Cloth and meaning

In West Africa, the cloth you wear carries a message, but not at all in the same way that it might in the USA..

Assistants to a seamstress

Assistants to a seamstress

While some people wear western cloth and western-style clothes, most people wear cloth made in their country, or a neighboring country. It is light weight cotton, printed in bright colors and sold in stores and even little open-air markets in rural areas. New designs are constantly coming out. When they do, they often acquire a name packed with meaning. Few clothes are ready-made. The cotton cloth is quite inexpensive. Plus, there are tailors and seamstresses everywhere. You can hear the sound of their treadle machines (from China) in the most remote areas. Tailor-made clothes are cheaper than store-bought! So men and women pick out a cloth they like and have it sewn into a design they like.

Some people will choose cloth specifically because of the meaning of its name. So a young woman vying with another for a young man might get an outfit made of cloth named “I will win over my rival.” Her friends and family, and more importantly her rival for the young man, will know exactly what that means and to whom it applies. I learned this when a neighbor pointed out the meaning of a cloth I had just bought for my wife. The colors and design were nice, but the meaning did not fit. (I cannot count the number of things I have learned about Africa by making a mistake!)

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

The designers working for the textile manufacturers are constantly at work. If you are willing to pay for a modest-sized run, you can work with one of their designers to produce a design you like. So a company, or a church, or a civic organization can have cloth made with its logo. Because cloth has meaning and because you can have it made with your logo, it can be used for advertisement. You can have thousands of people walking around displaying advertizing your brand, your church or your organization.

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Even people who do not know how to read can identify which cloth is associated with which church or other organization. People like to buy the cloth associated with their church or civic group. So the women’s organization for a church denomination might have cloth made and all the ladies who have the means will have an outfit made of it. It shows solidarity. Because of this, having cloth made for your organization is a source of revenue. The textile manufacturer will sell you a whole run at wholesale and you resell it to your members at retail. They pay no more than for any other cloth, and you get money for your activities.

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

The Ghanaian organization I work for is celebrating its jubilee year. Of course, this could not be commemorated without 50th anniversary cloth. Staff worked with the textile company to produce two potential designs which were shown to the staff and a winner selected. All of the staff bought the cloth. At the first 50th anniversary celebration, people were dressed in almost as many different styles as there were people, but made of the same cloth. Over the coming months people who want to show their appreciation for GILLBT’s work in Bible translation and literacy in Ghanaian languages will buy the cloth and have outfits made so that they too can make a public statement of support.


I have had fun imaging what might happen if we did the same in the US. One might see Republican and Democratic party cloth next to each other in the checkout line.

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John Agama

Who spreads the Gospel to places where it has never been? Missionaries, right? Actually…

Protrait of John Agama

Portrait of John Agama painted by the son of a missionary. it is hanging in John Agama Hall on the GILLBT Training Centre in Tamale, Ghana

This is a portrait of John Agama, now deceased. He was the national chief of police in Ghana for a number of years. He was also a leading Christian and was nationally known as such. While the Gospel was preached in the southern parts of Ghana, from which John came, even from the early 1800s, in the mid 1900s it still had not penetrated into the northern parts. This concerned him.

So along with some other leading Ghanaian Christians including William Ofori Atta, they invited Wycliffe members to come to Ghana and they asked them to concentrate their Bible translation efforts in the north, which they did. The first came in 1962, exactly 50 years ago. I could tell a similar story for other countries where the work of Bible translation got started through the initiative of national Christians. Missionaries came and led the work, but the vision for it came from within the country and nationals did much of the real translation with the training and quality control supplied by specially trained missionaries.

John Agama

John Agama

We see a similar story for one of the largest churches in Ghana, The Church of Pentecost. It was started by James McKoewn and has grown to be one of the largest churches in Ghana. It has been self-supporting from the beginning. It now runs schools, clinics and even a university which it funded only with money it raised in Ghana. It has outreach in at least 80 countries worldwide, all funded from within Ghana. James Mckoewn as the only missionary it ever had. All of the other pastors and evangelists have been Ghanaian. James McKoewn did a marvelous work, but he only did a very small percentage of the evangelism and discipleship himself. He concentrated on mentoring a small group of Ghanaians who evangelized and each developed their own small group to mentor. We see the missionary, McKoewn, but the majority of evangelism and discipleship was done by Ghanaians and they carried the vision long after Mckeown was gone.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 James McKoewn center and his brother on the right. Courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

I met a man in the town of Tamale whose father was the first pastor from the Konkomba people. The Konkomba resisted the Gospel for many years. As the first pastor this man was persecuted, reviled and rejected. Threats were made against him. The man I spoke to remembered growing up in a household that the community at large rejected and insulted. They were though to be traitors. People believed that by rejecting traditional religion they were putting the community at risk from spiritual forces. So they were thought to be a threat that needed to be expunged. But his father stuck to it.

Some of us read and are inspired by missionary biographies. That is great. Unfortunately, there are many, many untold stories of their first converts who suffered as much or more and who did more to champion the Gospel than the missionary and for a longer time. Not that the missionary failed, but by the nature of things the nationals had more impact and stayed longer.

Today in northern Ghana there are many places where the Bible has been translated and the missionary has left. But dedicated Ghanaians are doggedly, without pay even though they have little themselves, running night literacy classes so that their fellow believers can read the Bible and even so that non-believers can have the benefits of knowing how to read. They do this year after year. There is no missionary to tell the story to those who sent out the missionary. But the story will be known in eternity. It will, I believe, be shouted from the rooftops.

One of the lessons of these observations is that missionary impact is extended greatly when the skills and vision are passed on to nationals. Asking a missionary how many converts he has made is okay, but it might also push the missionary to do more primary evangelism to please his supporters, but long-term and sustained impact will come from mentoring and training a small group of local people.

What priority for Bible translation

If you like my light and funny posts. Sorry, this is not one of them.

Bible translation is a costly and time-consuming endeavor. So, it is a very good thing to ask what priority it should have. Maybe there are other activities that would better advance the Gospel. So, who would know the answer to a question like that? It would have to be someone who knows about all kinds of Christian missions so that they could be compared. There is more than one place we could go to find such a person. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism is a pretty good one.  They get comments from Christians around the world.

A guy working with them, Paul  Eshleman, wrote an Advance Paper for their 2010 worldwide meeting. He looked at the parts of the world that are unreached (unevangelized) and the most common kinds of mission: evangelism, discipleship, church planting, compassion ministries (such as for droughts, earthquakes, etc.), and so on. He came up with the top ten missions activities needed to evangelize the world. Here they are.

1. Scripture translation, distribution and use
2. Engaging unreached people groups
3. Evangelism
4. Reaching oral learners
5. Church planting and presence
6. Prayer and unity
7. Compassionate ministry
8. Confession and repentance
9. Mobilization of people and resources
10. Research, mapping and reporting

Do not mistake the opinion of this expert for God’s leading. God will call some people to give to or serve in the lowest priority items on this list, or in ministries that are not on the list. The right way to use this list is to pray over it and ask God what he wants you to do with the information. If you already support Bible translation or another of the ministries in this list, be encouraged!

For those of you who enjoy a bit of analysis, here is a nice graphic from the paper showing how various kinds of ministry fit together:

You can read Mr. Eshleman’s Advance Paper at:


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God’s time is best

I was attracted to the bright colors of this roadside booth painted like a Ghana flag. I didn’t really notice the words painted on it until I was looking at my photos of the day at home.

Sign - God's time is best - don't give up yet lottery booth

Lottery booth in Accra, Ghana

Ghanaians express their religion and feelings about life in sayings they put on their businesses, taxi windows, and more. In this case, the owner has pressed his religious beliefs into a commercial use. You see, this is a private booth which sells tickets to the national lottery! It is obviously in the economic interests of the owner that the buyers “don’t give up yet” and that they keep hoping for “God’s time”, which would be when they will win the lottery, of course.

It is easy to criticize this commercialization of religious belief, and even some missionaries get stuck in critique mode.  In this case, if I am honest I have to admit that I tend to bend my beliefs to suit my needs and wants. It really is no small matter to let our beliefs frame our economic survival and not the other way around.

Besides, the statement “God’s time is best” almost surely expresses genuine sentiments, especially judging by the other businesses sporting the same words.


God's time is best grocery shop

God's time is best grocery shop

God's time is best clothing boutique

God's time is best clothing boutique

Roseflower fashion shop

Roseflower fashion shop - God's time is best


Why nationals

You’ve heard these:

  • • It costs less
  • • They already know the language
  • • They already know the culture
  • • There are not enough missionaries from the West
  • • There are more and more nationals with good training

I could add to this list of reasons why we should work more with nationals and not send missionaries. It is a pretty impressive list of reasons. I agree with all of them, although some are overstated or simplistic.

In spite of the good reasons, I still find the list unsatisfactory. It is very pragmatic. Nothing wrong with being pragmatic, but missions is about vision – God’s vision – for this world. It is much more than just pragmatic. If our decisions were only pragmatic no missionary would spend a decade or more in a small minority to translate the Bible. That kind of action flows out of something much deeper than a need to be pragmatic.

So, a list of pragmatic reasons for a mission strategy leaves me hungry. I need something more.

So let me propose two reasons for working with nationals which are based in what the Bible says. (I could use a fancy word and say that they are theological reasons.)

First, God is calling them. If one takes the time to talk to some of the nationals involved in Bible translation across Africa one will quickly find evidence of God’s hand in their lives. The first time this dawned on me was many years ago. A national told me how he became a Christian in middle school, started to feel a call to Christian service in secondary school, ended up studying linguistics at university wondering why God pushed him through that door, worked for a while in adult literacy and then studied theology. God had led him to the perfect preparation for Bible translation without him knowing it. I had to admit that God’s hand in his preparation was clear. Other Africans involved in Bible translation have similar, if sometimes less dramatic stories to tell. You can read one in detail in an article about Mozambican Bonofacio Paulo in Word Alive magazine.

Besides, we have made mistakes when we have involved Africans because it cost less and they already knew the language without asking ourselves or them about their motivation. It is better to follow where God is leading, even if it costs a bit more. Being pragmatic has its limits.

You might find my second non-pragmatic reason is less convincing. It took me years to be convinced by it myself. That is probably because I come from an individualistic culture (Southern Oregon in the USA) and I did not grow up in a major denomination. Most of my early experience was with independent Bible Churches and a church loosely attached to a smaller denomination. That left me with an understanding of the church which I have come to see as deficient. Not wrong, just not all that it should have been.

Where there is a church, we need to involve national Christians, especially church leaders, in decision-making because they represent Christ’s church. Now, there are false churches, corrupt churches, weak churches and churches with all kinds of other defects. So one needs to be wise and discerning. But where there is a group of true believers and they have leadership they respect, it necessary to assume that God will speak helpfully through them. I have been disappointed when operating under that assumption, but far more often I have found godly and wise counsel in addition to enriching my life. Even where the advice was bad, I believe that I honored God by working with his church. In the cases where I have been disappointed, I have often found that sticking with it for a while (2-3 years) turned that situation around.

So, instead of looking primarily at pragmatic issues like cost, I now first look to see what churches God has in the situation that I might consult and second who He might be calling. The pragmatic stuff follows, rather than leads.



Ghana Oregon Size comparisonAfter 8 months we are starting to feel like we understand Ghana a bit. Ghana is just slightly smaller than our home state of Oregon. Both border and ocean. That is about the end of the list of similarities. For one thing, Oregon has a population of less than 4 million according to the 2010 census. But Ghana has a population of over 24 million. Also, the largest city in Oregon, Portland, has a population of less than 600,000. Ghana has a city with almost three times than number (Accra with 1.7 million) and another with more than twice (Kumasi with 1.5 million). Like most countries in Africa, Ghana has “linguistic diversity”, in other words, “many languages”

The Ethnologue, the definitive listing of the world’s languages recognized by the International Standards Organization, lists 79 languages for Ghana.

Langauge Map of GhanaHere is a language map of Ghana. The diversity of languages poses some challenges. Those of you in Oregon can imagine what Oregon would be like if 79 languages were spoken there. If everywhere you went you ran into a different language. How does a country run an education system? Young children entering school in some areas may not speak the language of their teacher, or any teacher.

The churches also have to cope with all the languages. Many have concluded that people cannot live out their faith without the Word in their language.

But there is good news about that which I will save for a future post.