Photo: Marc Ewell

Photo: Marc Ewell

In 1910, a major world missions conference was held in Edinburgh. Those present held hope for evangelism among the followers of eastern religions. The well-developed philosophical positions of those religions appealed to Europeans and American academics. Not a few Westerners romanticized Hinduism as a new world religion. We all know the attraction of eastern gurus in some segments of US society.

In contrast to the appeal of eastern religions, the missions conference came to the conclusion that the “primitive” religions of Africa would prove difficult ground for Christian faith. Many Western Christians find the masks, face paints, and rituals of African religion scary, barbaric and primitive – something so different from Christian faith that it could not possibly be fertile ground for evangelism – a religion that held no redeeming qualities such as eastern religions seemed to have.

Africa’s traditional religions are called “primal” religions by theologians, and anthropologists. Those at the conference saw Africa’s primal religions as rocky ground where the seed of the Gospel would struggle to survive, while the Eastern would produce a bountiful crop. It has not turned out that way; not at all.

Chart evangelicals in AfricaIn 1910 when the missions conference was held, only 9% of Africans were Christian. Furthermore, almost all of those were in just four of the many countries in Africa: Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Madagascar. Early missionary efforts had not borne fruit. But by 1970 almost 40% of Africans professed Christian faith. That number is for all kinds of “Christians”. What is more astounding is the growth of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Africa, as you can see in the graph.

Meanwhile, evangelism among those following eastern religions has been very slow.

But this is not just an African phenomenon. In the last century Christianity has spread the fastest among peoples who follow what theologians and anthropologists call “primal” religions. This is true in Africa and around the world. It seems that people who follow the so-called “primal” religions are the best prepared by their traditional religion for Christian faith. In any case, the conclusions of that missions conference in 1910 were way off the mark.

God has a delicious way of turning the human wisdom into obvious folly. In this case, he has chosen those whose religious practices we considered primitive, vile, even barbaric, and poured out his Spirit on them. Paul wrote about things like this.

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Cor 1:27)

Not only has Christianity flourished in Africa, churches in Africa are now sending out missionaries. Professor J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana has written:

“It is indeed a surprise that Africa, associated in Western minds with poverty, deprivation, squalor, political instability and barbarism, should emerge in God’s purposes as a leading player in Christian mission, including missions to the West.”

I believe that the confounding of the powerful and sophisticated is in full swing. But sometimes missionaries seem to miss it. I wonder if some mission activity in Africa goes on as though a major movement of God were not happening. The kind of growth in numbers, depth and capacity we see in the church in Africa must be matched by an equally significant shift in how we do translation here. Otherwise we effectively deny by our actions the marvelous thing God is doing. Let’s not make the blunder of painting our African brothers and sisters with the same mistaken brush used in 1910. Our methods and goals need to align with and celebrate the awe-inspiring movement of God’s Spirit among people who are coming out of primal religions.

Multiethnic churches are the norm

Over 60 languages are spoken in Ghana. That means more than just 60 languages. It means that many different people groups, each with their own ethnic identity and religious beliefs. You might imagine that each of those people groups lived in its own area with nice, discrete boundaries. The reality is much more complex.

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

People groups often overlap, at least near the borders of each group. Many people from nearby areas, or even far away, move into small towns, creating a rich tapestry of ethnic identities. On Sundays, churches deal with believers from multiple languages and with multiple traditional beliefs. The idea that each language group has its own area where people worship in their own language is still accurate in some places, but its is fast becoming the exception.

In the photo, taken at a church conference in Indonesia, the Scriptures are for sale in 13 different languages, which probably does not cover all the languages of the Christians at the conference. In Africa, the meetings at such conference is conducted in a national or regional language. Delegates are chosen who speak that language.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Figuring out how to be one, unified church while making sure that everyone hears the message in a language they fully understand is a challenge. There are many approaches, such as having more than one service each in a different language, then once a month having a unified service in a regional or national language. Some churches conduct services in two languages. But translating everything is time consuming plus it is difficult for listeners to stay focused when every other sentence is in a language they don’t understand. Others have church services in a regional or national language, and home Bible studies in local languages. There are no easy answers. But some ignore the issue altogether and do everything in a regional or official language. But that leaves those most disadvantaged in that language to fend for themselves. It is hard to imagine how a person can become a thriving Christian while understanding only a fraction of the Bible and the teaching and preaching in church.

Engaging the church in Africa in dialog about its multilingual environment is an important part of seeing that Bible translation in African languages are used to their full potential. Bringing new Christians still steeped in their traditional religion into a full understanding of their faith and into joyful walk with Christ is a stiff challenge if the language of the church leaves them out. Effectively addressing the complex linguistic situation facing the church is crucial to a healthy future for the church in Africa, one of the world’s largest.

That is why one of our strategic goals is that “use of the translations in the mother tongue will be sustained and growing”. To that end, I am one of a small team working to organize a conference of church leaders in November which will raise awareness of this issue and try to find ways to address it.

Slow motion Pentecost

define Pentecost - Google SearchThis coming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates something strange that happened at the Jewish festival of Pentecost two millennia ago. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit led them to speak. Many people from every country in the world were living Jerusalem. When they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed, and said:

“Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee? Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.” Act 2:4-11 CEV

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

This phenomenon, of people “hearing everything in their own languages”, has been accelerating. In 1900, The whole Bible or some part of it had been translated and published in 530 languages. By 2000, that had increased to 2,298. That is an increase of 1,768 languages – a rate of a new languages every three weeks for 100 years! Since the year 2000, the rate has increased further, jumping from 27 languages per year to over 70,” which amounts to a new language every 5 days!

That is not as dramatic as if it happened on the same day and at the same place, like it did at the festival of Pentecost. Instead, today we have a slower-motion Pentecost. But, unlike the event being commemorated this Sunday, it is spread over the world. What the new, slow-motion Pentecost lacks in immediacy, it gains in geographic spread.

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

But the real wonder is not the number of languages. It is the impact the translations are having. On the broadest level, we have the assessment of Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako:

African Christianity today is inconceivable apart from the existence of the Bible in African indigenous languages.

Then we have the assessment of leaders about what is happening in their areas where translation is being done:

“Some people are gradually shifting away from the evil aspects of the culture,” Lefa language of Cameroon

“Drunkenness is reduced and people cooperate together better. Now my job is easier.” Unbelieving community leader in Ghana

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

At the narrowest level, we have the statement of people.

 “I have read many times the book of Jonah, where God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh. But when I read this in [my language] it is like God is standing right next to me and speaking to me! It makes me realize that God is close, and that he speaks directly to people.”
Tanzanian man

“I came to know the Lord four years ago, but I was still living with my idols. No one in the church had taught me that I needed to abandon them completely. My pastor preached many sermons but had never spoken of that. Listening to Scriptures, I heard Jesus say you cannot serve two masters. In Thessalonians, I heard how people left behind their idols to serve the living and true God. I called the pastor and explained my situation to him. He was very upset that he had not taught me about such things. That day I repented and handed over my idols. Since that time, I have had peace in my heart.”
Man from southeast Mali

“I used to lie, slander, and quarrel. That has changed.”
A young mother in Mali

At that festival of Pentecost many years ago, they were surprised, excited and amazed at “hearing everything in their own languages.” The slow-motion Pentecost of our day calls for that same response. It’s time to be surprised and amazed and to get excited.

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A century of doing without

Centenary celebration (photo B. Modibale)

Centenary celebration (photo B. Modibale)

When Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked with a group of churches named CECCA/16. They were founded by the intrepid C. T. Studd. Those churches just celebrated their 100th anniversary. It was a big celebration. In keeping with my last post, I want to ask if you think of Africa as having churches 100 years old, or more? But that is not my subject today.

Isiro in CongoCECCA/16 is a regional church in the northeast of Congo in an area with the town of Isiro at its center. There are perhaps a dozen languages in the heart of the area covered by CECCA/16. The thing is, none of them have a useable translation of the Bible. The small minority who know French, the official language, use the Bible in French. Some others know regional languages spoken in the area – Swahili and Lingala – and there are Bibles in those. But none of the 250,000 members of CECCA/16 churches have a Bible in their heart language.

Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)

Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)

Imagine if that were you. Imagine that you grew up in a church where the Bible was something you only heard in a language you did not know, or only mastered partially. Imagine that this was the case for all your family, all your friends, and all your neighbors. Imagine that access to the Bible was limited to a small elite in your church; that Bible studies were impossible. If you are a woman, you would be especially cut off from God’s Word because a lower percentage of women are sent to school. Then imagine that you live in this situation from your first memories, through raising your children, into your old age. Imagine that you see your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews growing into adulthood and even old age in that same situation.

CECCA/16 church members

CECCA/16 church members

Being a community of believers for 100 years without the Bible in anyone’s heart language – what is that like? Wouldn’t a person come to expect that the Bible is only for the elite? That it is normal that the only way one can know it is through what another person says about it? What would substitute for the comfort of cherished Bible verses? Wouldn’t pastors become more and more powerful? The church leadership be unquestioned? After all, on what basis would the people in the pews, without the Bible, question what the pastor says?

Or imagine that you grow up in a family where no one is a believer. Your neighbors go to church where a pastor reads from a book in a language they don’t know, but your father can tell you his, and your, beliefs about spirits, gods, in detail and in a language you fully grasp. When he sacrifices a chicken to the ancestors, he tells you what he is doing in your language and you understand it all. If your Christian neighbors ask you questions about your beliefs, you can answer them. But can they answer yours? Or do they have to run to their pastor?

Rev Nonziodane

Rev Nonziodane

CECCA/16 leadership, in the person of Rev. Nonziodane, asked Wycliffe to come and start translating the Bible into the languages of the people. Like many African church leaders, he grew up in the situation I am asking you to imagine. It is very real to him and he knows, all too well, the problems it creates. Going a century without God’s living Word is not an unusual experience for African Christians. We value your partnership with us, and with churches in Africa, to see that our African sisters and brothers in Christ have the same access to God’s living Word that has so shaped and reshaped our lives.

Prayer Centers

Like Africans everywhere I have been, Ghanaians are very religious. Churches dot the southern and central parts of the country and there are quite a number in the north. A number of those in the south were built in the 1800s by missionaries in classic Western church architectural style, like the ones in the photos below, but many are very simple buildings or even just little shelters.

Church composite

Churches in Abetifi (L) and Akropong (R), Ghana

But that is not my topic today. Rather, it is the prayer centres (Ghana follows UK spelling for English), prayer houses and prayer grounds which one sees here and there.

Sign - Prayer center

Despite its modest construction, this prayer center is in the capital city.

In my travels in the US, I don’t think that I have ever seen a sign along the road for a prayer center, prayer house or prayer ground. Here, you cannot drive very far without seeing at least one. I would have more photos of them if they signs did not fly past before I had time to snap a picture, or the road was wide enough to pull off for a photo without creating a traffic hazard. Prayer is an outstanding feature of Christianity in Africa. All night prayer meetings are not uncommon.

Sign - Zion Prayer Ministry

This place offers specific prayer times including “All Night”

When I ask African Christians about this I get a variety of answers, but the most common is something along the theme of “You have money, doctors and good medical care. We don’t. You have responsive governments to which you can make complaints, we don’t. You have economic systems that are not rigged in favor of a few, we don’t. All we have is prayer.”

The prayer centers I have seen are humble, rustic, basic affairs, not to say crude or inadequate. From my perspective they are under-resourced. Does God think that they are? Does their lowly construction make them less helpful? I wonder.

Church of Pentecost Prayer Ground

This prayer ground looks like it doubles as a carpentry shop

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


The New Churches

Economist magazine headerOn July 1, 2010, the Economist magazine published an article entitled “Slain by the spirit: The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa“.  The article notes that “… about 17m Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970. Today the figure has soared to more than 400m, which accounts for over a third of Africa’s population”.  An increase of 383 million born-again Christians in 40 years is a “revival”.  If one-third of Americans became born-again believers in 40 years it would not go unnoticed.

The article notes that most of the growth is happening outside the mainline denominations in what the authors call “the new churches”. The Economist takes an interest in this growth of the church because it is starting to have political and economic influence – as the Economist puts it, “they are now having a noticeable effect on public-policy debates in east Africa”.  Among the influences of the church cited by the Economist are:

  • Their insistent calls for self-discipline and education
  • Their prominence in anti-corruption campaigns
  • Their resistance to repressive political regimes

The Economist notes that the new churches believe in the spiritual world and in engaging in spiritual battles.  (Although the authors mistakenly attribute this to elements of traditional religion creeping into Christian faith.)  Like the Economist, others have noticed that “the new churches” believe the Bible, believe in God’s action in this world, and believe that evangelism is a primary call of the church.  Indeed, these churches undertake their own successful evangelism and missions activities.  A CNN blog – the Gospel according to Kenyan cabbies – notes the similar things happening in Kenya.

The Economist accurately notes that these churches display weaknesses.  There are plenty of hucksters.  One finds posturing for political or economic gain by church leaders.  But then, the Apostle Paul noted some of these same problems way back in the first century.

So what?  Why is this news important?  What does it mean?  Answering those questions would take many pages.  So I will limit myself to two.

  • First, one of the main reasons to support missions is that in the long run it is hugely successful so you will get big bang for your giving dollar.
  • Second, it changes the way we do Bible translation.

The “new churches” are key partners for Bible translation.  They have educated people, can raise lots of prayer support, and they already run successful outreach programs.  Doing translation in Africa without involving them would be like trying to engage in real estate or house construction without business partners that give mortgages.  The days when Bible translation can be done successfully as an isolated way by someone coming in from the outside are gone.

I am privileged to be doing some work in Ghana to enhance the involvement of the churches there .  Their leaders are convinced that the time is now for them to take the lead role in getting the  Bible into all the languages of Ghana.  Helping them understand how to do that is great fun and a wonderful privilege.  I just love it.

Does this information surprise you? Encourage you? Let us know.  (Click on any of the pictures to see more photos taken in the same city.)

If you feel the way we do, or you want to know more, see our website, subscribe to this blog, talk with us on Facebook, or sign up to support us through prayer or financial support.

Weak Things

In concluding his popular book, “The State of Africa” (The Free Press, London, 2006, Pgs 681-682), Martin Meredith writes:

“In reality fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are bleaker than ever before. Already the world’s poorest region, it is falling further and further behind all other regions of the world. Its average per capita national income is one-third lower than the world’s next poorest region, South Asia. Most African countries have lower per capita incomes now than they had in 1980 or, in some cases, in 1960. Half of Africa’s 880 million people live on less than US$1 a day. Its entire economic output is no more than $420’ billion, just 1.3 per cent of world GDP, less than a country like Mexico. Its share of world trade has declined to half of what it was the l980s, amounting to only 1.6 per cent; its share of global investment is less than 1 per cent. It is the only region where per capita investment and savings has declined since 1970. It is the only region where school enrollment is falling and where illiteracy is still commonplace: two in five Africans – and half of all African women – are illiterate, compared to one m every eight adults m East Asia or Latin America. It is also the only region where life expectancy is falling. On a list drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme, all twenty-five countries that rank lowest in terms of human development are African.”

Meredith is more pessimistic than other authors, but there is no doubt that Africa’s people have suffered much and many continue to suffer.  Some have given up on the continent or considered it “hopeless” as did The Economist magazine in May 2001.

Like many writers, Meredith does not treat one key aspect of Africa’s life and history.  That aspect is the spectacular growth of Christianity in Africa south of the Sahara.  According to Wikipedia, “Christianity is embraced by the majority of the population in most Southern, Central and Eastern African nations and in some West  African nations”  A website entitled “African Christianity” maintained by Bethel Seminary ( declares that “…  worldwide Christianity has become increasingly African. African and Latin American Christians outnumber those of any other continent.  There are now more practicing Christians in Africa than on any other continent …”

The growth of the church in Africa and other places outside North America and Europe was first noticed by Dr. Andrew Walls who wrote “The Missionary Movement in Christian History”.  A spate of books has followed as you can see below.

In ways they probably never saw during their lifetimes, God honored the faith of the first missionaries, those who sent them and those who stood behind them financially and in prayer. We also easily forget the hardships endured by the first missionaries, as a previously undecipherable letter from David Livingston recently revealed.

Those who believed under the missionaries’ ministry did most of the evangelism.  The majority of African Christians today believe because of the witness of another African and the vitality of African churches.

Sometime in the next decade Africa will become the center of world Christianity at least in terms of sheer numbers of believers.  Some church denominations which sent missionaries to Africa now have more believers in Africa than where they originated.  The Anglican church is but one example.

In 1900 about 80% of all Christians lived in North America and Europe.  By 2020, North America and Europe will have only 40% of all Christians in the world.  This trend caused Lamin Sanneh, professor of history at Yale who comes from the Gambia, to write a book entitled “Whose Religion is Christianity?”

During my visit to Ghana in June 2010, the evidence of this trend was everywhere.  As I noted in my blog at the time, there were churches everywhere including mega-churches filled with growing numbers of the middle class.  Bible themes and names are evoked in the names of businesses and on vehicles.  The country where Dayle and I work – the Democratic Republic of Congo – went from 3% Christian to over 90% from 1900 and 1970.   It is estimated that by 2020 that country will have more evangelical Christians than any other country in the world.

For some, this presents a conundrum – how is it that a continent can be overwhelmingly Christian and yet fare so badly?  That is much too big and complex a question to answer here.  Its answer is probably found as much in the assumptions behind that question as in Africa.

The growth of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa brings Christianity back to a reality it knew at its birth.  I am reminded of verses  26-31 of I Corinthians chapter 1:

26 My dear friends, remember what you were when God chose you. The people of this world didn’t think that many of you were wise. Only a few of you were in places of power, and not many of you came from important families. 27 But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame.      28 What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important. 29 God did all this to keep anyone from bragging to him. 30 You are God’s children. He sent Christ Jesus to save us and to make us wise, acceptable, and holy. 31 So if you want to brag, do what the Scriptures say and brag about the Lord.

At its birth, Christianity was a religion of the powerless and marginalized but for the last few hundred years it has been associated with the most powerful and prosperous countries of the world.  Today, God is taking Christianity back to being a religion predominantly of the marginalized and oppressed.  There is no doubt that those in the powerful countries who are abandoning the Christian faith consider Africa one of the “weak things of this world”.  If we watch long enough, the rest of this Scriptural equation will come true – Christianity in Africa will “put the powerful to shame”.

If the shift in Christianity has you worried, the solution is to follow the instruction in the passage  – “So if you want to brag, do what the Scriptures say and brag about the Lord.”

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Whose Religion is Christianity?

Ghana is full of signs of Christianity – literally. There are signs on vehicles, on business and even billboards that bear unmistakably Christian messages. Some of them are a bit exaggerated or even humorous such as the “Last Stop Christian Centre”.

On my recent road trip from Accra to Tamale, we stopped to grab a bite to eat and found a group of ladies from a church selling “Shalom Delicious Bread” and “Jesus is Alive” bread. In addition to English, one of the bread stands had a blurb in the Thwi language meaning “Jesus is risen”. They readily talked about their faith and started witnessing to me. The growth of Christianity in Ghana is part of a much wider phenomenon. Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, South America, parts of Asia and the Pacific. Even as Christianity shrinks in Europe and large parts of American society are cutting ties with its Judeo-Christian heritage, people in other parts of the world are adopting faith in Christ in the largest numbers in history. In the next decade or two, Africa will become the center of world Christianity at least in terms of sheer numbers of Christians. The title “Whose religion is Christianity” is borrowed from a book by Lamin Sanneh, an African, a believer and a professor at Yale. The book analyses the shifts taking place. Anyone who believes that Christianity is a western religion is way behind the times.

Billboards advertising all kinds of churches can be found alongside the roads in Ghana. Accra, the capital, has a number of growing and vibrant mega-churches. We drove by one when I came back to Accra. One of these mega—churches started a Christian university with money raised in Ghana! Christians in the growing Ghanaian middle class are filling those churches, giving to all kinds of ministries and organizing outreach in the cities and in the more remote rural areas. This has happened in the last 20 years, which makes me wonder what more will happen in the next 20.

Of course, not all is roses. There are sects. Some call themselves believers but their lives do not bear witness to that. But these things are true all over the world. Other things are right on target. Look up Deuteronomy 15:11 and see how appropriate that text is in the poorest continent.

My 18 days in Ghana were spent working with a Ghanaian Christian organization full of articulate, dedicated Ghanaian Christians who want all the peoples of Ghana to be blessed with God’s Word in their own languages. The churches are behind them. They are even talking about sending Ghanaians to do translations in other countries in Africa. I was part of a team, itself mostly African, sharing with them about how to make the work go faster and have greater impact. It looks like I will be blessed to make some more trips to work with them in defining specific ways to fulfill their vision.

It is so exciting to live in these days. God is at work in this world! If you are discouraged about what is happening where you are, lift your eyes!