Hundreds of millions of Christians, in thousands of people groups all over the world, are theologically malnourished and in a severe spiritual famine. People who speak 92% of the languages in the world do not have a translated Bible in their own language. Fewer still have adequate teaching materials and resources to help them grow in basic knowledge of the Bible and sound doctrine. Eighty-five percent of churches around the world are led by people who have no formal training in theology or ministry. The growth of the global church—as high as 178,000 new converts daily—has far outpaced the number of leaders equipped to shepherd the rapidly growing flock. The global church urgently needs discipleship resources in their own languages to help foster their spiritual growth.
The technology of the 21st century provides unprecedented opportunities for ending the spiritual famine of the global church. We have the technology that could be used to help meet their need. We have the capacity of bringing spiritual famine relief to anyone, anywhere, efficiently, and at extremely low cost. What we do not have (yet) is adequate Bible translations and other discipleship resources that provide the legal freedom to take full advantage of these opportunities. In the legal context of “all rights reserved” the global church is unable to work together without restriction or hindrance to leverage Internet and mobile technology to the fullest for the purposes of God's Kingdom and the equipping of His Church.
There is an urgent need for discipleship resources that are made available under open licenses so that they can be translated and adapted to provide effective theological training and increased Biblical knowledge for Christians speaking all of the nearly 7,000 languages in the world. The global church cannot be expected to reinvent the wheel theologically for every people group and language. Instead, the process of equipping believers in every people group with adequate discipleship resources can be greatly accelerated by releasing some of the copyright restrictions on some existing discipleship resources. This gives the entire global church legal freedom to build on what has already been created by their brothers and sisters in Christ. Until that happens, however, the global church in thousands of languages is legally locked out—on the other side of a legal “wall” that hinders the much-needed spiritual famine relief.
The View from the Other Side
Many are not even aware that this legal wall exists. I was oblivious to it until a number of years ago when I accidentally ran into it from the other side. At the time, I was the advisor for a team of Papua New Guineans who were learning to translate the Bible into their own language, Uturuva. The team had completed the introductory Bible translation training course and were now ready to start using Bible translation software to facilitate the translation of the Bible into their language.
We ran into a snag during the installation of the software. Everything had been going fine until the software installer prompted us for a license key. We had no idea why anyone should need a license key to translate the Word of God, but since we did not have a license key, we could not proceed with the installation of the software.
This software was used every day by my missionary colleagues, but our Papua New Guinean brothers and sisters in Christ, whom we were there to serve, were not legally allowed to use the same software. The reason, I was told, was because the Bible translation software included many discipleship resources—exegetical helps, translations of the Bible, commentaries, etc.—that were the Intellectual Property (IP) of other entities, not our mission organization. The copyright restrictions on these resources prevented their free use and distribution. They could only be used with the express, written permission of the copyright holders. The organization with which I served was relatively large and had worked out a legal agreement with the copyright holders that apparently said something to the effect of: “members of the mission organization who are translators may be granted a free license key to use the software.” But the legal agreement did not extend beyond that organization’s translators.
And that was the problem. The people on the Papua New Guinean translation team were not members of any organization. Like the rapidly growing multitude of believers in people groups all over the world, they were “just” people who sensed the call of God to translate His Word into their language. I was a member of the organization, but because I was not the translator (I was merely the advisor to the project), the legal agreement that was in place did not apply to me either. Copyright restrictions on discipleship resources prevented us from making the most of the technology that would have helped us translate the Bible into their language.
The Walled Garden
Imagine a lush garden full of fruit-bearing trees that can be freely enjoyed by anyone. Now imagine that the garden has a massive wall around it, permitting only a handful of people to enjoy the fruit within the walls. Many are on the outside of the garden in a perpetual famine. But the wall prevents them from coming into the garden to satisfy their hunger.
This is not hyperbole. It is illustrative of the real problem faced by hundreds of millions of the global church in thousands of people groups and speaking thousands of languages, all over the world. They have virtually no discipleship resources in their languages to satisfy their spiritual hunger. The discipleship resources that could meet their need are in other languages, and they are not legally permitted to translate them for effective use in their own languages.
There is something curious about this walled garden. Although the masses of people locked on the outside of the wall are in terrible need, few on the inside are even aware there is a problem. Fewer still attempt to meet the need. In this analogy, these attempts to provide for those on the outside are noble efforts, but they come nowhere near actually ending the spiritual famine. These efforts are either prohibitively costly (harvesting and shipping fruit outside the wall as a business venture) or illegal (tossing fruit over the wall without permission). There is a solution, but it does not involve either of these approaches.
The solution to the problem in this analogy is for owners of fruit trees who desire to meet the immense need of those on the outside to transplant their trees outside the wall, creating a Christian “commons” of legally-unrestricted discipleship resources. Instead of trying to meet the needs one at a time, moving the source of nourishment “outside the camp” enables the entire global church to work together in parallel to meet their own needs, legally.
That day in Papua New Guinea when the translation team could not have a license key was the first time I ran into this wall. I had never seen the wall before, much less experienced running into it. Up until then, I had only ever been on the “inside” and had never before seen the view from the vantage point of the rest of the global church. My view from the inside had led me to believe all was well and we just needed to work harder in world missions. The perspective from the inside had blinded me to the reality that all is very much not well on the other side.
This Book, in a Nutshell
The goal of this book is to paint the picture of a realistic and achievable means of ending the spiritual famine of the global church in every people group, through the openly collaborative building of a legally-unrestricted core of discipleship resources in every language—the Christian Commons. To arrive at this goal, I attempt to provide a detailed explanation of the missiological, technological, and legal factors necessary for understanding the immensity of the problem and the strategic significance of the proposed solution. It is my hope that, as more believers come to understand the need and how we can meet that need together, many who are the legal owners of Bible translations and other discipleship resources will willingly release some of their content under open licenses and into the Christian Commons—an unwalled garden—for the glory of God and for the good of His Church.
The Christian Commons contains ten chapters, divided into four parts, as illustrated here and explained in the sections that follow:
Part 1: Missiology & Discipleship – The Spiritual Famine of the Global Church
This book is built on the foundation of the mandate Jesus has given to the Church: “Make disciples of all people groups” (Matthew 28:19). Evangelism and church-planting are necessary aspects of discipleship, but neither is the ultimate goal. In chapter 1 of The Christian Commons, we will see that 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 in that particular culture and context.
Making disciples of all people groups requires using their “heart languages” in order to teach them to “obey everything Jesus has commanded” (Matthew 28:20). The magnitude and complexity of this task is immense, and much remains to be accomplished. Merely “working harder” is an inadequate approach for accomplishing the Great Commission. Chapter 2 argues that equipping every people group with adequate discipleship resources in their own language requires a fundamental shift in our approach to world missions.
The global church in every people group needs adequate discipleship resources in their own languages. This is a daunting task, especially in light of the reality of language change. Bible translations and other discipleship resources are static works. Languages, however, change over time, and small languages often change rapidly. Apart from ongoing revision of a discipleship resource, language change will eventually result in the resource itself ceasing to be useful to the speakers of that language. Chapter 3 suggests that the global church needs to be equipped not only to translate and create discipleship resources, but to maintain them through time.
Part 2: Technology & Workflow – It's the End of the World (But Only as We Knew It)
Chapter 4 introduces one of the most significant opportunities for the advance of God’s Kingdom in the 21st century: the mobile phone. The mobile phone has rapidly become the most widely used technology in the world. It is far more common than traditional computers, the Internet, and even traditional media like television and radio. Spanning cultures, countries, and socioeconomic classes, the mobile phone is uniquely positioned as a strategic tool in the task of making disciples of all people groups.
In the pre-digital, “paper” era, large, complex projects could only occur in industry (private production) or government (public production). With the advent of the digital era, where content is comprised of “bits” of digital data, a new means of accomplishing such projects has emerged. Social production, using computing devices (like mobile phones) connected via the Internet, enables a geographically-distributed team of self-selecting individuals to accomplish complex objectives by collaborating openly toward the common goal. Compared to traditional models, these objectives can often be achieved in less time, with better results, and at a marginal cost approaching zero. In chapter 5, open collaboration is put forward as a model that can go the distance and provide adequate discipleship resources in every language of the world.
Part 3: Copyright & the Kingdom – On the Wrong Side of the Walled Garden
Chapter 6 discusses the role and purpose of modern copyright law, explaining that it was invented to encourage the creation of content by granting exclusive rights to owners of creative works, restricting the distribution and use of the content by others. This creates an artificial scarcity of the content, which preserves a higher price for the content and maximizes the revenue stream from it. The exclusive right of distribution also preserves the revenue stream for resources that are given away free of charge, by providing the content owner with numbers and statistics that may be useful for procuring donations. Using copyright law in either of these ways is neither illegal nor unethical. Given that copyright law has as its objective the limiting of access to and reuse of content, it is not surprising that it has had only limited success in meeting the need for discipleship resources in the thousands of languages spoken by the global church.
The Bible is essential for spiritual growth and is the foundation on which every other discipleship resource is built. Chapter 7 explains how restrictive licenses governing translations of the Bible tend to hinder the global church from growing spiritually by creating a “single point of failure” for every discipleship resource in a given language that is built on it. Most languages that have any translated Scripture have only one translation in their language. Because of the way copyright law works, this translation is the legal property of an entity, with all rights to the translation owned by them. This hinders how freely and effectively the Word of God can be used and built on by others to create discipleship resources that foster the spiritual maturity of people who speak that language. In addition, Bible translations that are under copyright cannot legally be revised by speakers of that language without permission. Apart from ongoing revision, language change will result in the Bible translation itself eventually ceasing to be useful to the speakers of the language.
In chapter 8, we address ethics and copyright law. The eighth commandment is simple and direct: “Do not steal.” In the physical world, this was unambiguous, because physical objects are intrinsically “rival”—they cannot exist in more than one place at the same time. In the digital world, however, content can effectively exist in any number of places at the same time. This ability to share content in a “non-rival” way opens up new opportunities for the advance of God’s Kingdom, but it conflicts with the “all rights reserved” of copyright law. We must not adjust our ethical standards based on convenience or the likelihood of getting caught or prosecuted. Instead, we must strive for integrity and uphold the law even when it hurts. That said, it is crucial that adequate discipleship resources be made available under open licenses in order to provide an honest and legal means of meeting the urgent spiritual need of the global church from every people group.
Part 4: Legal Freedom & Spiritual Growth – Ending the Famine
Chapter 9 describes an open license that gives the global church the legal freedom they need to make discipleship resources effective for spiritual growth in any language. Licenses governing the use of discipleship resources tend to be very restrictive, focusing on everything that people are not allowed to do with the content. These licenses do not enable the global church to legally work together in the translation, adaptation, distribution, and use of discipleship resources in any language. By contrast, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License grants anyone the freedom to use and build upon the content without restriction, subject to the two conditions of the license: attributing the original content to the original owner, and releasing what is created from the original content under the same license. This license is ideally suited to provide the freedom the global church needs to legally equip themselves to grow spiritually, while minimizing the likelihood of commercial exploitation of the content by others.
Chapter 10 introduces the Christian Commons as a core of discipleship resources released by their respective owners under open licenses, like the Attribution-ShareAlike License. These licenses permit the unrestricted translation, adaptation, distribution, and use of the content by anyone, without needing to obtain permission beforehand or pay royalties. The concept of a Christian Commons is not new—it is profoundly Biblical, being rooted in Old Testament principles and lived out in the New Testament church. The Christian Commons provides the necessary content and legal freedom for believers from every people group to openly collaborate in the completion of the Great Commission. Because the content is open-licensed, speakers of any language—even those with the smallest numbers of speakers—can legally translate and use the content without hindrance.
Note that a number of sections in this book are expanded upon in a corresponding appendix. The intent is to cover the topics succinctly in the text, while also providing further information for those interested in them.
Finally, it must be noted that there is a real risk of miscommunication when writing a book like this. When suggesting a new alternative to a usual means of doing anything, it is easy to come across as being against the standard approach. In this book, specifically, there is a risk of sounding anti-copyright or antagonistic toward those who hold the copyrights on Bible translations and other discipleship resources. This is not the case. My intent in this book is to explain the need of the global church, the opportunities we have to meet that need, the obstacle that hinders it, and a solution to the problem, in the form of the collaborative creation of the Christian Commons.