then they might stagnate. I have noted this result in other blog posts.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Dr. Atta Akosah’s research explains one of the reasons why this is the case. He shows that the translation of the Bible in the heart language (mother tongue) results in the emergence of effective and widely respected local church leadership; something that does not happen where there is no translation. When local people start reading the Bible in their language, some of them emerge as leaders. Applying their literacy skills and using the Bible as their textbook, they begin answering key questions – questions they ask themselves and questions being asked in their communities. They become known as sources of good advice and help.

Learning to read

Learning to read

In one area, an illiterate young man came to a Bible translator, asking to learn to read his language. So the translator taught him. He used his skill to read the Bible in his language. He went on to learn English, and become a pastor. He stayed in his home area where he started a church where he preaches in the his language. The church is composed almost entirely of converts from another world religion. He has a reputation in the community for answering the questions people have, so much so that other local pastors and even the leaders in other religions call him “the teacher”. People of all faiths come to him for answers. He even has a Bible question and answer program on a local FM radio station in his language.

The rise of empowered lay leadership also happened in the Northern Outreach Program. The emergence of this new level of lay leadership, reminds me of Jesus disciples who were called “uneducated, common men“. It is certainly a very good sign for sustaining the relatively new churches stated among the peoples of northern Ghana whether in their home areas or in the cities.

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

When I attended the celebration of 25 years of the Northern Outreach Program, I found a large hall full of representatives of churches established by the program, few educated, all with their Bibles in their languages.. When we spoke to them about the rise of local, respected lay leadership through literacy and the Scriptures in the heart language, we got a chorus of verbal affirmation, as we did when we told our observations of other results. We were not telling them anything new, just affirming what they were experiencing.

One of the reasons we are involved in Bible translation is the sustained results it achieves. That is why the byline for this blog contains the words “lasting impact.”

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. (John 15:16)

Durable

20130906_163620In September 2013, Dayle’s parents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. In preparation for the party, Dayle was making a cake. She called me over to see this and have me take a photo. She is mixing the cake for their 65th with a mixer they bought about 2 years after their wedding. When I posted the photo on Facebook, one of their grandchildren posted:

Durability. The mixer. The marriage.

Durability is one of the principles behind our work. We want what we do to leave a lasting and increasing impact. We don’t mind if it starts small. Jesus was looking for lasting and increasing impact when he said:

I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father.
(John 14:12 CEV)

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.
(John 15:16 CEV)

We believe that durability of ministry means encouraging ministry in a language that touches more than the head,  investing in local people, and passing the vision for Bible translation to the new churches in Ghana. You will see durability reflected in our by-line.

Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact

It is also reflected in our ministry goals.

Dayle's parents 65th

Dayle’s parents 65th

I am not against short term missions, on the contrary, But short term missions without an accompanying long term effort will only very rarely create lasting and increasing impact. I am not against ministry in English and other major languages, but there are many environments where only touching people using their heart language (mother tongue) creates lasting change. I am not against evangelistic campaigns, but unless they are linked to something else, many who confess Christ will slip back into their former lives.

Producing durability is often not flashy. In fact, it often can only be appreciated after some time, when it becomes more and more impressive, just like that mixer or a marriage of 65 years.

Sustainability in a cemetery

The current holy grail of organizations working to better people’s lives in Africa is sustainability. It is easy to understand why. When we lived in semi-arid Burkina Faso, there were many wells in rural villages that had worked when installed but then broke down and were never repaired. So there had been clean water for a while, but no more. The provision of clean water and its attendant health benefits was not sustained. I talked to a Kenyan economist who was in an economic development project that lasted several years and cost 10 million dollars. He told me that a decade after the end of the project nothing at all remained.

On the other hand, the growth of the church in Africa is a wonderful example of sustainability. Most congregations in Africa are self-sustaining. They grow and progress through their own resources and energies. In fact, Dayle and I are working to tap into that dynamism for Bible translation.

July 16 was the 80th anniversary of the death of C.T. Studd. His go-to-the-farthest-and-hardest approach shows in my favorite quote from him, ” Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” He trekked into what was then the Belgium Congo seeking the geographic center of Africa. It cost him. One doctor described him as a ‘museum of diseases’. But he kept going.

Ibambi graveyard and C.T. Studd's grave

Ibambi cemetery (top) and C.T. Studd's grave (bottom)

When I started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, learned that I would have reason to travel to Ibambi where Studd is buried. I couldn’t wait.

I got there as the catastrophic but little-known civil war in Congo was winding down. What Studd had started continued to grow after his death. By 1970, the area where he worked, like almost all in Congo, was overwhelmingly Christian. You will have to look a while to find a resident of Ibambi who does not claim Studd’s faith.

A local person walked me to the well-kept plot of about 20 graves including Studd’s, some fellow missionaries’, and early converts’. It was the best-kept plot in town. Talk about lasting impact! This man, probably forgotten or never known by many Christians today, buried in a forgotten place out of the sight of the world, has his grave tenderly cared for by some of the poorest, and most abused people on earth because more than 70 years after his death they still have fond respect for him and his colleagues.

I wish that it was okay to be envious, because that is sustained impact to die for – literally.
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