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The Spirit Incommunicado

Though the anthropological approach to mission was proposed and made popular by decidedly non-Calvinist leaders (R. Winter, D. McGavran), reformed thinkers such as J. Piper and J.D. Greear have adopted the philosophy and developed missiologies around it. For those who believe that the eternal destiny of human souls depends on the Church’s evangelistic efforts, it makes sense that they would want to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.” But for those whose theological persuasion alleviates that burden of guilt, the anthropological approach might seem like a non sequitur.

The discussion has been happening among the different tribes on the interwebs, but it’s still relatively unexplored. Until J. Piper’s book, “Let the Nations Be Glad” hit the scene back in 1993, reformed Christians were seen as the foil to the Church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission. In focusing on the supremacy of God’s glory as the basis of global mission, the reformed found the key to human involvement in God’s predestined activity. “Reaching unreached ethnolinguistic people groups” became the point of cooperation for Christians of various theological perspectives.

Henry Blackaby teaches that Christians should follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit and get involved where they see Him at work. Most in the missions world emphasize the importance of an individual’s “calling” to missionary service. Many in the reformed camp ridicule these positions, claiming that looking for such guidance from God amounts to seeking “extra-biblical revelation.”  They say that we get all the guidance we need on mission from the scriptures. That the Spirit-led missions of Paul, Peter, Phillip, and the early church were unique to that early time in the Church’s history, and in no way normative for us today. (EDIT: Tim Challies’ recent series makes this argument) After all, they say, who is a missionary today to compare himself to the Apostles? God doesn’t have a “specific” will for our missionary service, they say. Instead, they propose that our involvement be motivated by our reading of scripture, our obedience to the Great Commission, and our application of wisdom.

It takes some theological leaps to arrive at the conclusion that after commissioning the church to make disciples in all nations, God went incommunicado.

Firstly, all of the Biblical examples of the church on mission were Spirit-led. Jesus sent out the 72 and told them that they would know they were in the right place when “their peace rested” there. Peter was led by a vision that challenged his understanding of the gospel. It “seemed good” to the Jerusalem council to send disciples to the missional church at Antioch, but it’s clear that what “seemed right” to them was heavily informed by step-by-step guidance from the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the Antioch church when the Holy Spirit spoke to the congregation, calling out the two men as a they worshiped. Yes, all of these were historic “firsts” for the church. But if the Apostle’s utter dependence on the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to be normative for the church on mission today, why doesn’t God provide us with examples who were strictly canon-led?

If there really isn’t any further direction from God when it comes to our participation in His global mission, it makes sense that we should hold tightly to a framework that “seems good” to us. It’s understandable that we would extrapolate a goal and then devise a plan to complete the task. But then we’re left to split hairs over Christ’s understanding of “ethne” and what to do about the Unreached People Groups who have already become extinct (without, to our knowledge, ever hearing the gospel).

But if you believe that the Holy Spirit (who lives in us) is not silent today, we must allow Him to orchestrate our efforts- even when they contradict the strategies we’ve developed out of our interpretation of scripture. Here’s how this plays out practically:

  • Sending: The church must only send those who have been called. This calling is made by the Spirit and affirmed by the local church. Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.
  • Strategy: Statistics and ethnography are good tools for us as we organize our resources, but ultimately we must do what the Spirit leads us to do- even if it doesn’t fit our expectations. If God leads us to minister among a “reached” people, we must be willing to obey.
  • Evangelism: Knowing that people are moved to faith by the Holy Spirit, we should be in constant communication with Him. Because He knows the “hearts of men,” He knows what we should say and when. He knows whose hearts He is preparing. Mission happens on His time, not ours.
  • Church Planting: Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain. As we make disciples, churches are formed. But what those churches should look like, what they should redeem and what they should reject, must be done according to scripture as illuminated by the Spirit. Otherwise, we get contextually inappropriate expressions of church.

Does God have a “specific will” for us as believers? I don’t know. Should we ask Him for guidance in every little thing? Probably not. But when it comes to our obedience in His mission, the pattern is clear: With an attitude of worship and humility, we should do what “seems good” while listening for His guidance and watching for the circumstances of His providence. This isn’t looking for “extra-biblical” revelation, it’s relying on the Spirit of Jesus for the interpretation and application of His Word.

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First World Problems

The other day I heard an American pastor talking about the problems his church was facing. Their worship center was at least %80 full during their Sunday service. They’d had a difficult time finding a replacement children’s minister after the old one left for a bigger church. The city wouldn’t grant them a permit to perform their Christmas musical in public. Their video projectors need new bulbs every six months.

These are first-world problems.

Some of the “problems” we  face in our everyday lives aren’t problems at all. We complain, but most of the world’s population would consider it a luxury to get to decide what to wear or where to eat. We’re more than blessed. We’re spoiled.

I had a hard time sympathizing the pastor’s complaints. Often, when I talk to churches about their direct involvement in global mission, I hear very lame excuses blaming these “problems.”

“To support a missionary,” I’ve heard said, “we’d have to cut into our recreation budget.”

“We just can’t do a mission trip this year,” they say with a straight face, “because we’re committed to three weeks of camp this summer.”

What we’ve got to realize is that with our blessing comes obligation. Opportunities are responsibilities. That we have the option of hopping on a plane and traveling to pretty much any part of the world we’d like means that we must to go when we can. There are no excuses, and nothing is more important that our complete obedience to the God who has sent us.

Of course, one “problem” we can face is the overwhelming number of choices. How to get started, and where, can be difficult decisions. Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us alone to make those decisions. Jesus promised to go with us, and His Spirit is our guide. We need to recognize that “too many ways to help the world” is a very good problem indeed.

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Words, Symbols, and Pictures

Though I’ve finished with my series on the scripture translating The Seed Company, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of translation to mission.

Early Spanish and French “explorers” (their countries refer to them as “missionaries,” others call them “conquerors”) traveled to the New World to expand kingdoms- both God’s and their kings’. Not being able to communicate verbally, the Catholic explorers used the pictures in their Bibles to share Christianity with the natives. When all you’ve got is one picture of a mother holding her child and another with her crying at his feet as he hangs on a cross, you end up with a syncretistic Virgin Mary cult.

Mission is translation. Taking the gospel from one context (the one in which you received it) and translating it into another context (that in which you find yourself) is the human aspect of mission.

Translation into written languages is a challenging enough, but translating the gospel into a culture that has no written language can be extremely difficult. The language must be learned by the translator, codified with the assistance of nationals, and then taught back to the people. The process takes a very long time and requires persistence, creativity, and skill.

Since we’re all missionaries, we’re all translators of sorts- taking the gospel from the Christianized context in which we received the message and translating it out to those around us who do not know Christ. What you may not recognize, though, is that many of the “tribes” we work and live among are post-literate.

A group is post-literate when images, or symbols becomes their primary mode of graphical communication. Post-literates may technically be able to sound out words on a page, but they understand and retain little of what they’ve “read.” They have become so used to bullet-points, excerpts, and snippets that their eyes do not track from one line to the next in large blocks of text. autocorrect has supplanted the ability to spell. Acronyms, emoticons, and avatars have replaced the written word. Reading is becoming a lost art.

In some ways, our efforts to accommodate post-literacy has perpetuated and even caused it. Everywhere you look you can find evidence of reading-attention deficit disorder. News articles became blurbs on a ticker and 140-character status updates. Restaurants traded descriptions of dishes for depictions of them. Churches replaced pew-back Bibles with Powerpoint slides. There are “universal” symbols for peace, laundry, and gay pride. We communicate concepts not with words but with symbols. No one has to write the word “recycle” because we all know that the triangle made of three arrows means “plastic, paper, and glass go here.”

The answer to post-literacy may lie in missionary strategies among the pre-literate. Where people have no written language, missionaries tell the gospel through story. Rather than spending time teaching people to read, Christians are relaying the story of God’s interaction with humanity through simple, memorable, and easily-retold stories. This, of course, is how the Torah was handed down through generations, and how the gospel was retained through the early spread of Christianity, the Dark Ages, and the the 1970s.

Will this work to effectively share the gospel among the post-literate? I think it can, but we must improve our story-telling abilities. As we leave the realm of Bible translation for a more subjective scripture storying, we begin to compete with the best tales and tellers a culture has to offer. As we’ve seen with the mainstream public’s indifference to film and audio adaptations of scriptural events, non-believers are more used to being entertained than challenged. I’m not suggesting we try to outdo Hollywood, I’m saying that we can’t depend on Charleton Heston anymore.

Any discussion of scripture translation is incomplete without addressing post-literacy. While we must preserve both the words of scripture and the ability to read them, we must also be prepared to share the gospel with those who do not and cannot read.

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Ready, Set, Wait

PREVIOUSLY: In The Meantime

When you’re in the holding pattern between direction and destination, there’s no time to waste. Once you’ve heard from God, the mission have begun. Believe it or not, the time in-between is a vital part of mission. Here are some things every missionary should do while waiting for further instructions:

Learn: If you know God’s called you to the Middle East but He hasn’t provided the means just yet, throw yourself into studying all you can about the history, geography, languages and cultures of the area. Knowing that King Xerxes was Persian  and that the capital city of Yemen is Sana’a will help prepare you for when you’re finally there. Knowing the 5 boroughs of New York city will come in handy when you’re ready to move. If you don’t know the difference between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, you may not get the right visa. Do anything you can to get a jump start on acculturation.

Meet nationals: There’s no reason to wait until you hit the ground to start meeting people. Odds are that the people to whom you’ve been called also live in the U.S. Find them! Also, there are lots of opportunities to meet people from nearly every part of the world via the internet. Meeting nationals helps build your knowledge of the culture and love for the people. Anyone you meet could be a person of peace, accepting you and your message on behalf of their people and opening doors for you into the culture. Wouldn’t it be great to know people before you even arrive?

Blog: Communication is a vital part of missionary support. But you don’t have to wait until you arrive on your field of service to start sharing the story of your journey. To build a strong support base, start a blog and write honestly (and regularly!) about your life as you pray through the process and prepare for service. Language classes are terrific blogging fodder. Getting out of debt can be inspiring. Discipling your church into strong missiology can help others do the same with their churches. Use social media (which is both free and easy) to bring others along by telling your story.

A time of waiting can be a gift from God. Use it to prepare. Listen to God. Learn the culture. Make a effort to connect. These things will make all the difference when you finally get to go.

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In The Meantime

PREVIOUSLY: When You See It Coming

When it comes to missionary service, don’t wait for a “calling.” I know, this sounds contradictory to my insistence that our endeavors be Spirit-led, but the truth is that we are missionaries already. The call to follow Jesus is the call to incarnation of the gospel. We’re all missionaries.

Nevertheless, many of us have received “special instructions” from God about our service. For some, it’s to go to a place foreign to us to do the work of translating the gospel into another context. For others, it’s a move into an urban center. Some are called to entrepreneurship, sacrifice, church planting, and advocacy. But being called isn’t the same as being ready. Here’s what to when God has given you as sense of what to do, but has left the details a bit fuzzy.

In Acts 13, we read that the church in Antioch was in a time of worship and fasting. It was during that time that God spoke to the church, telling them to set Paul and Barnabas aside “for the work to which I have called them.” The use of the past tense makes it reasonable to assume that both Paul and Barnabas had already sensed their calling. God had already revealed (to Ananias in Acts 9) that Paul was chosen  We’re not sure how long it was, but there was clearly a “meantime” between their calling and the confirmation of that calling. Eventually, God spoke to the church to confirm this calling and to commission these men.

The meantime is vital to missions.

In the meantime, you must have your calling confirmed by your church. Not a member of a church? Stop. Join one and serve faithfully until they recognize and confirm your calling. This is a vital step toward accountability; like Paul and the church in Antioch, this is the context for affirmation and it is to this church that you will report. The church is God’s mechanism for sending and maintaining missionaries.

It’s quite possible that your church isn’t ready to send you. For many churches, missions isn’t even on their radar. In this case, you need to use your meantime to bring them along- train, encourage, and equip them as they develop their missiology. This is where many missionaries go wrong. They encounter reluctance (or worse still- indifference) on the part of their church and turn to google for support. A quick search for “Christian Missions agency” will turn up hundreds of parachurch organizations just waiting to help send you. But it is neither wise nor safe to proceed apart from your local church.

Let’s be honest: consulting with a missions sending organization about your call to missions is like asking a real estate agent whether you should buy a house or rent. Mobilizers, as they are called in the missions world, are not impartial. They all think we need more people on the mission field. Most of them measure their success by the number of warm bodies they get to commit to missionary service through their organizations. Most of those organizations raise money by taking a percentage of what they help their missionaries raise. It’s in their interest to make your meantime as short as possible. A recruiter is not impartial. He doesn’t know you. He is less likely to tell you honestly that you have no people skills, would fail miserably at acculturation, and have offensively bad breath. This is your church’s job.

I find it very interesting that, having heard clearly (and unanimously) from God regarding Paul and Barnabas, the Antioch church did not immediately act. Despite the urgency of the need, they didn’t send the men right away. Instead, the scriptures are careful to point out, the church continued fasting and praying before sending them out.

The example here is that we pray. Spend time asking for wisdom. If you are indeed called to another place, you’re going to need a strong relationship with God. That good relationship will allow you to hear clearly from the Spirit as He directs you on mission with vision, discernment, and supernatural insight. In the meantime, spend time reading Luke and Acts, the great missionary books of the Bible. This will help give you some perspective on what story you’re being called into.

NEXT: Ready, Set, Wait

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When You See It Coming

Hurricane Irene recently hit the East Coast. It isn’t often that a storm like this would travel so far north, so residents from Georgia to New England hunkered down. Fortunately, there was time to prepare. In fact, there was lots of time. It wasn’t until five days after the storm was identified that it made landfall in the Bahamas, and two days until it hit U.S. soil.  New York city was a ghost town for three days. There was time to stock up on food and drinking water. Time to board up windows and evacuate. Plenty of time. Maybe too much time.

Too much time to prepare can kill our readiness. We overthink things. We get distracted. We learn to live with the stress and quickly adjust to the anticipation as though it will be our new reality. Sometimes, the waiting ruins us.

I have a friend who is called to Haiti. She’s known for some time, now. After the earthquake there in early 2010, God gave her a clear sense that He wanted her to go. She immediately responded.

Right away, my friend joined a short-term medical trip and went. Over the course of those 10 days, God made it clear that yes, this is where He wanted her to live full-time. When she got home, she received news that her job at the hospital had been cut due to money shortages. She took that as another sign.

My friend started looking for opportunities in Haiti. An orphanage. A hospital. No doors were opened. She sold all of her “stuff” and moved in with friends to save on rent. She took EMT certification training and enrolled in French classes. She had prepared for what God had told her. That was over a year ago.

Since then, my friend has taken a job. She’s devoted her free time to learning about the Haitian people, making connections there, and preparing spiritually and mentally for the move. The hardest part, she says, is not becoming discouraged. The waiting can kill our preparedness.

Some of my missionary colleagues can relate to the waiting. I know people who’ve found themselves in a holding pattern for years before they every get to the field. A house that won’t sell, a child with special needs. Lack of funding. A visa. Medical clearance. Schooling. All of these things can keep an otherwise-ready missionary from doing what he’s been called to do.

Usually, they over-think: “Maybe I’m not ready.” “Is there sin in my life?” “Did I misunderstand God?” “Should I just forget the whole thing?” They feel foolish before their friends. “I thought you were moving to Haiti- did you change your mind?” Like Noah building a boat in the desert, preparation can seem pretty foolish to those around you.

If this describes your experience, don’t be discouraged! There is hope!

In my next few posts, I’d like to explore what to do when you’re called but haven’t yet been sent. What do you do in the meantime? How can you keep your focus, motivation, and sanity as you wait for the next step in what God has shown you to do? Don’t give up (you can’t, anyway. Try to run from it and God might send a big fish to bring you back)! For some, there is a clear reason for the wait. For others, the reasons never come to light. Either way, there is a great deal you can do to prepare and stay prepared to do what God has told you to do.

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Piper, Frost, and Hirsch

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Their book, The Shaping of Things to Come inspired me toward exploring a missional approach to missiology. I know these men personally, and they are some of the most thoughtful, articulate, and creative thinkers around.

John Piper recently wrote a post on the Desiring God blog blasting Frost and Hirsch for a section in their newest book, The Faith of Leap, that suggests that God took a risk in entrusting His mission to humanity. I encourage everyone to read both the book and Piper’s rebuke.

It would be more than Piper did.

Piper’s post was accompanied by a short video of him explaining his motivation for writing. In that video, he explains that “the guys at Desiring God” had asked him to to respond to the paragraph in question. He hasn’t read the book, or apparently, the paragraph in context. This is not helpful.

Clearly, this is a part of Desiring God’s media strategy- generate controversy by having John Piper “respond” to out-of-context excerpts in an effort to generate traffic on their site. I’m sure it worked, because here I am writing about the whole thing.

I’m frustrated with John Piper’s MacArthurian need to condemn and repudiate what others are saying. Hirsch and Frost are not part of a movement to deny God’s sovereignty, and we don’t need Piper to be our watchdog. Furthermore, as with his Tweet about Rob Bell, he continues to come off like a mean old man rather than a wise and loving shepherd. Heaven forbid the man should ask a question rather an assuming he understands which heresy box everyone else falls into.

Nevertheless, John Piper is right about The Faith of Leap. In the first chapter, Frost and Hirsch express a desire for what they refer to as a “theology of risk.” They explain that traditional evangelicalism doesn’t have much room for the idea that God takes something of a risk in his relationship with humanity. They are right- there isn’t room for that.

God took no real “risk” in determining to use human means to spread His gospel. There’s no risk because there’s no chance beyond His control that his mission might fail. God will accomplish His purposes, and He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. If His plans depended on us, they would certainly fail. If the eternal destiny of the nations depends on us, they have no hope. That is the good news, after all, that our hope is not in our own works nor in the faithfulness of others, but in the completed work of Jesus on the cross.

So when Frost and Hirsch say that God seems to have taken something of a risk on us, they’re wrong. Except that they are exploring the tension that the church inevitably finds on mission: despite God’s sovereignty, I am free to disobey. And I do disobey (usually not intentionally, mind you). If God has elected to save an individual and I have the opportunity to be the means by which He reveals Himself to that man, I can opt out.

Let’s be clear- opting out isn’t a wise or safe thing to do. As my friend, Michael Carpenter points out over at his blog, just ask Jonah. When we fail to follow God’s leadership, be it out of rebellion or ignorance, we miss out. We miss the blessing of doing exactly what we were saved to do.

Which is why Piper’s critique rings hollow; condemning the idea of risk without acknowledging the tension between God’s sovereignty and my depravity is disingenuous. Frost and Hirsch aren’t trying to write a new theology, they’re exploring the “foolishness” (by human standards) of a God who would choose to use imperfect messengers like us to call the world to Himself.

John Piper and Frost/Hirsch aren’t coming from the same perspective (theological or otherwise.) But Piper would do well to read Frost and Hirsch. It might help him reconsider his divisively abstract and distractingly ambiguous standard of “that which brings God the most glory.”

A better way to handle the situation would have been to sit down with the authors and ask them about the offending paragraph. Desiring God went to the trouble of filming a video, why not include a bit of a response from Alan and Mike?

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The Seed Company, Misunderstood

PREVIOUSLY: Crowdsource the Translation

For my last post in this series on The Seed Company, I’d like to turn my attention to the organization’s communication efforts.

The Seed Company has a lofty goal to lead the way in Bible translation by promoting the utilization of technology and community-based translation cohorts to accelerate the work. They’ve also been extremely gracious in accepting and interacting with my entirely unsolicited advice. Needless to say, I’m a fan. So it’s in love and a spirit of humility that I offer some advice for their communications.

If I were in charge of The Seed Company’s communications, here are some things I’d want to implement:

What’s the difference?

In his comment on a recent post of mine, Eddie, who works with Wycliffe UK, wrote: “you do not seem to have understood the different roles of Wycliffe and the Seed Company.” I’m sure he’s right; throughout the course of this series I’ve confused the work of one for that of the other. But if those differences are lost on me, a missionary practitioner, missiologist, and communications consultant, will it be any clearer to the general public?

As it stands, The Seed Company does a poor job distinguishing itself from Wycliffe Bible Translators. I believe much of confusion is due to their reluctance in saying explicitly what their website implies: “Some thought Wycliffe was too slow, so they started The Seed Company to be faster and more innovative.” The problem isn’t helped by the fact that The Seed Company seems to speak in the first-person “we” when referring to work done by other organizations (in the missions world, it’s called “partnering.” (By the way, Johanna gives an excellent clarification in her comment on that same post.)

The communication is further confused by the various initiatives and campaigns they’ve sponsored. OneVerse and End Bible Poverty, from what I gather, are programs of the Seed Company, which is an organization started by Wycliffe, while the Blank Bible Challenge seems to be more of a campaign, done in partnership of an organization and one of its programs. Each of these has its own URL and though they’re all quite well done, it’s hard to tell what’s what and whether the money they raise is all going to the same place.

Bring in the church

Currently, trained consultants assist first-language (native) translators to insure accuracy in new translation projects. At any given point in time, a consultant is interacting with multiple translators on multiple languages. The process does not require the consultant to be fluent in each of the languages. Usually, the dialog between translators and consultants happens behind closed doors. But what if it didn’t?

I recommend that The Seed Company pull back the curtain on the translation process, and allow the general public to see and participate in the “behind the scenes” discussion. Making these interactions (which may happen over the internet) open to all would be a great way to intrigue, equip, and involve more people on mission. Those translators who are working from English source material could benefit from the input of many. It would allow participating individuals and their churches, to get to know nationals and interact with them personally while working on valuable translation projects.

The Seed Company App

Despite the fact that The Seed Company has digital copies of hundreds of translations of the scriptures, they don’t generally handle the publication and distribution of those translations. But they should. A mobile app would be a perfect way to distribute the scriptures freely. Say I run into an Afghan immigrant at a bus stop and find myself sharing the gospel with him. I look up a passage of scripture in English using an app on my iPhone, and The Seed Company app allows me to show that same passage to the man in his native Hazaragi dialect of Persian. Then, as we part ways, I email the man the scriptures in his language as a gift.

This would be way more helpful than an app that “helps” me not drink coffee and send the money to translation agencies instead.

Don’t hide behind objectivity

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, the Seed Company should personalize its work by highlighting the personalities of its people. Let interesting people like Johanna Fenton and Gilles Gravelle and others explore innovative ways of telling the stories of translation. We don’t need more “objective” (whitewashed, staid) coverage of “what God is doing on the mission field.” We need real people to work through the tensions, challenges, joys and blessings of this adventure we call mission. Every organization needs at least one spokesperson to make it personal. Who’s The Seed Company’s?

EDIT: Changed some wording in the second and fifth paragraphs for clarity, and edited the eighth to show that not all translation consulting happens via the internet.

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Crowdsource the Translation

PREVIOUSLY: The Endangered Cultures List

The Seed Company is the advance guard of scripture translation. Their strategy is specially designed to jump-start the process by finding nationals to lead the work and prioritizing the translation of certain passages. It’s quite remarkable, really.

But there is more they could do to accelerate Bible translation.

Historically, scripture translation has been done by trained professionals. Involvement of supporters has therefore been limited to financial contributions. Give money, the strategy goes, and we will produce the translation. That’s not to say that Bible translations are being done through the tedious work of lone individuals- it’s a group effort. For every target language, translation efforts depend on a network of nationals, scholars, researchers, linguists, and writers to do the job. The Seed Company uses modern technology and its OurWord translation software (see video embedded in The Seed Company’s home page) to facilitate communication between translators and consultants.

As large and dynamic as these teams can be, I say they’re not large and dynamic enough. I would open them up to public participation; crowdsource the work.

Crowdsourcing is relying on the participation of volunteers to accomplish a task or maintain knowledge. Open source software is one example of crowdsourcing- its copyright allows users to makes changes to the source code, improving its compatibility, functionality, and usability. Wikipedia is another good example. Thousands of volunteer editors write the entries to the online encyclopedia that is accurate and up-to-date (and has put traditionally-edited print encyclopedias out of business).

The Seed Company should set up a wiki site that allows everyone from amateur linguists to phililogy students to national believers to aid in the translation of the scriptures. As with Wikipedia, users could write, edit, and maintain accurate translations of passages and books of the Bible in every available language. The source could always be available online to anyone who wanted to participate. The works-in-progress would provide tangible projects for churches to take on. Rather than holding potentially supportive churches at a “pray, give, or go” arm’s length, open source scripture translation would invite people in to direct and tangible involvement.  Churches could support individual translations and help recruit native speakers to assist with the work.

A greater base of locals would have ownership in the project, adding a level of indigeneity to what might otherwise be seen by supporters as patronizing efforts by outsiders. Regional versions could be accommodated, allowing for hyper-local translation in linguistically-diverse areas. The process would be maintained in an ongoing fashion; translations would no longer be considered either “in progress” or “finished,” and could instead keep up with the rapid changes all languages undergo. Curation of a translation by nationals could be an indicator of the viability of an indigenous church among a people.

Some have already turned to “the crowd” for projects related to the Bible. Crossway has tracked the highlighting practices of users of its online ESV Bible to find the most commonly highlighted Psalms. Self-described conservatives are crowdsourcing a “conservative” version of the King James Bible (what they call a “translation,” I’m calling an “interpretation.”) Nevertheless, their project shows that such an undertaking is possible and productive; the conservative New Testament was produced in about a year.

Sure, there are concerns and objections  (mostly on the part of professional translators)- can we trust the translation of the public? Of unbelievers? What about militant atheists who want to vandalize the project? How can we guarantee the accuracy and integrity of a translation done by strangers? What about the languages of isolated tribes who don’t have computers or internet access?

Well, for starters, technology can make this work. Version and editions tracking can make managing such a project viable. Those nationals who are currently regarded as “translators” would become editors. Their job would be to review and approve editions and proposed changes. Users could flag questionable or unhelpful translation wherever they run into it, and links could provide alternate translations. Source material could be viewed parallel to the target translation, and reference material could be easily accessed. All of this can be done on a text-based website designed to work on mobile phones.

At the very least, a raw translation can serve as rough drafts for professional translators rather than having them start from scratch. It would be the ultimate in accountability, as translation progress would be publicly visible. It would build community among participants, instill a sense of ownership, and give churches practical handles for supporting churches.

Crowdsourcing would greatly accelerate scripture translation.

NEXT: The Seed Company, Misunderstood

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The Endangered Cultures List

PREVIOUSLY: The Words of the Word

Advocating for literacy can be a PR problem for scripture translation agencies. You see, literacy campaigns within literate cultures are widely accepted as good things. But promoting literacy among pre-literate peoples (those who do not have a written language) can smack of imperialism. Combine that with efforts toward evangelization, and the general public can really come to resent scripture translation missionaries as colonialists who insist on ruining innocent cultures with Western ideals.

To make matters worse, scripture translation has been married to the anthopological approach to missions for the last 30 years. The task-orientation of this philosophy has made translation more about the task than about the people. Consequently, its come to be seen as auxiliary to mission; something that isn’t missions itself, but helpful to actual missions. Of course, this isn’t true.

If I were leading the scripture translation group, The Seed Company, I would combat this with a broad campaign to raise awareness of the impending demise of languages and cultures. In this light, missionary scripture translation is literally saving cultures. The first thing I’d do is start a list of endangered languages and circulate it widely. I would make a theological argument for the preservation of minority cultures based on Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 16,  and show their missiological value by highlighting the uniqueness and each endangered culture.

I’d remind people that each culture’s history and perspective provides us with an opportunity to know and see God from a different angle. Tim Keller says, “The city is home to more image-of-God per square foot than anywhere else.” I would add that losing a culture is the world losing observable image-of-God. The Seed Company could champion the value of human cultural diversity. When a culture interacts with the scriptures, we can learn a lot about God. Translating the Bible isn’t about making isolated cultures more like ours, it’s about giving them a voice so that they might influence others.

Doing so would help distinguish The Seed Company from its parent organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators as the social side of missionary translation. It would have the added benefit of facilitating partnership with a broader range of organizations and might bring in public and corporate funding (and mainstream attention) for specific efforts. With such an emphasis, there’s no reason that The Seed Company couldn’t partner with groups like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in the Enduring Voices Project. This would surely accelerate Bible translation.

Furthermore, I’d cast literacy as the solution to globalization, which is both a social and spiritual problem. If we don’t translate the scripture into every human language, we’ll soon all be shopping at Walmart, drinking Starbucks lattes, and speaking the lazy, slang-infested language that passes for English these days. My campaign would feature images of the children of an isolated tribe in the Amazon wearing clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch and starving men from Somalia in line to order food at McDonald’s. That world isn’t good for anybody. Globalization is the opposite of indigeneity. Proposing a one-size-fits-all solution across cultures is social Darwinism. Indigeneity means that members of a tribe, tongue, and nation should not have to join another culture in order follow Jesus.

Scripture translation as literacy promotion and culture preservation would be a campaign that a new generation of activists (and donors) could really get behind. It would recast missionary Bible translation efforts as sociology rather than propaganda.

That’s not all I’d change if I were running The Seed Company…

NEXT: Translators Wanted