Scare avoided

While teaching literacy in Dallas one summer in the 1980s, we attended Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, the church of Dr. Tony Evans. We were among the few whites in the congregation. Our first Sunday there, we put our two boys, then 2 and 4, into Sunday school during the worship service. After the service we went to pick them up. A very helpful man was making sure that kids got with their parents. It was pretty obvious that the only two white kids were ours! As we took them, the man looked at me and said in a surprised voice, “Your boys fit right in!” I just said, “They’re used to it.” But I thought, “Boy, did we ever unwittingly give those Sunday School teachers a scare dropping off two white boys and then disappearing.”

One of the advantages of raising our children overseas is that they are very comfortable with many different kinds of people.

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Long Service

Procession to the pond for the baptism

Procession to the pond for the baptism

Years ago in Burkina Faso, I wanted to travel to a certain area to meet with pastors about Bible translation. I learned that an Apostolic missionary was traveling to the area and got a ride with him. We set off at 6AM on a Sunday morning, arriving at the place at 9 AM. A church service had already started, so we joined it. After some enthusiastic worship, I listened to a sermon in Kassem, a language I do not understand. It was a longish sermon. Then the pastor introduced the 20 or so people to be baptized. The simple church had no baptismal. So the whole congregation set off on a 20 minute walk, well, more like a 20 minute worship procession, to a local pond which was full of cows. The pastor dispatched a child to drive them out of the water, and the baptisms began. People came out from the nearby village to watch. Then we formed a procession and worshiped our way back to the church. There we heard longish testimonies from all those baptized, more worship and another sermon. All of this took place in the Kassem language. The service lasted 6 ½ hours. Then we were then given a meal, met with the people we wanted to see, and set off for the three-hour drive back to Ouagadougou. (More photos below.)

A Women's choir with the new Moderator

A Women’s choir with the new Moderator

Then last month in the Ghanaian city of Ho, I attended a church service that ran 6 ½ hours with many choirs and several offerings. The offerings alone took almost an hour. It was so long that I heard a Ghanaian complain about it! It would have been longer, but the man presiding cut several items shorter than the congregation wanted. I had the impression that most would have been quite happy if the service had lasted 8 hours. To be fair, it was a special occasion – the induction of a new Moderator. Many stayed long afterwards for photos and to talk.

Of course, neither of these church services could rival the one where a Florida preacher preached for 53 hours and 18 minutes.

Long church services are typical in Africa. One of the issues I dealt with as a young director for Bible translation work in Burkina Faso was Western missionaries, especially families, who found it difficult to adapt to the long, sometimes boring and not infrequently irrelevant church services. I don’t mean that the services were irrelevant to the people, but they often were irrelevant to the missionary whose spiritual needs and issues can be quite different. Few missionaries, for example, derive much benefit from a sermon on the dangers of polygamy. I found myself ill-equipped to help my fellow missionaries find a way forward.

An unanticipated change of focus in my ministry was about to change things.

I had come to Africa to do Bible translation. Then I was assisting other missionaries to do translation. But God was pointing me toward helping Africans and their churches engage in translation. As I was becoming convinced that this was God’s direction, I found myself in one of those long and tedious church services. Sitting there hoping it would end soon, I looked around. The Africans in the service were paying close attention. None of them looked like they wanted the service to end. I had never heard one of them complain about the length of the service. A question popped into my head: “Could I engage effectively with African Christians about Bible translation (or anything else) while it is obvious that I don’t enjoy the way they express their faith in church?” I thought not.

I thought quite a bit about that question and its obvious answer. In the end I prayed. Well, it was more of a demand than a typical prayer. I told the Lord, “You are going to give me this! You are going to give me a deep love and appreciation for all things African and Christian!” It felt strange, making that demand . I did not intend it. It just came out that way. There was no great emotion, just a feeling that it was the right thing to want and the right way to say it.

I cannot claim to have an overwhelming preference for long African church services. I did find parts of that 6 ½-hour church service in Ho tedious and I looked at the time more than once. But, for the most part I enjoyed it. I would definitely do it again, and I almost certainly will.

Here are more photos of that long baptismal service in Burkina Faso.

The Moral Tongue

I have read several times that experiments show that people are more likely to use vulgar, profane, or insulting speech when they speak in a language other than the mother tongue. This finding does not surprise me in the least. I have always been shocked and dismayed by the ease with this educated Africans, including Christians, sprinkle their speech with vulgarities and oaths in English or French. It is obvious to me that such language does not have the emotional import for them that it has for me. I have long suspected that a good part of the reason for the absence of that emotional reaction is due to the fact that English (or French) is not their mother tongue. So the research confirmed years of personal observation.

Last year, the New York Times took this issue to a whole new level when it published a fascinating article entitled “Our Moral Tongue“. The article is about moral dilemma known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem works this way.

Trolley problemYou present a person with the following scenario and ask him or her what they would do. The person is standing on a footbridge over a trolley track. The trolley is rolling out of control and will pass underneath it in a few seconds. A short distance further on it will kill five innocent people. The only way to stop it is to push a large man onto the track. The person cannot jump onto the tracks himself as he is not big enough to stop the trolley. What would the person do?

There is an ongoing debate over which action is the most moral – kill the man to save the five, or let the trolley kill the five. The purpose of this blog post is not to solve that moral dilemma. Whatever choice you would make, everyone agrees on some things. For example, the choice people make should not be related to something ethically insignificant, such as the color of the large man’s shirt, the day of the week, the weather, what you ate for breakfast, or that language you speak. What if your choice was affected by one of those?

Researchers tweak the scenario in various ways to test peoples’ sense of right and wrong. One tweak got surprising results. Researchers presented the trolley problem to 1,000 people whose language was Spanish but who were studying English or whose mother tongue was English and they were studying Spanish. A random sample of half of each group was presented the trolley problem in their mother tongue and the other half go the problem in the language they were learning. The surprising result? In their mother tongue, only 18 percent said that they would push the large man, but when presented with the problem in the other language, 44 percent said that they would push him.

Researchers concluded that the emotional repugnance associated with pushing a man to his death was stronger when dealing with the issue in the mother tongue, while the learned language had less emotional connection to our sense of morality.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

For me, the results are not surprising, but they are illuminating. Africans wonder why African countries with a high percentage of Christians also have high levels of corruption. But their people are educated in languages other than their mother tongues (English and French mostly), and they carry out their official functions in those languages which, according to the experiment, have less connection to a sense of morality than would their mother tongue. Leading Ghanaian linguist and churchman Rev Professor Gilbert Ansre, speaking about the advantages of education in a student’s mother tongue, said:

The sense of the true, the just, the the beautiful and the holy are best inculcated in the best language of the pupil

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Wycliffe often states that Bible translations are needed in many more of the world’s languages because the people do not fully understand other languages in which there are translations. That is probably true for many people. But might there be a more important reason – we translate the Bible into the mother tongue because that is the moral tongue what connects God and his righteousness most fully to our conscience? Perhaps we translate not just for understanding, but also, and more importantly, for the connection to Jesus through the mother/moral tongue that really allows us to become more like Him.

For me, we translate the Bible into people’s mother/moral tongues because we want Christians whose faith connects to their emotional and ethical hearts, so that they can love the Lord with all their hearts, souls and minds. We translate not just because we want the Bible understood, but because we want people to connect to it in a way that produces moral, ethical and other transformation in their lives.

It seems that science may be “proving” that our first language, which some call our mother tongue and which we call the heart language, is an issue missionaries and churches cannot ignore if they want faith to go deep.


In Ghana and many other parts of West Africa, every child is given a name according to the day of the week on which they are born. Here are the seven boys’ and seven girls’ names corresponding to each day of the week.

Monday boy: Kwadwo, girl: Adwoa
Tuesday boy: Kwabena, girl: Abenaa
Wednesday boy: Kwaku, girl: Akua,Akuba
Thursday boy: Yaw, girl: Yaa
Friday boy: Kofi, girl: Afua
Saturday boy: Kwame, girl: Amma
Sunday boy: Kwasi, girl: Akosua

Until I went to Africa, I did not know that I am a Kwabena. I had to look that up on the calendar on my phone, in a hurry, during a church service.

Saturday bornsAmong the Akan people of Ghana, a child is given several names, in rare cases up to 10, but 4 is not unusual. One of those names is the day of the week on which they were born. Some people might not know their birth date, and in times past they might not even be sure of the year, but everyone knows the day of the week on which they were born. We have a friend in Nigeria whose name is Friday, in his language. One of my favorite Ghanaian Christian authors shares my day name – Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu.

Churches use these groupings in various ways including raising funds for projects. I took this photo of a banner at a church in the city of Ho. It is announcing that all those born on Saturday (Saturday borns) in the church have undertaken a project to raise funds for a chapel for the church’s Sunday School. I have been in church services where the congregation was asked to sit in “day born” groups. So I went and sat with everyone else who had been born on a Tuesday.

Thurs and Fri offering basketsSpecial offerings can be the occasion for competition between “day borns”. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. The ushers set up offering baskets at the front of the church, each labeled with a day of the week. Everyone danced to the front in vibrant worship and put their offering in the basked corresponding to the day of the week on which they were born. The ushers then busied themselves counting the amount in each basket. Later in the service, the results were announced.

The Wednesday-borns, the Kwakus and Akuas, had given the most followed by the Friday-borns, then Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. The Monday-borns gave the least – about 1/5th of that the Wednesday-borns gave.

You can find the day of the week you were born on here: