Disciples of Jesus in every people group of the world need adequate discipleship resources in their own languages. Although the discipleship resources needed may be different for each people group, they are necessarily dependent on a complete translation of the Bible. Bible translations and other discipleship resources are static works. They reflect the usage of a language at a point in time. Languages change over time, and smaller languages tend to change more rapidly. Discipleship resources must be revised periodically in order to maintain their usefulness.
When faced with a seemingly impossible situation, it is easy to inadvertently redefine the end goal in order to make it more achievable. This is especially the case when we consider the task of making disciples of all nations, and the kinds of discipleship resources that are needed in each language of the world in order to accomplish it. People who speak one of the handful of languages with vast numbers of discipleship resources are especially prone to making this mistake. We can easily take for granted how much we have in our own language that we use on a consistent basis for our own spiritual nourishment.
English speakers, especially, have access to more discipleship resources and sources of theological training than we can count. We enjoy the luxury of a nearly endless supply of commentaries, concordances, lexicons, interlinear Bibles, Strong’s numbers with original language assistance, study guides, books on every Biblical theme, books on systematic theology, books on how to evangelize your neighbor, books on how to witness to people of other religions, exegetical helps, maps of Biblical lands and events in Bible times, illustrations of life and culture in Bible times, hundreds of different versions of the Bible in English (some specifically for teens, mothers, young adults, etc.), Christian broadcasts on television and radio, and so on.
This abundance of discipleship resources is a wonderful thing and a tremendous help to spiritual growth! But it may be quite difficult for us to comprehend the immense spiritual need experienced by speakers of smaller languages who cannot fathom the richness of discipleship resources we enjoy. We must be careful not to take such blessings for granted or implicitly suggest that other languages in the world should make do with meager rations, while we enjoy a seemingly endless spiritual feast.
Is an Evangelistic Movie and a New Testament Enough?
Encouraging progress is being made in Bible translation and the translation of films about the life of Christ. Seeing this progress, it is easy to start thinking that the task of “equipping the global church to grow in spiritual maturity” is approaching completion. The default assumption is often that if we just keep plugging away at things and work harder, we will get there. This assumption needs to be reconsidered.
These are tremendous steps in the right direction. But the completed translation of some Scripture portions and an evangelistic movie in a given language does not mean we have finished the task of making disciples of that particular people group—there is still far more to be done. Look at it this way: would you be able to survive spiritually and grow to maturity as a follower of Jesus if the only discipleship resources you ever had available to you in your language were an evangelistic movie and a New Testament? No teaching courses, no study guides, no Bible handbook, no concordance, no seminary, no systematic theology, and no pastor who has any of these. A movie and a New Testament would certainly be valuable and useful. But would they be enough to grow in knowledge (2 Peter 1:5; 3:18) as mature disciples of Christ (not just converts to Christianity)?
Of the nearly 7,000 languages in the world, just over 1,200 have a complete translation of the New Testament. Having a translated New Testament is a good starting point for equipping the believers who speak these languages to grow in spiritual maturity. But some concerning trends can occur in people groups who have only received a New Testament in their language, because they have a critically incomplete understanding of the whole Word of God.
One area of concern is that the missing context of the Old Testament can tend to result in a lack of understanding of God’s holiness and wrath against sin. The realization of mankind’s absolutely desperate need for His grace can thus become muted. There may also be a lack of understanding about God’s purposes in the Old Testament in general and in the nation of Israel, specifically. The pivotal events of the Exodus, the detail of the Law, the purpose of the sacrificial system, the imagery of the Temple, the richness of the Psalms, the wisdom of the Proverbs, the prophecies of the Messiah, the promises of the Prophets, the shock that Gentiles are now included as the people of God by faith—all of this and everything else in the Old Testament is lacking for people groups who only receive a translation of the New Testament.
Of the nearly 7,000 languages in the world, about 500 have a complete Bible. Having a Bible in their own language is the essential foundation for spiritual maturity among believers in any people group. But even a translation of the complete Bible is not the sum total of discipleship resources needed for the spiritual growth and maturity of a people group. We are quick to affirm the Reformation rallying cry of sola scriptura, and this is correct—the Word of God alone is the authority on all matters of “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). But the Word of God is to be correctly understood and applied in each ethnolinguistic context, and then the “living and active” Word of God (Hebrews 4:12) will bring about spiritual maturity. Discipleship resources help transfer this important knowledge, fulfilling an important function in the spiritual growth of the global church.
Let’s Be Unrealistic for a Moment
In a perfect world, every language would have a translation of the whole Bible and key discipleship resources that help teach and contextualize the Bible so that it can be accurately understood by speakers of that language. Given the reality of nearly 7,000 languages in existence and the sheer amount of time it takes to translate just the New Testament into these languages, the notion of every language having the entire Bible and other additional discipleship resources can seem completely unrealistic. After all, translation alone is not the only aspect to be considered. There are other complicating factors that are also part of the equation.
In the first place, we have already established the fact that the majority of people in the world are not “text-based” learners, but oral learners. So merely translating discipleship resources as printed books will not adequately meet their need for effective and accessible discipleship resources. We may not even know what discipleship resources that are effective for oral communicators look (or sound) like. What would an “oral Bible commentary” be like? How would “oral Bible study notes” work? The tendency is to be dismissive of the idea from the outset. But just because it may not have been done before and we—from text-based, academically-oriented cultures—may not be able to envision how oral discipleship resources could work does not mean they are not needed.
The Life and Death of a Language
Languages are not static. Over time, they can split, merge, change, and even die. This dynamic nature of languages is often overlooked, although it is a significant factor in world missions and has important implications for the translation of discipleship resources.
Speakers of common world languages that have millions of native speakers are often unaware that languages change over time. This is because languages that have many speakers and a strong written tradition tend to change very slowly. Some languages, like Icelandic, have changed very little in the last thousand years. But all living languages change, as the speakers of each language are affected by dynamic and varied forces. Changes in technology, social pressures, education, immigration, and many other factors can all play a part in bringing about language change.
English tends to change slowly, but we can see evidence of language change in just the last twenty years. New words have been added to the English language in recent years due to the rise of technology, like “Internet”, “blog”, “smartphone”, etc. Meanings of certain words in politically charged contexts (often having to do with sexual orientation) have changed because of the social and political forces affecting them. We may not like or agree with the changes that happen, but the reality is that language change happens.
Throughout the centuries, hundreds of versions of the Bible in English have been created. A primary motivator for the creation of new versions of the Bible in English is to improve the clarity of the Bible in the English language, even as the English language changes. This kind of change can be seen by comparing the translation of John 3:16 from different points in history:
New Living Translation (1996): “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
King James Version (1611): “For God so loued the world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.”
Tyndale (1534): “For God so loveth the worlde, that he hath geven his only sonne, that none that beleve in him, shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe.”
Wycliff (1380): “for god loued so the world; that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that eche man that bileueth in him perisch not: but haue euerlastynge liif.”
Anglo-Saxon Proto-English Manuscripts (995): “God lufode middan-eard swa, dat he seade his an-cennedan sunu, dat nan ne forweorde de on hine gely ac habbe dat ece lif.”
The significance of language change and the need for revision of Bible translations is illustrated by Tyndale’s version of 1534 and the King James Version of 1611. It is often assumed that the King James Version was created as a brand new translation directly from the original languages without influence from other translations. In reality, it could probably be considered to be a revision of Tyndale’s original translation, seventy-seven years earlier.
Brian Moynahan, in God’s Bestseller, points out that an analysis of the translations in 1998 showed that Tyndale’s translation accounts for 84% of the King James Version New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament books that he translated. According to Moynahan, “the fifty-four divines appointed by James I to produce the final work provided marginal notes and scholarly revisions to Tyndale’s existing translation, but the King James itself is, so The Oxford Companion to Literature states, ‘practically the version of Tyndale with some admixture from Wycliffe’.”
Generation Change → Language Change
When I first began work in Papua New Guinea, I was part of a language survey team involved in sociolinguistic research. The team’s responsibility was to help determine which languages were the highest priorities for new Bible translation projects. The priorities assigned to different languages depended on many factors that were researched and written up in reports.
Many of the languages in Papua New Guinea have fewer than 10,000 speakers each. Our language survey team was well aware of the potential for language change in languages having so few speakers. Because of the likelihood of language change, our organization had a policy that the reports we wrote about a language had a shelf-life of only ten years. After ten years had passed since the original survey of a given language, the report was considered obsolete and the survey needed to be redone. The reason for this is that a lot can happen to a small language in ten years, and the language itself could change rapidly in that amount of time.
External factors often bring about language change, but not always at a slow, steady rate. Significant language change can often be observed at the turnover of a new generation. The language that parents speak may be noticeably different from the language their children speak.
I first encountered this while visiting with people in their villages during language survey trips in Papua New Guinea. We would ask them for a list of words in their language, so that we could compare it with the same list of words elicited in other villages. Many times, when we asked the people if they could help us as we tried to write down these words in their languages, they would say, “Wait! I’ll go get one of the old men who speaks our language the right way.” The way they talked, I expected that they would return with an ancient sage from a prehistoric era who spoke their language the way it was when dinosaurs walked the earth.
But almost without exception, the man they brought back was not an ancient, wizened guru from a long-forgotten era. He was an older man that was only one generation older than the people with whom I was speaking. Their language had changed so significantly in just one generation that they could readily perceive a significant difference in the way their parents spoke compared to the way they themselves spoke. And the way they spoke the language and the way their own children spoke it was also different.
Not only do languages change, they also die. More than half of the languages in the world have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and many of these languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Because of their small size (and a number of other factors), languages with relatively few speakers are at risk of dying out. Language death can happen in contexts where there is a dominant national language (like French in some West African countries) or an influential language that is more prestigious than the smaller, “minority” language. Parents who speak both languages may choose to use the dominant, more prestigious language with their children. When the children grow up, they may not even speak the minority language their parents grew up speaking. In as little as a generation or two, the smaller language can disappear, having no more speakers left.
The potential for the death of a minority language has significant implications for making disciples of the people who speak it. People who speak minority languages experience the same urgent spiritual needs as people who speak common languages. In the traditional way of approaching the task of creating and translating discipleship resources, the languages spoken by the smaller numbers of people are often ignored or left until the end. This raises some difficult questions. Is making the smallest language communities wait for contextualized discipleship resources until larger languages are served first an acceptable strategy in the task of making disciples of every people group? It is logical, but is it right? Is waiting for language death—thereby diminishing the number of languages into which translation is needed—a good strategy for making disciples of these people groups?
In many situations, speakers of these minority languages specifically want to undertake a Bible translation project to increase the status of their language and hopefully preserve its existence. The perception is often that “real languages” have the Bible in them. Translation projects in languages like these may be considered “high risk” and may only serve a few thousand (or even just a few hundred) people. What should be done in such situations? Should these people be denied the Word of God or other discipleship resources in their language because their language is too risky or, if we are honest, not important enough due to the small number of speakers? If so, what does that say about our missiological strategy as a global church?
But if we agree this is not an acceptable approach, then who is going to do the work, especially when translation of discipleship resources can take decades to complete? Maybe more to the point: how hard will it be to get funding for a multi-year translation project that serves a relatively minuscule fraction of the world’s population, who speak a language that might be extinct in ten years? What kind of missiological and economic strategy will be able to go the distance and not exclude a language based on its relatively tiny number of speakers and the intrinsic risk of translation projects in it? Who decides what languages need discipleship resources, how many discipleship resources, and what those discipleship resources should be?
Teaching Them to Fish
There is a well-known proverb that goes: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This proverb is especially true when it comes to making disciples of every people group. A lot of work and expense that has been put into traditional missions has gone into “giving them a fish.” The “fish” may have been a church, a church building, a translated New Testament, or even the introduction to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But merely “giving a fish” is a deficient strategy for making disciples of every people group, for two crucial reasons: first, it creates dependency and second, it critically limits the scope of what is possible in world missions.
A few years ago, I attended a conference and heard a veteran missionary tell of his work overseas. He had, like all the other missionaries at that conference, been given 5 minutes to present about his ministry. His enthusiastic slideshow lasted nearly an hour (of course) and was meant to provide an exciting update of “the missions work.” Instead, it told a sad story of a weak, crippled church that had only ever known dependence on the missionary himself. Decades after it first came into existence, that congregation was still almost completely reliant on him for leadership and spiritual nourishment.
It is a tragic story, but do not miss the point. The missionary was right to go and plant the church in obedience to Christ’s command. His intentions were probably noble and his motivations were probably right. But unless care is taken from the outset, it is all too easy to create a dependent relationship between the church and the church planter. Sadly, it can often turn into a co-dependent relationship, where the church cannot function without the church planter, and the church planter’s reason for existence becomes wrapped up in the church that was planted.
The apostle Paul is an excellent example of “making disciples” done right. He was an evangelist who led many to Christ, and he planted many churches. But his goal was discipleship: believers growing in spiritual maturity, dependent only on the Word of God and the Holy Spirit who worked in them and in the local leadership of the church. Even a brief reading of Paul’s journeys in Acts leads to the conclusion that Paul was reticent to stay in one place too long. He was quick to put the leadership of new churches in the hands of the people themselves. He was a pioneer whose aim, he said, “is to evangelize where Christ has not been named, so that I will not build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). Paul’s approach to missions had the significant advantage of not creating dependency on himself.
The point is this: in world missions, it is imperative that we strive to “teach the global church to fish.” Believers in a people group may be blessed for a season by being “given” a church building and ecclesiastical structure. But what they really need is to be taught how to grow spiritually and to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. They may benefit greatly from being taught the Word of God. But their real need is to be taught how to teach themselves the Word of God.
Believers in every people group need to grow in spiritual maturity and be able to continue feeding themselves from the Word. Those who answer the call to serve a people group must do so with the intent of equipping believers in that people group to equip themselves for spiritual growth. This may not happen immediately, but it is vitally important that the global church not be put in a position where they are necessarily dependent on others for an ongoing string of handouts. They “have not” but must not be put in a position where they are dependent in any way to the good graces of those who “have.” They may need an immediate “fish” to help them today. But the task of making disciples is not complete until they have been taught “how to fish” and so be able to feed themselves spiritually for a lifetime.
Limiting the Scope of World Missions
Church planting is not the only area where we can have the tendency to create dependence. The traditional approach to the translation and provision of discipleship resources has, until recently, been modeled almost exclusively on a “give them a fish” approach. Missionaries learned the language and culture, developed an alphabet, taught reading and writing, translated the Word of God, and eventually gave the people a finished book. This is not an indictment or criticism of Bible translation. Millions of people in the last centuries have been eternally blessed by the work of Bible translators and those who have translated other discipleship resources for them. Up until recently, there was absolutely no other way to get the job done.
But there is an intrinsic problem with this model of “giving them a fish” rather than “teaching them to fish” in the context of creating discipleship resources. The problem is that the model is not capable of finishing the missions task adequately or efficiently. If everything depends on “us” (established churches and missionaries) giving “them” (new believers in least-reached people groups) translated discipleship resources, we put ourselves in the distasteful position of being the ones who decide which languages get resources, what resources they get, and when they get them. These decisions must be made for the simple reason that it takes a lot of time, money, and personnel to do a traditional translation project. There are far too many people groups, speaking far too many languages, needing far too many discipleship resources, for the “give them a fish” model to be an effective approach for completing the Great Commission. In spite of the significant progress made in translation projects of past decades, thousands of the smallest languages—which may prove to be among the most difficult translation projects—still have no discipleship resources. Less than 8% of the world’s languages have the single most crucial discipleship resource: a translation of the Bible.
My point is not to find fault or exhort anyone to “work harder.” My point is to suggest that we have assumed a “give them a fish” model in world missions for so long that we may have tended to minimize the severity and magnitude of the need. Tremendous advances are being made in the spread of Christianity in some parts of the world. But equipping these new believers with translated discipleship resources and teaching them to teach themselves the Word of God has not kept pace. The truth is, the situation among these thousands of people groups is desperate.
All Is Not Lost
Earlier in this chapter, we left a question unanswered: Who decides what languages need discipleship resources, how many discipleship resources they need, and what those discipleship resources should be? The answer is: the people themselves decide. Believers in each people group should be the ones who make those decisions for themselves. If they want the full Bible translated in their language along with dozens of other discipleship resources as well, they should be able to have them. There is no theological or missiological rationale for any element of the Church to say to any other element, “Your language is too insignificant and the expense too great—make do with less.”
This notion may seem out of touch with reality. At least, it may seem that way when we look at the magnitude of the task without seeing the new and unprecedented opportunities that God has given the Church to accomplish it. If we look at the impossibility of the task in light of “giving them a fish”, then it is indeed hopelessly idealistic. But the traditional way of doing missions is in significant need of reassessment in light of Biblical missiology and changes in the world in the last twenty years. There is an urgent need for a large-scale shift in world missions to “teaching the global church to fish.” Our focus in missions needs to include teaching believers in other people groups how to translate and create their own discipleship resources. Instead of trying to do it all for them, they need to be equipped to do the work for themselves. Some of them will also become teachers of believers in other languages, joining together in the task of equipping the global church to grow in spiritual maturity.
Nearly thirty years ago, Ralph Winter exhorted the Church to not be content with having established Christianity in every country. Instead, he argued, God wants a strong church from every people group. In keeping with his challenge to the Church, we must also not be content to merely give some of the major people groups some translated Bible portions and an evangelistic video in their own language. Instead, the entire global church in every people group needs to be equipped with all the discipleship resources they need to grow spiritually.
Achieving this vision is possible, but it might only be possible if our goal is to “teach the global church to fish.” The next step in teaching them to fish is to gain a better understanding of the new opportunities before us and how they can be used to finish the task of making disciples in all nations more effectively and efficiently. Two key factors create unprecedented opportunities for equipping the global church and the fulfillment of the Great Commission: the rise of the mobile phone, and the potential for the open collaboration of the global church.
Conclusion of Part 1: Fulfilling the Great Commission requires equipping the global church to translate, adapt, build on, revise, redistribute, and use adequate discipleship resources in their own language.