Building where it all began

The worldwide Pentecostal movement started on Azusa street in Los Angeles. It was led by the son of a former slave: William J. Seymour who studied theology by sitting in the hallway outside the classroom because segregation laws forbade him entering the classroom. Immediately, the racial and ethnic makeup of the group began diversifying. While some Pentecostal denominations segregated, the movement has remained very diverse. American Pentecostals are much more likely to worship in diverse congregations and have diverse friends than most any other religious grouping – far more than American Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians. This is ironic because pentecostalism is considered intellectually inferior to those forms of Christianity, and it is predominantly working class unlike its white collar Christian cousins.

Also, pentecostalism has spread all over the world becoming at home in many cultures and languages. In Africa, it was often the Pentecostal churches who first allowed local art forms into worship. This included local music styles, local instruments and local dance. They allowed this at a time when more “respectable” forms of Christianity such as the mainline denominations opposed those things. Pentecostal churches often quickly promoted local Christians to positions of leadership. In fact, many African Pentecostal churches were founded by men with low levels of education. They nevertheless became very successful, growing to be as big as or bigger than churches with highly educated leadership.

Pentecostalism has most often been an unsophisticated, working class, and theologically conservative Christian Movement. It would not say that diversity is one of its greatest values, yet it might be the most open, diverse and inclusive modern movement of any kind, religious or not. It beats more sophisticated Christian churches at manifesting their own professed values. It makes one wonder if the road to real diversity is not where the proponents of diversity think it is.

Settling in

Many people planning a missionary career change their minds after the first two or three years. Those are the hardest years because there is so much adaptation. It becomes easier to go back home.

But after the hard work of learning the culture and getting comfortable with it has happened, then it’s easier to stay. If a career missionary lasts 4 years, then they’ll stay many years.

But after enough years go by, the missionary can become more comfortable in his place of ministry than back home in his own country. At that point it can become easier to stay in one’s place of ministry and harder to move back home. At this point, the missionary may stay even though their health is failing or faithful local people are capable of carrying on the ministry. The issue ceases to be following God, but rather living in a place where one feels comfortable.

I’ve heard missionaries say this directly and shockingly: “I like it here”, “This feels like home” but not “I feel like God wants me here.”

Dad’s desire

When I first went to work in Africa, I was gone for 3-5 years at a time. Turnaround time for a letter was 4-6 weeks. Phone calls were expensive, so we called home once a year with a stopwatch running. I was really absent.

When we returned home for brief stays, my dad would want to see us of course, and he sure enjoyed his grandchildren. But when we were going back he would pray God’s blessings on us and encourage us to follow him.

He often said that all he really wanted was for his children to follow the Lord. He said that again the day before he passed away. He got great joy and satisfaction from knowing that I was following the Lord. That was enough for him. If I were to tell him I was going to establish a mission at the gates of hell and take his grandsons, he would bless me for following God.

He would rather have his children and grandchildren far away if that’s what they had to do to follow the Lord. It wasn’t just that he wanted his children to follow the Lord, nor that he wanted that the most. It was more than that. For him, having a child following the Lord was enough. It was so satisfying that it filled the void left when we went away giving him joy when he thought of us.


A few years back, I was talking to a pastor in Ghana about his vision for the Presbyterian churches in his area. Later, as I looked at the notes I had made of our time together, I noticed that his desires were both universal and local.

He wanted worship services in local languages and Bible studies using the Bibles in those languages. He knew that many people in the area considered church foreign. He knew that using local languages would erode that perception. In short, he wanted the churches to be considered part of the local communities. This part of his vision was local.

But he also wanted the believers who gathered in the churches to feel that they are part of something bigger than their community. He wanted them to feel connected to other Presbyterians in Ghana and beyond and to believers around the world. This part of his vision was global.

During this time I read an article about Brexit – the UK leaving the European Union. Most voters in the UK voted to leave the EU because they wanted something more local. Others voted against because they want to be part of something larger. I see this local versus global tension in many places.

The Christians in smaller languages value the Bible in their languages for a variety of reasons, including that it gives a local expression of the faith they share with others worldwide. The Bible in their language affirms both the ethnic and linguistic identity God gave them and their belonging to God’s people worldwide. Most other things turn the local-global issue into a tension or even a fight, but not the Bible in one’s language. I remember a village chief holding high the first copy of the New Testament in his language and practically shouting “We are now part of the people of God!” He never said that if the Bible in English.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10

So many languages

There are 7,151 languages spoken in the world today. You might think that this number is just one of many dubious statistics that come you way. I wouldn’t blame you. But the number of 7,151 comes from the Ethnologue which is recognized by the International Standards Organization as an official list of the languages of the world. The Ethnologue supplies the codes your phone and computer use to properly display Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Arabic, Hebrew and all other languages. Governments, tech companies, schools, researchers and many more rely on it and find it reliable.

But you might ask if there are really that many languages or if we are just counting dialects. The ethnologue lists dialects too, at least many of them. They number at least ten times more than the 7,000+ languages. For example, English as it is spoken in the UK and North America is listed as one language with many dialects.

Or you might ask if these languages are related to each other. They are – the same way English, German, Romanian, Hindi and Pashtune are related to each other. Actually, those languages are very closely related. But being related does not mean that by understanding one you can understand another.

People have long asked why there are so many languages. There are several theories, but no one really knows. I think that it has to do with identity. For many people their language is part of their identity or status, so they jealously guard it. A bit like English teachers who rail against bad English to preserve what they consider the real thing. Whatever theory is right, we have many languages.

You may have heard that many languages are dying. That’s true. UNESCO says that 2,500 are endangered. Even if all of them became extinct, we would still be left with about 4,500 languages. That’s still a lot of languages


When Christianity first came to Africa, it was often opposed.

The widespread acceptance of Christianity we find in Africa today can hide the fact that early on there was lots of hostility and resistance toward Christianity. One source of opposition was traditional authorities – chiefs and kings. Chiefs and kings are usually closely associated with traditional religion, so some conflict between them and missionaries was inevitable.

Over time, many chiefs and kings in Africa became more open to Christianity. But they were often attracted to translations of the Bible in their languages even before they were interested in Christianity. There are several reasons for this:
– Virtually all of the languages were unwritten and missionaries were the first to write them. Because this elevated the status of the language, Chiefs – custodians of the culture and language – found it interesting. They found themselves promoting this aspect of missionary endeavor.
– When missionaries engaged in literacy, it gave people a practical skill that elevated them. Many Chiefs promoted and gave their blessing.
– Chiefs often see the development of an alphabet and literacy as valuable development efforts that help their people cope with “modern” life.

In my experience, nowadays chiefs are almost always supportive of translation. With a little effort, many will even raise money for translation and literacy including giving from their own pockets, or they will encourage their people to read the translation.

Authentic people

One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.

Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.

Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.

It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.

Who can understand?

I spent my life in Bible translation into smaller languages because I believe in the power of God’s Word. I also believe that ordinary people can understand the Bible. This is not just a theoretical belief. I’ve actually seen uneducated, rural Africans read the Bible and understand it well. I’ve even seen cases where highly-qualified theologians have discovered that rural, uneducated Africans have developed very helpful understandings of topics like chronic ethnic conflicts from reading the Bible. Professional theologians missed those points but uneducated Africans found them.

God gave us his Spirit to guide us into truth. He helps us understand as we read. But to hear some talk, you’d think that the Spirit is no help at all, and that only experts using historical-critical approaches can really understand the Bible. One of the first people to translate the Bible into English was William Tyndale. Even though he was a highly trained scholar, he had complete confidence that ordinary people could understand even saying that ordinary “plowboys” would understand.

In our day, professor N T Wright has written that the Bible was not written under God’s inspiration so that it can only be properly understood by savvy, late twentieth century scholars. I agree. I’m against approaches to understanding the Bible that concentrate interpretive power in the hands of a few. Rather, I’m for putting that power in everyone’s hands.

Call to missions

I grew up in a church where the idea of a call to missions was promoted. The idea was that certain people heard from God a call to be a missionary. My own experience was a bit different. Knowing how important the Bible was iny own life, I was easily convinced that it would be a very good thing to spend my life giving the Bible to others by translating it into their languages.

Later, after a few years on the missions field, I encountered another understanding of a call to missions. Some missionaries would resist getting involved in some programs or activities, saying “I’m not called to that.” For example, the church in a place where we were translating would say that they wanted more literacy but the missionary would say that they weren’t called to Literacy.

It appears to me that some missionaries understand their call to missions in a very specific way. They often developed their understanding long before leaving their own country. When the realities of the place they were translating didn’t fit with their understanding of their call, they denied those realities or said that they were someone else’s responsibility by saying they weren’t called to deal with those realities.

It looked to me like they were constantly trying to shoehorn ministry according to their call into a place where it didn’t fit. They couldn’t consider that they had perhaps not fully understood their call. I remember a leading Christian in one of the countries where we worked explaining this phenomenon very well, saying that new missionaries often come with a fully developed idea of their ministry before they knew anything about the place they were going, and then they resist any changes to their conception based on the realities on the ground.

Some people go overboard trying to conform to their context, and others do the opposite trying to rigidly maintain their call. The former effectively abandon their call while the latter effectively allow no space for the voice of the Spirit.

Obvious first

If your car keys are missing, it’s more likely that they’re on your dresser than in another state. We look in the obvious places first. It makes sense. We solve problems the same way – by looking for the obvious solutions first. When the translation of the Bible into a language fails to progress well, we looked for the most obvious problems first. Were the translators well-trained? Did they have adequate resources? How’s their morale?

But things change when dealing with a perennial problem – one that’s been around for a while. In such cases, all the obvious solutions have already been tried. That doesn’t keep us from trying them again, however. I remember the moment that it dawned on me that we were trying the usual solutions on a translation program that had been under-performing for two decades. Church leaders were saying that something had to change but we were just trying again what had been tried several times before. The obvious was obviously not a solution.

The solution had to be in something untried, something different, something not obvious at all. The problem was that anything untried is also untested. We don’t know if it will work. But is that really a problem when all the tried and tested solutions have failed? Isn’t what might not work better than what has already failed?

I got some inspiration idfor this blog from Seth Godin Obvious. Places First