Shaking hands all around

A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

In Burkina Faso where we worked for many years, it is customary to shake hands all around when coming into a room full of people, unless it is a big room with lots of people, of course.

We had just returned to the US from Burkina Faso. On our first Sunday home we were late for Church, Sunday school actually. I walked into a class which had already started. These were about a dozen people in chairs in a circle. My automated Burkina Faso reaction kicked in. I started going around the circle shaking everyone’s hand and softly saying hi. About 1/3rd of the way around the circle, it dawned on me that the class had stopped and everyone was giving a very perplexed look. I wondered, do I keep going, stop, or something else?

Oops, I thought, cross culture adjustment got me again.

Insufficient Information

Strategic planning cloudI have been involved in strategic planning for Bible translation on and off for years. The process is straightforward. One of the steps is to gather information such as the opportunities and challenges in the environment. For example, one of the challenges facing Bible translation in Africa is the high numbers of people who can’t read. A fact like that must have a response in the strategic plan; such as a literacy program, doing audio recordings, or both.

So in theory, a strategic plan is built on information. But often, some information is missing. There might not be a reliable source for the information, or different sources might give quite different information for the same item. So the bedrock of strategic planning – good information – is missing.

But we still have to make a decision, we are here to do something, so we must act with or without information. (Going forward without a plan actually means that you are going forward with an implicit plan – one you haven’t thought about, examined, prayed over or subjected to the scrutiny of others.)

There are several ways forward in this situation:

  • Make getting the needed information, a priority item in the strategic plan.
  • Make sure that the plan follows God’s character, is just and fair, and reflects God’s action and mission in the world.
  • Check the plan against self-interest.
Strategic planning in Congo in 2003

Strategic planning in Congo in 2003

Even committed missionaries or nationals can make a plan that is in their personal interest. For example, they might adopt a plan because it is likely to cost them less money, attract funding, or because it has the kinds of activities they prefer.

You might have noticed that we need to do the last two items in the list even if we have information. That is true, but solid information tends to marginalize self-interest, making it more difficult to surface. Say we have information that the people for whom we are translating have high numbers of people who can’t read.

Planning for the komo language in Congo, 2003

Planning for the komo language in Congo, 2003

When that fact is on the table for everyone to see and discuss, that makes it harder for someone who find literacy unappealing say that literacy is not needed. It can still happen, of course. But in the absence of information about literacy, team members who find literacy unappealing can consciously or unconsciously write a plan with little or no literacy. I use literacy as an example. The problem can be in an area.

In planning, lack of information can present an opportunity to test our commitment to working in ways that help others however that affects us. It may seem odd to see that kind of challenge can crop up in strategic planning, but in my experience the strategic planning process is almost always an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Languages matter

It may seem like the smaller languages of the world don’t have any role to play in global events or trends. The interest that missionaries and indigenous groups have in them might seem altruistic and important for matters of faith, but of little import to the grand issues of our day. But this impression is false.

Increasingly, groups that function primarily in a relatively small language such as Hausa or Pashtun, are having national and international impact. These groups use these languages to recruit, to spread their message, and to create a sense of unity and identity. In their homelands, few people know English. So presenting an alternate message in their homelands only in English serves little purpose. But, it is possible to present a different message in the language of the people. In fact, if people in their areas are to have access to different ideas, it will be through the medium of the language(s) they use.

Geopolitics and language - cloudHearts and minds can only be touched through language, specifically the language that goes deep into their hearts and minds – the heart language or mother tongue.

When the two superpowers dominated geopolitics, a handful of languages might have been enough to address the geopolitical ideological environment. Not any more.


Baby on back of choir memberChoirs in African churches often differ from choirs in the US. For one thing, they often function as small groups for Bible study and mutual support. But the aspects I want to focus on today is that they often sing in African languages and they very often write their own songs, sometimes regularly introducing new songs. Coupled with high rates of illiteracy found in many parts of rural Africa, choirs can be an important way to get the Bible to people.

I’m reading a book about theology and Christian life in Africa. Each chapter has a different author, all African. They write about what Christians in Africa believe and how that affect (or not) their behavior. Here’s a passage from a chapter written by a church leader from Mali:

Theologie et vie chretienne en AfriqueIn all the churches, the availability of the Bible or New Testament is a source of inspiration for composers of Christian songs in their mother tongues. Whereas the first missionaries translated their English or French hymns into Malian languages, Malian Christians composed their own hymns using their musical styles. The songs composed by Christians who do not read the bible are full of moral exhortations which differ only from the songs of non-Christians because the name of Jesus appears a few times. On the other hand, composers who read the Bible are a minority, but they write songs enriched by the Word of God.

Choir_4This is another example of how the translation of the Bible into the language of the people enhances faith and people’s experience of church.

As most people memorize songs more quickly and easily than we memorize plain text, many people memorize what they sing in church. What a pity if those songs don’t have much content!

But if the songs are full of Bible content, then that content gets into people minds and from their into their hearts. So, to get new translations used, we target choirs, choir directors and people who write songs for churches. We might hold a small workshop for them, for example. They idea is to encourage them to write based on the Scripture in their language.

choir with handkerchiefsAs they sing these songs, and often the congregation sings along,  the Bible will get into the heads of people who may never learn to read. That’s important because of high rates of illiteracy in Africa, especially in rural Africa.

Worship in churches in Africa is known for its enthusiasm and vibrancy. Those are good. When the words of the songs are full of Bible content, then worship will have as much substance and truth as it has vivacity  – the best of both.