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.

God, When Will You Speak in My Tongue?


The poem below was written by a man from Southern Sudan expressing his desire to have the Bible in his language. Sometimes, Bible translation is presented as something done where there are few believers. But in Africa, there are places where there has been a Gospel witness for decades and a growing church, but no Bible in the language of the people, their heart language. In such cases, believers long to have God’s word in a language they really understand. They know that the Bible is being translated into languages around them, and they wonder when it will be their turn. Put yourself in the place of those believers when you read this poem.


Lokuuda Kadanya

James Lokuuda Kadanya

Far and near
It is said that you, God, speak!
How do you do that?
Is it in their tongues?
If it is truly so,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

East and west, north and south,
The Creator speaks, it is said!
Not in the language as of birds;
But in other human tongues I cannot understand!
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Children and grown-ups of other lands,
With their different tongues,
Know your voice.
In their tongues you speak a special message to them!
If you speak messages in different tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

South Sudan in Africa mapIn the world around, we perceive you,
Yet your language is not clear.
We want to know you personally,
We want to hear you speak to us.
If you know all tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

We search you as a treasure.
Our eyes look on mountains, rivers,
Even in caves, forest and world around us.
Many voices are heard, confused we become,
If your voice is one, as of that of the Creator of all,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Oh! God, Creator of all people,
You who do not segregate,
Is it possible to hear you speak?
Can you speak in my tongue?
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

—James Lokuuda Kadanya

South Sudan Flag

South Sudan Flag

James speaks the Toposa language of South Sudan, which is spoken by more than a half million people. Today he is operating Salt and Light Outreach Ministries in South Sudan.
This post is re-blogged from The Seed Company Blog.

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.

No electric meters

In January 2003, I spend a week in the Congolese town of Ariwara helping at an event to help Christians better use the Bibles in their languages. The town had electricity in the evenings but few houses had electric meters. So billing was based on the number of light bulbs in the house – the equivalent in local currency of $2.25 per bulb per month. I was reminded of that because many Ghanaians call electricity “light”, as in “there is no light”, probably because for many people of modest means, light is the principle use of electricity.

Here are some photos of the event in Ariwara, which unexpectedly garnered almost 700 participants.

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.

Perceptions of Africa

Sunrise over orthodox church_1What do you think of when you think of Africa? Are your perceptions accurate? Up to date?

Some time ago I posted this photo on Facebook, asking people to guess where I took it. The building in the sunrise is an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. I took it while passing through on my way to Chad in November 2009.

Ethiopia has a population of 85 million, of which about 34 million belong to the Orthodox church of Ethiopia. Christianity became the official faith of Ethiopia in the 4th century, after being introduced three hundred years earlier. In the Bible book of Acts there is a story of a man from Ethiopia meeting the Apostle Philip and asking him questions, with the result that he asked to be baptized. According to tradition, that man returned to Ethiopia and began spreading his new faith. So Christianity was practiced in Ethiopia about 1500 years before it came to North America, and even longer than it has been in the United Kingdom. Ethiopia is an old center of Christianity. 3 of 10 Top ChristianIs that how you think of Africa?

More recently, Christianity has grown rapidly in many parts of Africa, so much so that some are calling it a shift in the center of gravity of Christianity. Just three countries in Africa; Nigeria, DR Congo, and Ethiopia combined, now have almost 200 million Christians; 9% of the worldwide total, according to a study by the Pew Foundation. To be effective in Africa, we have to understand it as it is, not as we imagine it to be.

Partnering with the “new” churches in Africa is key to advancing Bible translation, for example.

If you liked this, you might also like Funny or Stupid, Harmattan or Ansre.

Artist’s depiction of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Apostle Philip

A Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa – the rest of the story

Not long ago 60 Minutes did a report called Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle. If you have not seen it, you should. But the rest of the story is even more interesting.

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

The name of the orchestra gives us a big clue. It is the “Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra”. The Kimbanguist Church (that’s right, a church) is perhaps the largest African Independent church at 5.5 million members. It was founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  then the Belgian Congo. They are known for their brass bands, such as this one I found parading in the city of Isiro.

Kinshasa SymphonyIt was the leader of the Kimbanguist church himself who gave the instructions to start music groups with more variety that eventually led to the formation of the symphony orchestra. They had vision, but not much else: few instruments, no one who could read music. More, even Congolese laughed at the idea of classical music, saying that it just puts people to sleep. But they kept at in and they are making a sensation. You can buy a DVD documentary of the orchestra on Amazon!

All this happened in a country where corruption, abuse of human rights, sexual violence against women and poverty are rampant. The Kimbanguist Church has lost its way a bit, but it seems that there are reform movements in the church that could bring it back into the mainstream.

Christianity is growing fast in much of Africa. Up to now, that growth has mostly been in numbers. But now there are many signs of growth in depth. The world may not take Africa seriously. It may not take Christianity seriously. But just watch and you will see the suffering, poor, patient, and faithful people of God in Africa will do impressive things in the middle of the messes made by their leaders. A symphony orchestra?  You ain’t seen nothin yet!

Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? (I Corinthians 1:27-28, The Message)

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.)

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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!