The Word in Every Language by Dal Anderson
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. – Matt. 28:19-20a
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, ?from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. – Revelations. 7:9
In considering the times in which we live and serve, it is important to ask, “What is God doing and how can we join him?” In the mission movement, we see several recurring definers.
Language: The Identifier of All God’s People
Matthew 28:19–20 and Revelation 7:9 are arguably the two most prominent and well-known passages regarding the Great Commission. They contain the themes of nation, tribe, people and language as identifiers of those who worship the Lord. These four elements also happen to be among the primary sociological and psychological points of identity and worth for any person or people group. Go anywhere worldwide and ask someone “Who are you?” and inevitably nation, tribe, people or language will be referenced.
Those interested in fulfilling the Great Commission are familiar with the concepts of nation, tribe and people, but may less frequently consider the role of language. And yet, language is the backbone of a culture and a people group. Language comprises the very essence of a people’s identity — their collective knowledge and history. It holds their conversations, songs, music, myths and perceptions of reality. Language can be the basis of political dominance, and political freedom exists when a people are free to speak their own language rather than forced to speak a dominant national language.
We the church, particularly the Western church, are waking up to the significance of language to humankind and the importance of language to the Great Commission.
Partners: Missiology and Philanthropy
God’s church has taken root around the world as never before, with local churches, church planting, evangelism and discipleship ministries at work. Today, a kingdom presence — a person of peace, two or three gathered in his name, a local church, international ministry or mission organization — are present in or around most people groups. Even in the most difficult areas, where no visible kingdom presence exists, international missions or faith-based organizations may be serving humanitarian needs.
Increasingly, local leaders are expressing readiness to own the work of Bible translation for their people group. Meanwhile, Christian investors are looking to support mission efforts aimed at local sustainability. It seems these missiologic and philanthropic trends are working divinely together toward the same ends.
Outcomes: Considering the “End User”
In this context, Bible translation has an accelerated impact within God’s mission when the following questions inform strategy:
- What languages need translation and what people groups do they represent?
- Who is at work among them (local church, church planters, community development, discipleship ministries, etc.) and do they understand the significance of the local language?
- What might these ministries already be doing among these Bibleless people groups?
- What are the very first Scriptures that would serve the most immediate ministry outcomes?
How might we come alongside the local workers to help them produce these Scriptures in the local language?
Answering these questions fosters an end-user-responsive model for Bible translation.
The potential impact of such a model:
- Scripture use and Scripture engagement is built into the design of the translation project.
- The product of translation is a response to the felt need of the end-user or local community.
- This entry strategy for Bible translation results in quicker access to usable Scriptures for the success of the incarnational presence of the kingdom.
Technology: God’s Tool
These times are clearly marked by technological advancements. The world has become “flatter” (more accessible) as a result of Internet and satellite connectivity in remote regions, plus web-based training platforms. Those advancements speed the translation process and increase the number of participants — saving months or years of work. Experimentation in crowd-sourced translation, audio-to-audio translation and machine translation is informing the future.
Meanwhile, cellphones and other mobile devices are quickly becoming the world’s preferred method of distributing and consuming content — including Scripture. That influences Bible translation everywhere, but particularly in oral cultures, which comprise a high percentage of the remaining languages. Digital audio becomes an effective first way for people to receive and interact with Scripture in their own language.
Unity: God’s Character Revealed
God seems to be generating an unprecedented unity of spirit and practice among Bible translation organizations and ministry partners. In fact, God’s character motivates unity. So, we’re asking ourselves: Who is God, and how are we learning?
1. He is infinitely generous. Ministry organizations have their own brands and ways of working. Frankly, we can be selfish with our resources. It’s much more natural to hold tightly the things that work — and that makes what’s happening today so remarkable. We’re seeing unprecedented unity of vision, strategy and sharing of resources. Branding and logos don’t seem to matter. If an asset, method, discovery or process accelerates toward the finish line, it’s being shared.
2. He exalts the humble. God blesses people who place others’ interests ahead of their own. Rather than boasting of a better way to do something, which can be met with resistance and defensiveness, taking a more humble posture attracts collaboration. Why not give away what we learn and share elements that are bringing success? Let’s be willing to share with, and learn from, each other.
3. He calls us friend. In mission, do we pursue friendship with the hope of partnership? Or partnership with the hope of friendship? To ensure the former over the latter, we have begun to ask ourselves if our partners are the subjects of our friendship or the objects of our friendship. Being the subject of one’s affection and attention changes the dynamic of relationship.
4. He cares for us and wants us to care for each other. That’s God’s mission, too, and an important part of our jobs. It’s every bit as important as planning and execution. Strangely, that’s not always how we’ve treated workplace relationships. When people who are working together in ministry know their colleagues care deeply for them, expectation and accountability grow.
5. He desires intimacy with us through prayer. At the Seed Company, we would quickly say a culture of prayer is our most important asset. We meet, reflect and pray in community every morning. We dedicate resources to a prayer department. Almost every meeting begins and ends in prayer. When God has provided wisdom or resources in ways we could not have planned, we can trace these answers back to times of humbly bringing those issues to him in prayer. We can’t take any credit.
6. He reveals himself to the pure in heart. Our prayer for this work cannot be effective if we are not dealing with things we need to confess or from which we need to repent. Leaders in particular need to realize that we’re not just harming ourselves by impure hearts. There are implications for the whole mission. Maintaining a vertical relationship with God in order to preserve a pure heart is foundational to our work.
7. He is worthy of our confident dependence. That’s different than a lesser dependence that demands God reveal the path miles in advance of movement. Confident dependence means we move as if we could see miles ahead even if God chooses to illuminate only one step at a time. It is knowing that God’s plans far exceed the resources we can see.
God Will Finish the Work
When the finish line comes into view, runners quicken their pace for an all-out, final push. In Bible translation, what we’re seeing today looks a lot like the homestretch. The pace today is unprecedented. The final leg of the race has begun: God’s Word in every language, in this generation.
As of early 2015, about 1,860 languages are yet to have a single verse of Scripture translated. Bible translation in these last languages can begin within the next decade. This gives mission organizations a rallying point — a gravitational pull toward unity in vision, strategy and resources.
Historically, Bible translation has been a catalyst for church growth worldwide. As people receive God’s Word in their heart languages, lives are transformed and church planting, evangelism and discipleship efforts begin to flourish. God’s love for the nations and his promise to draw all nations to his light (Isaiah 60:3) has never been in doubt. He invites us to join him in that work. And now, incredibly, he has placed the finish line in our sights. What other response could we have but to run hard?
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