No no no

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I have always tried to preach where people have never heard about Christ (Romans 15:20 CEV)

John Piper calls this a Holy Ambition. Piper is far from alone in getting inspiration from the Apostle’s desire to take the good new about Jesus to places where it has not yet been announced. The website is dedicated to listing all the peoples and languages of the world and the degree to which each has heard the good news. As is evident from perusing the website, intentionally taking the good new to new places requires research. One cannot just strike off in a random direction and hope to encounter a people who has not heard of Jesus.

I have colleagues who have spent a good part of their lives going out into the field and finding out where languages are, how many people speak them, if the people in one location can understand the people in another and if the language is dying out or perhaps growing. One of them is Ted Bergman who was an engineer before getting involved in Bible translation. After spending a couple decades training, organizing and leading small teams of researchers across Africa, he set out to find out how many places there in the world where there are no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible in the language of the people — a triple no.

The purpose of the research, of course, is so that people will know of those places and take action to remove one or more no. He found 138 such places. There are none in North America, South America or the Pacific. There is only one in Europe. The majority are in Asia but there are also a number in the Middle East and 18 in Africa. Just three countries have over half of the 138 places, but 19 countries have at least one. You can look at the list yourself, just ignore the columns of codes only missiologists understand.

I was a missionary for a while before I fully appreciated that missions requires research. Not the kind of research one does in a lab or on a computer, but rather the kind where one goes out among the people, talks to them, and seeks to understand their situation. What language do they speak? Have they ever heard an adequate presentation of the good news? Are there missionaries working among them? How many of them are Christians, if any? What religion do they follow? Is there a Bible in their language? This research is seeking out every niche where the good news of Jesus is still missing. A few months back, I was involved in an inter-agency committee in Ghana where we looked at research, made inquiries and came up with a list of all the remaining Bible translation needs in Ghana. What’s cool about that is the efforts now being made to shrink that list until it has nothing on it.

Area near the town of Goz Béïda in Chad which is near the Dar Sila Daju language area, one of the places with no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible



That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.

A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.

They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.

Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.

Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.

Learning to read

Learning to read

Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.

They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.

Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.

The Guy Who Obliterated Geography

Anyone who has been around missionaries or in a church that supports missions has heard the following verse many times.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19 ESV)

For many years, many churches and missionaries understood the words “all nations” as referring to geography. The command would be fulfilled when people preached and planted churches in every country.

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Today (December 8) in 1924, a man was born who would radically change that understanding. Ralph Winter would start the US Center for World Missions. He and the Center would grow into force promoting a new, not geographic, understanding of this verse. He so changed missions that most of you reading this have been influenced by his ideas.

It all starts with how we understand the word “nations” in this verse. In our modern world, we tend to read it as “countries”. But the word “nation” can also mean “people”, as in “the Cherokee nation”. The original word is εθνοσ or “ethnos” from which we get the word “ethnic”. At the time Jesus spoke this command, the known world was composed of people-states: groups of people with the same identity, language and religion with some political structure, often a kingdom. These were grouped together into the Roman Empire, which was not considered an ethnos or “nation” because of its diverse ethnic, religious and cultural nature. In other words, “nation” does not refer to a place, but rather to a people.

Other culturesEven though Ralph Winter was not the first to recognized this fact, he effectively promoted it. He changed the goal from taking the Gospel to every place to taking it to every people. Not only is this closer to that the verse means, it is much more effective. For one thing, preaching in a way that respects people cultures and takes them into account communicates better. The population of Ghana, where I work, is composed of over 70 people groups each with their own language, customs, and traditional leadership. The people groups in the northern part of the country are quite different in their thinking and culture from those in the south. That led to a Gospel gap where Christianity was widely accepted in the south, but spurned in the north. When Christians from southern Ghana moved to the north and started churches they were not effective at reaching people from the north. So churches in the north tended to be little islands of displaced southerners that had little impact on the places where they were planted. It became accepted to many northerners and some southerners that Christianity was for southerners only. When asked to church by a leading Ghanaian Christian, one man from the Dagomba people of northern Ghana said, “As for us, we are Dagomba”, meaning “Church is for you, not for us.”

As missionaries and churches in Ghana and around the world began waking up to concept of people groups, they became more effective. Local languages got attention. Forms of worship and evangelism were adapted to the culture. This approach based on people groups resulted in the acceptance of the Gospel where it had long been rejected, including among the Dagomba. These positive results have been well documented, as I noted in my blog Tome.

US Center for World MissionsWhen Ralph Winter passed into glory in May 2009 he left a huge legacy. He shifted missions back to a footing that is more aligned with Scripture and which is more effective. If it is no surprise to you that there are people groups which are unreached, or that the most effective ministry takes into account local cultures and languages, then you have been influenced by Ralph Winter.

My own ministry is informed and assisted by the focus he brought and many people groups (nations) around the world are grateful for it. Today, on Ralph Winter’s birthday, let’s thank God for the blessings he has brought to many peoples through the guy who obliterated geography in missions.