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 do we do

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language - a step in language development

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language – a step in language development

I work in Bible translation. I find the complexity of language and translation intriguing. I love the linguistic and cultural sleuthing required to find exactly the right word to translate biblical concepts like salvation and righteousness. But that is not my real passion. If Bible translation were only that, it would not be enough. This came home to me in while I was part of the process of recruiting a new director for the translation work in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of that process included interviews with selected candidates. One of those interviews stayed with me.

The person’s knowledge of the organization and Bible translation was impressive, even though they had not worked in Bible translation or been closely associated with it. The person described our goals and the nature of our work with a level of detail that I did not expect from someone who had not worked in the organization. This candidate talked knowledgeably about the role of language development in Bible translation, for example. He had obviously taken time to study the organization.

changeBut there was something missing. For this candidate, translation work had great value because it preserved an important part of African culture – the language. It kept languages from dying out, he said. But there was something big missing – something that came out in the interviews with the other candidates; even those who did not cite our goals in such great detail. They all talked about the transforming effect of translating the Bible into African languages. This candidate did not mention that.

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Where the Bible has been translated into the heart languages of the people, change has followed and sometimes very big change. Churches sprang up in places were there was longstanding resistance to the preaching of missionaries; churches spang up or held on under intense persecution; believers got newfound joy, peace and fruitfulness in their lives; societal ills like drunkenness declined. In some cases translation was an important contributor to the creation of political and religious freedom.

Translation is what we do, but transformation is what we pursue … lasting, authentic, God-fashioned transformation.

PS: The candidate in question is still has the same job he had before the interview.

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Troubled places

A while back, I was talking to another American working in Bible translation in Africa. They had put a lot of effort into getting something going and then turning it over to Africans. But it was not continuing as well as they had hoped. It dawned on me that there were places where someone had put effort into the same thing and it was continuing very well with Africans in charge. The difference? In the places where there were lots of difficulties and economic hardship it is doing well. In the easy places, it’s struggling.

trouble-signIn fact, this is general true wherever people are translating the Bible for the very first time in Africa. There is more interest in the translations in the difficult places, and less in the easy places. I can think of dozens of contrasting examples. Dayle and I were recently serving temporarily in Côte d’Ivoire. The southern parts of the country are more prosperous, have better schools, roads and health care. The northern parts are behind on all those counts. But it is in the northern parts that new translations are more widely read. In the north, local people volunteer to teach others to read and they are enthusiastic to help the translation effort by volunteering their time in other ways In the south, that doesn’t work so well and more people expect money to do those same things. I listened to several Ivorians from the south lament the lack of volunteering to help in translation or literacy in their communities.

One of the best parts of the road

One of the best parts of a long road I once traveled

There are exemptions, but in general translations done in more challenging environments are more widely used, benefit from more local support and have greater transformative impact.

The places in Africa to which a person can easily go on mission – those within a short drive on a good road from an international airport – are generally less likely to produce big impact and less likely to sustain the impact for a long time. But go to a place for which the US government regularly issues travel warnings, or where getting there takes some doing, or where there is some other difficulty, and your mission is more likely to have significant, lasting impact.

The Moral Tongue

I have read several times that experiments show that people are more likely to use vulgar, profane, or insulting speech when they speak in a language other than the mother tongue. This finding does not surprise me in the least. I have always been shocked and dismayed by the ease with this educated Africans, including Christians, sprinkle their speech with vulgarities and oaths in English or French. It is obvious to me that such language does not have the emotional import for them that it has for me. I have long suspected that a good part of the reason for the absence of that emotional reaction is due to the fact that English (or French) is not their mother tongue. So the research confirmed years of personal observation.

Last year, the New York Times took this issue to a whole new level when it published a fascinating article entitled “Our Moral Tongue“. The article is about moral dilemma known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem works this way.

Trolley problemYou present a person with the following scenario and ask him or her what they would do. The person is standing on a footbridge over a trolley track. The trolley is rolling out of control and will pass underneath it in a few seconds. A short distance further on it will kill five innocent people. The only way to stop it is to push a large man onto the track. The person cannot jump onto the tracks himself as he is not big enough to stop the trolley. What would the person do?

There is an ongoing debate over which action is the most moral – kill the man to save the five, or let the trolley kill the five. The purpose of this blog post is not to solve that moral dilemma. Whatever choice you would make, everyone agrees on some things. For example, the choice people make should not be related to something ethically insignificant, such as the color of the large man’s shirt, the day of the week, the weather, what you ate for breakfast, or that language you speak. What if your choice was affected by one of those?

Researchers tweak the scenario in various ways to test peoples’ sense of right and wrong. One tweak got surprising results. Researchers presented the trolley problem to 1,000 people whose language was Spanish but who were studying English or whose mother tongue was English and they were studying Spanish. A random sample of half of each group was presented the trolley problem in their mother tongue and the other half go the problem in the language they were learning. The surprising result? In their mother tongue, only 18 percent said that they would push the large man, but when presented with the problem in the other language, 44 percent said that they would push him.

Researchers concluded that the emotional repugnance associated with pushing a man to his death was stronger when dealing with the issue in the mother tongue, while the learned language had less emotional connection to our sense of morality.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

For me, the results are not surprising, but they are illuminating. Africans wonder why African countries with a high percentage of Christians also have high levels of corruption. But their people are educated in languages other than their mother tongues (English and French mostly), and they carry out their official functions in those languages which, according to the experiment, have less connection to a sense of morality than would their mother tongue. Leading Ghanaian linguist and churchman Rev Professor Gilbert Ansre, speaking about the advantages of education in a student’s mother tongue, said:

The sense of the true, the just, the the beautiful and the holy are best inculcated in the best language of the pupil

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Wycliffe often states that Bible translations are needed in many more of the world’s languages because the people do not fully understand other languages in which there are translations. That is probably true for many people. But might there be a more important reason – we translate the Bible into the mother tongue because that is the moral tongue what connects God and his righteousness most fully to our conscience? Perhaps we translate not just for understanding, but also, and more importantly, for the connection to Jesus through the mother/moral tongue that really allows us to become more like Him.

For me, we translate the Bible into people’s mother/moral tongues because we want Christians whose faith connects to their emotional and ethical hearts, so that they can love the Lord with all their hearts, souls and minds. We translate not just because we want the Bible understood, but because we want people to connect to it in a way that produces moral, ethical and other transformation in their lives.

It seems that science may be “proving” that our first language, which some call our mother tongue and which we call the heart language, is an issue missionaries and churches cannot ignore if they want faith to go deep.

Coverdale and transformation

Coverdale Bible

Coverdale Bible

Today in 1569, Myles Coverdale died. His translation of the Bible into English was the first complete Bible in English to be printed thanks to Gutenberg’s invention. Previous translations were hand copied.

While Coverdale was known as a translator, translation was his method, not his goal. Like many reformers of the time, he wanted wholesale changes in the church, in politics and in society. It was an era were church services and Bibles were in Latin, the language of education and the elite. Politics was controlled by a few. Coverdale wanted to break down the language barrier and give the Bible and all sorts of information to ordinary people in their ordinary language, English. When that happened, he believed that change would come from the grassroots.

It took decades to see the beginning of the changes he wanted, and longer to see their full conclusion. The flight of believers to the New World is a testament that the grassroots changes were underway and that there was opposition to them from above.

One Ghanaian researcher has noted that through Bible translation, biblical interpretation ceases to be the property of professional theologians. People begin to question prevailing teachings and practices in the light of the mother-tongue Scriptures. That is exactly what Coverdale wanted for England and what eventually happened. Through translation, people cease to be pawns in their religious and political systems.

Girls reading Bibles in their languages

Girls reading their Bibles

In the end, Bible translation is not about translating the Bible. It is about creating an environment ripe for transformation – one rich in the information people need to decide for themselves, one where the Holy Spirit illuminates them individually and empowers them to produce changes. Evaluations have shown that where Bible translation and literacy has been carried out in Ghana, people take more individual initiative and start movements to undermine harmful traditional practices. In addition, church leaders have noted the emergence of a new level of local church leadership which is solidly grounded in the communities and in the cultures, but also solidly grounded in the Bible. The changes are slow, as some measure speed, but they tend to be permanent.

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

At the dedication of the Bible in Lelemi (Buem), as the new translation was being read. Dayle heard someone behind her exclaiming with deep emotion,

“Ooooooooooh, so sweet. (pause) So sweet!”

One speaker, Dr. Elias Kwaku Asiama, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, said:

The launch of the Buem Bible is a turning point in the history of the Buem people.

When translation is over, the sweet revolution begins! That’s why I’m in Bible translation.

Too much time and money

Harriet Hill

Harriet Hill

The need for people to have God’s Word in their mother tongue has been recognized throughout the church’s history. Although church growth is influenced by a variety of factors, times of increased emphasis on mother-tongue Scriptures, such as the Reformation, often correlate with times of church growth. Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

So writes Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society in an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” which appeared in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. You can download and read the full article here.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

Here in Ghana, the impact of translations in local languages is being confirmed in other ways. Before there was a translation of the Bible in the languages, decades of evangelism in some people groups produced few results. Worse, the few converts there were drifted back to traditional beliefs when the outreach impetus from the missionary or Ghanaian church stopped or paused. Ghanaian researcher Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa has shown that after the translation, churches in those same areas not only maintain, but even grow out of their own initiative even when the rest of the community is resistant to the Gospel.

Fare fare people reading the Bible in their language

Fare fare people reading the Bible in their language

Some may wonder about the value of translating the Bible for smaller languages. At least in northern Ghana, when one compares the number of decades and number of people involved in relatively fruitless evangelism before the translation, and the results afterward, one is tempted to conclude that evangelism without translation is what really costs too much time and money.


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.

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.


Translation and democracy II

In a recent blog, I wrote about the book Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick. The subtitle of the book “The story of the English Bible and the revolution it inspired”, captures my conclusion. Translating the Bible into the language of the common man can change political systems, free people from oppression and give people a new way of looking at the world. It does much more than help them in their spiritual lives.

In that blog, I promised to:

“relate how the translation of the Bible into the languages of Ghana has lead to similar developments – making the translation of the Bible into the vernacular a form of political and social empowerment, in addition to its obvious effects on faith.”

Rev. Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa

Rev. Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa

I start with the research of Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa. He studied the effects of the translation of the Bible into the Konkomba and Dagomba languages of northern Ghana. Before the translation, both peoples rejected Christianity, seeing it as a faith of outsiders. Numerous attempts to evangelize them failed. But once the Bible was translated, many Konkomba and Dagomba put their trust in Christ. But Dr. Sule-Saa’s research also discovered that the translation broke down relationships of servitude, brought peace to tribal disputes, and give people a sense of identity. Like Bobrick documented for the translation of the Bible into English, the translation of the Bible in northern Ghana started a series of societal and political changes. Of them, Dr. Sule-Saa told me that they create “more positive transformation than all government programs combined and for much less money.”

Evaluation - GILLBT LiteracyTo facilitate the use of the translated Scriptures, adult literacy programs were run in northern Ghana in the same languages which received a translation of the Bible. An evaluation of  the impact of those programs found that:

  • People had more initiative
  • The children of those who attended literacy classes all attended school
  • People developed a sense of self-worth

The evaluation reported that:

Many participants to the focus group discussions gave testimonies of how that self confidence had transformed their lives both at home and in public to enable them undertake activities that they would otherwise have not.

I suspect that the phrase “and in public” means that those who attended literacy classes were more likely to try to make changes in their communities to make them more righteous. Of course, those in the literacy program also read their Bibles. We have many testimonies of faith in Christ and a deeper walk with him as a result. But what interests me here is the literacy program, in the vernacular languages, resulted in societal changes, not just narrowly “religious” and personal changes. This too matches Bobrick’s observations about the impact of the translation of the Bible into English.

Allow me to chide my brothers and sisters in faith who see mission only as personal, spiritual salvation – who seem to be interested solely in how many people put their faith in Christ. God’s action in history shows that it also brings wider changes in society and in politics. God, it seems, has given us his Word not just for personal consolation and faith, but to change this world in ways that match the coming of his Kingdom. I’m in Bible translation because I want marginalized people to have a personal experience of God’s grace and then live in transformed societies that give them opportunity, recognize their value, and make their lives more peaceful, meaningful and productive.

A New Key

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

I have written before about Solomon Sule-Saa, a Ghanaian who has done extensive research on the impact of translating the Bible into the Konkomba and Bimoba languages of northern Ghana. In a summary of his research presented to a conference in September, he said of the Konkomba and Bimoba peoples:

“The Bible now provides the key to understand the world”

I have heard my share of sermons on Romans 12:2

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”

But I do not think that I have heard a better description of one way to put that verse into practice – that the Bible should be the key through which I interpret the whole world.

Translating the Bible into new languages is often billed as effective evangelism, and it is. But it is much more than that. Beyond bringing people to Christ, these translations are transforming individuals and communities through renewing people’s minds.

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

During an ethnic conflict which was so serious the Ghana army had to intervene, the Bimoba lost confidence in the neutrality and good will of the Ghana government. They saw no way forward but to continue fight for their rights. In a war council, several leaders quoted from the translated Bible, arguing that that Jesus way is the way of reconciliation. So, abandoning their own wisdom they agreed to engage in peace talks moderated by the government they no longer trusted. It worked. They got what they were seeking through negotiation. Now that is faith – following the teachings of the Bible when your life and your livelihoods are at stake. This story shows that the Bible in these languages is doing more than influencing the decisions of individuals. It is also affecting the decisions made by the chiefs for the whole group. Now that is being transformed.

If you liked this, you might also like Tome, Patois, or Feeling the Gospel in our bones.

Bimoba traditional dance

Bimoba traditional dance