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.”
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
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.