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1. "Be Warmed and Filled"

The mandate Jesus has given to the Church is to make disciples of all people groups. Evangelism and church planting are necessary aspects of discipleship, but neither is the ultimate goal. Accomplishing the goal of making disciples is dependent on the Word of God, translated into the languages of the world, made accessible to oral communicators, and forming the basis for other discipleship resources that explain the Word of God with clarity.

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One should only trek through the swamps of Papua New Guinea in the rainy season if they truly enjoy relentless heat, unbearable humidity, and endless trails of knee-deep mud. I am not particularly fond of any of these, but my teammate and I only discovered what we had gotten ourselves into after it was too late to turn back. So we made the most of it and continued on as planned with the language survey that would help determine the need for a Bible translation project in the language of the people group native to that area.

Many days later, as we slogged along behind our guide through the rain and mud in yet another swamp, we came across a long tree trunk lying in the direction we were going. Instead of continuing through the mud, we crawled up on the tree trunk and walked along it. As we got to the end of the log, our guide stopped so suddenly I nearly ran into him. He waited there, perfectly still in the falling rain. Finally, he said to us, “Get off the log.” So we got down and walked around the end of the log to continue on our way. As we passed the end of the log, I glanced over and saw the reason for the detour. A clump of grass had been cut off neatly at the roots and laid across the end of the log. It had obviously been placed there by someone, but we had seen no one on the trail so far that day.

I asked our guide what the clump of grass was all about. He did not answer right away and when he did, there was concern in his voice. “It is witchcraft,” he said. “Someone is trying to use black magic to kill another person. If we had stepped over the grass, the curse would have fallen on us and we would soon die.”

We walked on in silence for a few minutes and then, quietly at first but growing louder, our guide started singing a traditional chant, one of the songs of his ancestors. The haunting melody was unlike anything I had ever heard before, and seemed to be an eerie flashback to the ancient history of that people group. The song was presumably sung as a white magic “antidote” to the curse we had encountered, in the hope that it would protect him from harm.

This was intriguing, because in the villages we had visited on that trek, we kept asking the people if they would sing us some of their traditional songs. “Oh no,” they replied, “We do not know the traditional songs anymore. We are Christians now and we only sing hymns.”

The first Christian churches had been planted in that people group over a century before, and most of the larger villages had a church building. It was true that in their church services they only sang Christian hymns. But now we realized that the traditional songs were, in fact, quite well-known. They were still used in situations like these, when faced with spiritual warfare and the possibility of demonic attack.

Our guide was one of the most spiritually alert people we met in that entire people group. He was the one who had made the all-day hike multiple times to the nearest village with a two-way radio, to ask for missionaries to come and help them translate the Bible into their language. But though they knew the right words to say, even had church buildings and sang hymns, it appeared that little had changed at a heart level for most of the people in that language group. They did not know that “white magic” is a lie, or that Jesus has won the victory over Satan and his demons, or that faith in His Name is the only real protection against demonic attack.

A little later, we stayed in a village that was near the border of the language group. In the course of the conversation, some of the people mentioned that one of the villages in a neighboring language group had converted to the Bahá’í religion. As the story unfolded, we learned that the village had for decades been known as a Christian village. But recently, the advancing Bahá’í cult had swept through that part of the country and, with little opposition, consumed the village and claimed its allegiance.

What had happened? Why was it so easy for an entire village of “Christians” to be swept away by a cult? Why had the people pretended not to know the traditional songs when, in reality, they were well-known and were used in spiritual (but not “Christian”) contexts?

These are difficult questions that we will attempt to answer—both in this situation and in many other situations like it. God alone knows the hearts of the people involved, and care must be taken not to assume what cannot be known. But there is one crucial lesson that comes through in countless stories like this one: making disciples of all nations involves more than merely evangelism and church planting.

The Goal of Missions Is Discipleship

Evangelism and planting churches among the unreached and least-reached people groups of the world are extremely important.1 But evangelism and church planting must be seen for what they are: a means to an end. The end toward which we have been commissioned by Jesus to work is not making converts to the Christian faith. The end goal is not “x number of churches in y number of years.” The end goal is not a Bible translation or Biblical storying or any of the many other important missions tasks. These are all intermediate steps to the end goal—the same unwavering goal that Jesus first commissioned His disciples to reach, nearly 2,000 years ago:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” —Matthew 28:18b-20, emphasis added

The purpose of world missions, according to Scripture, is singular: make disciples of all nations. Accomplishing this task in a people group usually involves evangelism, church planting, Bible translation, and many other activities. But the goal itself must not become redefined according to one’s own particular area of focus, lest the means become the end. If the only tool I have is a hammer, everything really does start to look like a nail. In the same way, if I am a church planter then my natural inclination may be to see every need in world missions as a need that would best be solved by planting a church. If I am an evangelist, I may tend to perceive the definition of the end goal in terms of evangelism. A Bible translator must take care not to lose sight of the fact that the actual goal is “make disciples” not “finish the translation.”

This is not criticism; all of these are important components in making disciples of all nations. But, as Dr. John Piper puts it:

…making disciples means more than getting conversions and baptisms. “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . .” Conversion and baptism are essential, but so is the on-going teaching of what Jesus taught. The new life of a disciple is a life of obedience to Jesus’ commandments, or it is not a new life at all. It is worthless to acknowledge the lordship of Christ in baptism and then ignore his commandments. So all disciple-makers must be teachers, and disciples must be continual learners.2

Why does it matter? What could possibly go wrong by inadvertently redefining the ultimate goal? In the short term, maybe not much. People come to Christ and churches are planted. But in the long term, the results of aiming for the wrong goal are often disastrous.

Falling Short of Discipleship

Even a brief survey of world missions suggests that we as a church have historically been quite effective at evangelism and church planting, but relatively weak at discipleship. Discipleship—the “teaching them to obey” part of the Great Commission—is hard work and does not generate quantifiable numbers. This tends to make it a less attractive aspect of the task.

Conversions and church plants—the “baptizing them” part of the Great Commission—are much easier to count, and they make for great reports and emotional pictures to send back to supporting churches and organizational leadership. Sadly, the tendency in world missions is often to focus on evangelism and church planting and hope that discipleship happens automatically after that. History and Scripture both suggest this is not what happens. Paul told the church in Corinth:

“I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose.” —1 Corinthians 3:6-8a, NLT

According to this passage, making disciples of every people group includes the distinct aspects of “planting” and “watering.” These correspond to the “baptizing them” and “teaching them” aspects of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. Historically, the seed has often been planted but not watered. The world is littered with fragile, poorly-equipped, and sometimes broken churches in people groups all over the world—churches that have lacked discipleship teaching, making them “a mile wide, and an inch deep.”

Although we may never know for sure, I suspect that what I encountered on that language survey in Papua New Guinea was the result of inadequate discipleship. The evangelists had come through decades before, and churches were planted with leadership installed. The churches may have been strong and vibrant at the outset, and there were probably true believers in them. But the evangelists moved on and, though the young churches were able to hold on for a season, they eventually faltered. They did not have the Word of God in their language or the discipleship resources they needed to grow in knowledge and spiritual maturity. So they were unprepared for the testing of their faith that lay ahead. The result was disaster.

Satan is patient. When young churches are not trained and equipped as disciples of Christ, the devil only needs to bide his time and he will often be able to turn the tables and uproot the young plants that were planted. If he succeeds, what remains is often the hollowed-out shell of a Christian church, with little or no spiritual life (though they may still sing hymns). The people may still profess the Christian faith, and some of them may be believers, but Christianity to most of them will have become a thin veneer that whitewashes the outside, while on the inside their hearts still cling to their former beliefs and way of life. And they may cling to those beliefs more tightly than ever before.3

So what is the solution? We need to continue evangelism, church planting, Bible translation, and other related missions work. But it is crucially important that we, the global church, focus on following through, and “making disciples.” Thankfully, the Bible is full of instruction and examples of how the process of discipleship works.

Biblical Discipleship

A disciple in the Bible is a “learner” or “student” who is taught by a teacher. Making disciples involves the person-to-person living of life together in which younger Christians are taught by more mature Christians. The process is similar to the way that an apprentice learns a skill by direct observation of, and involvement with, the master craftsman.

In the New Testament, Paul says to the Corinthians that they may have many “guides” (or “teachers”) but that Paul was their spiritual “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul laid the foundation and others were building on that foundation as guides and teachers (1 Corinthians 3:10) in the process of discipleship.

The objective of the discipler, according to Mathew 28:20, is to teach the new believer to obey all that Jesus has commanded. This is intended to be a multiplicative process, where disciples go on to disciple others, as Paul instructed Timothy:

“…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” —2 Timothy 2:2

This takes time and perseverance, and there is no substitute for the personal, relational aspect of it. The rise of the Internet and mobile phones does not mean that we can now stay home and make disciples over Skype. Tools such as these are useful in many aspects of equipping the global church to grow spiritually as disciples of Christ. But they are not replacements for the mandate to “Go” and live incarnationally among least-reached people groups, testifying of the risen Christ, and living out God’s love to them in tangible ways.

One of the most helpful stories in the Bible for understanding Biblical discipleship is the story of Ezra. The Babylonians had defeated the kingdom of Judah 140 years before, but now, finally the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt and some of the exiles had returned. All the people in Jerusalem gathered into the square and Ezra, together with the other leaders, read to the people from the Law.

They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read. —Nehemiah 8:8

Note some key aspects of Ezra’s approach: it was centered on the Word of God, translated into the language of the hearers, communicated orally, and explained so they could understand it.

The Word of God Is the Foundation for Discipleship

Ezra knew that God’s Word is the only basis for truth and spiritual instruction. The purpose for his return to Jerusalem was to teach God’s Word to the people:

Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the LORD, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel. —Ezra 7:10

As with Ezra thousands of years ago, so it is today. The teaching of the Word of God is the foundational aspect of “making disciples of all nations.” The end-goal of world missions is disciples of Christ in every language and people group—disciples who are spiritually complete and equipped to equip others. Apart from the Word of God, this cannot happen.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. —2 Timothy 3:16-17

It is no surprise, then, that the greatest felt need of new believers in any people group is to learn the Word of God. David Platt tells the story of meeting with believers in a country where it is illegal for Christians to gather. He had to wear dark clothes and they smuggled him into the village in the dead of night. Finally, he arrived at the house where Christian brothers and sisters were waiting to be taught from the Bible. These believers were so hungry for God’s Word they asked him to teach them about all the books of the Old Testament, though he only had limited time with them. “We will do whatever it takes,” they said. “Most of us are farmers, and we worked all day, but we will leave our fields unattended for the next couple of weeks if we can learn the Old Testament.”4 So they studied the Old Testament and then, on the last day he was with them, did a twelve-hour study of the entire New Testament as well.

More than anything else, disciples of Christ need the Word of God. But the Bible is not magic. It is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV) when it is understood, at both the cognitive and spiritual level. Often, the Holy Spirit uses people as teachers and disciplers to help the human mind comprehend the Word of God. In Acts 8:26-40, we see that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading the Word of God, but unable to understand what he was reading. After Philip helped him understand the Word of God, it brought about change in the life of the Ethiopian. He believed, was baptized, and went on his way rejoicing.

In order for there to be understanding, it is important that the Word of God be translated into the language the hearers know best and that communicates most deeply to them—their “heart language.” The heart language is the vehicle through which the Word of God brings about real and lasting change at a deep, worldview-altering level.

The Word of God, Translated

When Ezra read aloud from the Word of God (Nehemiah 8:8), he made every effort to enable the people to clearly understand what was read. The exact details of how he and the Levites did this, especially to a crowd that may have numbered nearly 50,000 people (Nehemiah 7:66–67), is not stated in the narrative. Many of the people in that gathering had been raised in exile and probably spoke Aramaic as their heart language. Because of this, the Law, written in Hebrew, may not have been understandable to them without translation. So it is likely that part of the communication process used by Ezra and the Levites involved translation of the Law from Hebrew to Aramaic so that everyone could understand. The result of this clear communication of the Word of God in the language of the hearers went far beyond mere intellectual assent. It cut all the way to their hearts:

Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all of them, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law—Nehemiah 8:9, emphasis added

The people heard the Word of God and understood it, not just academically, but at an emotional, life-changing level. This pattern repeats itself all over the world. When the Word of God is communicated in a trade language or language of wider communication, there may be some life change and spiritual awakening in some people. But a worldview-altering, people group-awakening “heart change” that lasts most readily occurs when the Word of God is communicated in the heart language of the hearers.

The story of the translation of the Bible into the Kabuverdianu language of the Cape Verde islands is a classic example of the kind of impact the Word of God in the heart language can have.5 The Kabuverdianu translation team had completed a draft of the first chapters of Luke and had given it to the pastor to review. On the first Sunday in December, the pastor started his sermon by announcing the reading from God’s Word. But instead of reading from the Bible in the national language, Portuguese, he read from the verses that had been translated into Kabuverdianu.

“Our reading will be from Luke 2, verses 1 through 7,” he announced.

As the congregation listened intently, he read the passage. Pausing, he exclaimed, “It tastes so good, it tastes so good!” Then he started reading again and didn’t stop until he’d finished the entire chapter, reading with the confidence and expression of someone who understood and cherished every word.

The translation team began to sob. A row of teenage girls stared at each other in wide-eyed wonder and then dissolved into a group hug. Eyes glistened with tears. As the last word was read, a spontaneous cheer erupted: “Amen! Hallelujah!” The service closed with many hugs for those who had worked on the translation.

A woman who had been educated in Portuguese had started to follow along in her Portuguese Bible, but then stopped and just listened to the Word of God in her language.

“I let the words fall over me,” she said. “For the first time in my life I felt washed by the Word. I thought I knew the Christmas story by heart, but I must confess that today I feel like I’ve heard it for the very first time.”

It is clear that part of the process of “making disciples of all nations” must include the translation of the Bible into the languages that are spoken by these people groups. But merely translating the Bible as a written text is not sufficient for people groups who are primarily oral (not text-based) in their means of communication.

The Word of God, Heard

The Bible tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, ESV). When Ezra instructed the people from the Word of God, he did so out loud, speaking to them the Word of God. Jesus also used an oral approach when he taught his disciples, frequently using stories as the means of teaching:

“He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables…” —Mark 4:2, NLT

The significance of this should not be missed. Hearing the Word of God results in faith. The oral communication of the Word of God also removes the need for literacy as a prerequisite for ingesting and comprehending the Word of God in oral communities. This is significant because, according to missiologists in the International Orality Network, oral communicators are found in every cultural group in the world, and they constitute approximately two-thirds of the world’s population.6

Traditionally, however, the process of “making disciples” cross-culturally has tended to use text-based, linear teaching approaches that are usually encountered in academic environments. These teaching materials and techniques are usually not well-suited for oral patterns of communication. These patterns often include the telling of stories, drama, song and dance, and are used in most people groups around the world. As a result of the disconnect between a text-based means of communication and a people group that communicates orally, comprehension of the content by the target audience is often very limited.

The effectiveness of using oral strategies among people who are oral communicators is illustrated in the story of a pastor in India who came to Christ through the work of a cross-cultural missionary.7 He went to a Bible college where he received two years of theological training, after which he returned to his village to preach the Gospel.

But not all went according to plan. “To my surprise,” he said, “my people were not able to understand my message. A few people accepted the Lord after much labour. I continued to preach the gospel, but there were little results. I was discouraged and confused and did not know what to do.”

Then he attended a seminar where he learned how to communicate the Gospel using oral methods. At this point, he realized that his problem was that the communication style he had been using was based on lecture methods with printed books, like he had learned at the Bible college. He returned to the village and started using oral methods to communicate the Gospel, and the people were more responsive:

After the seminar I went to the village, but this time I changed my way of communication. I started using a storytelling method in my native language. I used gospel songs and the traditional music of my people. This time the people in the villages began to understand the gospel in a better way. As a result of it, people began to come in large numbers. Many accepted Christ and took baptism.

The prevalence of oral communicators in the world does not mean the printed Word of God or other text-based materials are obsolete and no longer of use. On the contrary, they will continue to be foundational to the task of making disciples. But effective discipleship strategies among least-reached people groups also take into account the reality that most people in the world will best learn to become disciples of Christ through primarily oral means.8

So we see that the Word of God must be translated for effective use and also made accessible to oral communicators. But “making disciples of all nations” also includes explaining the Word of God and contextualizing the message for accurate communication within the culture of the disciple.

The Word of God, Explained

In addition to communicating the translated Word of God orally, Ezra and the Levites “gave the meaning” of what was read. The Law was originally given by God directly to the Jewish people, written in Hebrew and applied directly to their culture. But for many in Ezra’s time, this may have been the first time they had heard the Law. Others may have heard the Law many times, but they needed it explained and applied to their context. Nearly a thousand years had passed since the giving of the Law, and much had changed in the daily lives of the Jewish people. Even though the Law had been written to them, it was important for it to be explained and the meaning clearly communicated in order for the people to understand it.

The cultures of the vast majority of the people groups in the world are far removed from the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of the original audiences of the Old and New Testaments. In addition, the languages spoken today by these thousands of people groups are usually very linguistically different from the Hebrew language of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament. The more distinct the culture and language of a people group are from the culture and language of the original audience of the Bible, the more likely the need for explanation of what is written in the Bible, to bridge the gap between the two contexts.

Consider, for example, the challenge in communicating crucial Biblical themes like “eternal life”, “faith”, “forgiveness”, “sin”, and “mercy” in cultures where such concepts are unheard of, and in languages for which there is no vocabulary to describe them? How do you explain the significance of John’s statement regarding Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) in a culture that does not have sheep or a sacrificial system? If you have never heard of the Romans, or that they occupied Judah many years ago, or that during that time a Roman soldier could require anyone to carry loads for them, how will you understand the significance of Jesus’ audacious statement, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41)?

Additionally, certain aspects of the culture and language of the original audiences of the Scripture were implicitly understood by them, even though they are not explicitly stated in the Biblical texts. The absence of this implicitly understood information can create confusion or misunderstanding for people in other cultures who are not aware of the differences between the contexts of the original audience and their own.

Bruce Olson, in the book Bruchko, tells of challenges he faced when communicating the stories of the Bible to the Motilone people in the Amazon jungle. One story, the parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock, was especially problematic. In the story, Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24, ESV). But this created such problems that Bruce’s friend and language helper at first wanted to skip it.

“That’s not right, Bruchko. A house that is solid must be built on sand. Otherwise the poles won’t go deep enough, and the house will fall apart.”9

In the Motilone context, a direct, word-for-word translation of the parable would have communicated exactly the opposite of what Jesus had communicated to the original hearers. In Jesus’ context, buildings that were built on sand collapsed, so wise men built their houses on rock. In the Motilone context of the Amazon river basin, only a fool would build his house on a rock, because the flooding rivers would wash it away with the first rain. Instead, jungle houses were built on poles that ran deep into the sand where they would be firm and not collapse in any flood.

In the end, they translated the parable with the wise man building his house on the sand, in order to accurately communicate to the Motilone people what Jesus’ story was intended to communicate. But regardless of how they translated it, the Motilone (and any) disciple of Christ needs to know at least three things in situations like these. They need to know what Christ actually said, what he meant, and why there is a difference between the two.

The Motilone needs to know that Jesus said “everyone… who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock [because he is wise and wants his house to stand firm]” (Matthew 7:24). But they also need to know what Jesus actually meant, as it applies in their own context: “everyone… who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the sand [because he is wise and wants his house to stand firm]”). They also need to understand why there is a difference between what Jesus said and how it is accurately communicated in their own culture. In this case, the explanation would describe the different geography, climate, and cultural factors that affected the building of houses in Israel in the 1st century.

Without explaining the context of a Biblical text and matching its intent to the context of the target culture, much of the Bible may be confusing and unclear to disciples of Christ, even though it is translated and accessible to them in their language. This does not in any way imply that the Scriptures alone are inadequate for “life and godliness”—far from it! The Word of God is “living and active”, and it effectively communicates when it is clearly understood by the hearers in any culture and language.

This is why Ezra and the Levites took great care to read the Word of God and provide explanation. This is also why well-prepared sermons that exposit a portion of Scripture carefully draw out the crucial linguistic, historical, and cultural aspects of the text. The goal of good exegesis in the exposition of Scripture is to help the hearer come to a correct understanding of the text as it would have been understood by the original hearers. In this way, the meaning of the text can be accurately and consistently applied to the unique context of the hearer today.

Needed: Discipleship Resources

There are many different factors that contribute to the spiritual health of any church, but in general, there are two key factors that seem to be especially important in the task of “making disciples”: disciplers and discipleship resources. Disciplers, as we have seen, are those who do the difficult, day-to-day work of teaching converts to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. Discipleship resources are materials that sustain, teach, and continue to spiritually nourish the disciples, even when the discipler is not present.

The most important and foundational discipleship resource is the Word of God. Other resources are, necessarily, built on the Word of God and are significantly more effective when they are translated and adapted into the language and culture of a people group. These discipleship resources provide explanation and Biblical instruction, enabling young believers to grow spiritually and withstand the all-out spiritual assaults and the subtle deceptions that will continue to come their way. Even though there may be a growing number of churches and believers in a people group, the task of making disciples is not finished until disciples are equipped with the discipleship resources they need to continue to learn and grow spiritually on their own.

Discipleship resources include text, audio, and video materials that help to explain and clarify the Word of God in the social, cultural, and historical context of the consumer. In some contexts, these resources may include things such as Bible study notes, commentaries, concordances, leadership training courses, children’s ministry materials, Bible story videos, and so on. Depending on the context and need, however, they also might look nothing like the kinds of resources with which we are familiar. Regardless, the purpose of discipleship resources is to enable believers in a given culture and language to grow in their understanding of the Word of God, and so to grow in spiritual maturity and obedience to “everything that Jesus has commanded” (Matthew 28:20).

Discipleship resources can be thought of as being complimentary to “evangelistic resources” (like tracts, videos, etc.) which are specifically intended to lead an unbeliever to faith in Jesus Christ. Historically, much focus and effort has been given to the creation of translated and contextualized evangelistic resources. But apart from Bible translation, relatively little has been done in most languages of the world to provide adequate translated and contextualized discipleship resources for the global church. This lack of spiritual “meat” to strengthen them (by making it possible for them to increase in their understanding of the Word of God and solid doctrine) is one of the most crucial needs facing the global church today.

The value of discipleship resources in the life of the Christian has been clearly understood throughout much of the history of the Church:

If he shall not lose his reward, who gives a cup of cold water to his thirsty neighbour, what will not be the reward of those, who, by putting good works into the hands of their neighbours, open to them the fountains of eternal life!10 —Thomas à Kempis

The Reformation itself seems to be almost unthinkable without taking into consideration the printed pages of Luther’s sermons, essays, addresses, and biblical translations. Indeed, the Reformation went hand in hand with book and press.11 —Richard Cole

Reading, when it is an exercise of the mind upon wise and pious subjects, is, next to prayer, the best improvement of our hearts; it enlightens our minds, collects our thoughts, calms and allays our passions, and begets in us wise and pious resolutions.12 —William Law

[Paul] is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “Give thyself unto reading.”13 —Charles Spurgeon, on 2 Timothy 4:13

No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly, and influence so irresistibly, as the printed page.14

In many  lands the post-office has become an evangelistic agency. It carries Christian  literature unobtrusively into the homes of all classes, and those who  have tried this method are enthusiastic regarding its effectiveness and comparative economy.15 —Samuel Zwemer

Books may preach, when the author cannot, when the author may not, when the author dares not, yes, and which is more, when the author is not!16 —Thomas Brooks (Puritan author)

There are two things in the entire history of missions that have been absolutely central. One, obviously, is the Bible itself. The other is the printed page. There is absolutely nothing else, in terms of mission methodology, that outranks the importance of the printed page. Meetings come and go and personalities appear and are gone. But, the printed page continues to speak.17 —Ralph Winter

The leader who intends to grow spiritually and intellectually will be reading constantly... Spiritual leaders should also read for intellectual growth. This will require books that test wits, provide fresh ideas, challenge assumptions, and probe complexities... The leader should read, too, to acquire new information, to keep current with the time, to be well informed in his or her own field of expertise... The leader should read to have fellowship with great minds. Through books we hold communion with the greatest spiritual leaders of the ages.18 —Oswald Sanders

Clearly, the value of discipleship resources is in the content itself (“what it communicates”), not only in the format in which it is delivered (“how it is communicated”). There is value in reading discipleship resources that are available in the format of a book. There is also value in discipleship resources available in media formats for those who do not (or cannot) read.

If we, as part of the global church, are serious about truly fulfilling Christ’s mandate to make mature disciples in each people group, we need to do more than evangelism and church planting. Just as James tells us it is no good to see a needy brother and send him off without meeting his physical needs, so also it is imperative that we do more than simply tell believers in other people groups, “Go in peace, be [spiritually] warmed and [theologically] filled,” (James 2:15-16, ESV). It is imperative that every people group have access both to the Word of God and to other contextualized discipleship resources—in their own languages and in formats that are accessible to oral communicators.

This presents us with a significant challenge, because there are a lot of people groups in the world, and they speak a lot of different languages.


1 “Unreached people groups” refers to people groups without any known converts to Christianity. The term “least-reached people groups” is not as easily defined, but is used here to refer to people groups in which there may be small numbers of Christians, but they are lacking in crucial elements of mature discipleship, namely adequate discipleship resources in their own language to sustain spiritual growth, and a self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing indigenous church.

2 John Piper, “Go and Make Disciples, Baptizing Them...,” nov 1982, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/go-and-make-disciples-baptizing-them

3 While my focus here is world missions and making disciples of all nations, anyone who has looked objectively at churches that have been established for some time in nearly any culture can often see the same thing. External appearances may all be in order, but it is often not accompanied by a meaningful change in heart or worldview. In many cases, though, the “former beliefs and way of life” that lurk under the gloss of the “Christian” surface have less to do with chanting traditional songs in an effort to dispel black magic and more to do with blatant materialism and the love of money. But the problem is essentially the same.

4 David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (Multnomah Books, 2010), 24.

5 Bob Creson, “Hearing the Christmas story again–for the first time,” n.d., http://www.wycliffe.net/Stories/tabid/67/Default.aspx?id=2086

6 Avery Willis and Steve Evans, Making Disciples of Oral Learners (ILN, 2007), 3. Some estimates suggest this may be a conservative estimate and put the total number of oral communicators closer to 85% or more of the world’s population.

7 Ibid, 2-3.

8 A common concern regarding the “orality” approach in world missions has to do with the potential for degradation of the message through imperfect oral communication. Given the ease with which orally-communicated messages can change, it would seem to suggest that oral approaches might not be reliable for communicating the eternal and unchanging Truth.

This is a valid concern, but it does not take into account the significant advantages that are unique to primarily oral cultures, or the techniques used in reaching oral communicators that mitigate this potential problem. Those of us from literate cultures may assume that everyone else is as dependent on written methods of communication and data transfer as we are. But oral communicators do not have these same dependencies, because of the significant advantages they have in the realm of memory and retaining information.

9 Bruce R. Olson, Bruchko (Creation House, 1989), 160.

10 à Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ - In Four Books. Translated by Right Rev. R. Challoner, D.D., V.A. McGlashan and Gill, 1873. vii. Interestingly, given the topic of copyright addressed later in this book, the translator Challoner says this about Thomas à Kempis: “...his favourite occupation appears to have been the copying of useful books; and he warmly exhorted others to the same occupation.”

11 Cole, Richard G. “Reformation Printers: Unsung Heroes.” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 3 (1984): 327. doi:10.2307/2540767.

12 Law, William. A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection. Repr. [of the 1726 Ed.]., 1734.

13 Spurgeon, Charles. “Paul—his Cloak and His Books.” November 29, 1863.

14 Wilder, et al. The Missionary Review of the World. Funk & Wagnalls, 1912. 779.

15 Harper, et al. The Biblical World. University of Chicago Press, 1918. 300-304. The authors make this important observation about the importance placed by Zwemer on Christian literature: “He would not make it a substitute for the living voice, but he insists that its power as an evangelistic agency has never been realized. In this form the message is often more persuasive, more permanent, and reaches a larger audience than that spoken by human lips. It is the ubiquitous missionary, often entering closed lands and penetrating into the most secluded villages.”

16 Brooks, Thomas. Heaven on Earth, 1667.

17 Ralph Winter, quote for “Friends of Bible Pathway Ministries.” Accessed November 24, 2011. http://www.biblepathway.org/English/FriendsofBP.html.

18 Sanders, Oswald. Spiritual Leadership. Second Revision. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1994. 102-103.