Made for leaving

I think I always knew it, but my friend and the person who has overseen most of my work in Ghana, Paul Opoku-Mensah, clarified it for me:

Missionaries are temporary

Or as I like to say, missionaries are made for leaving. By that, I do not mean that they are forced to leave. Rather, I mean that missionaries are temporary by design. Leaving is what we are built for. We see this clearly in Jesus ministry which lasted roughly three years. We see it in the Apostle Paul’s missionary journies during which he went many places, stayed some time, then moved on. But when I say that missionaries are made to leave, I am not speaking primarily about the length of their ministry, but more about the conditions that end it. A missionary might move to an area to translate the Bible into the language there, then move on or return home when the translation is complete. That might take quite a long time, but it is still destined to end if and when the missionary succeeds. A mission that has not ended is, therefore, one which has not yet succeeded.

There’s an irony in the fact that a mission which succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. But it goes further than that. A mission that does not end stifles new life.

Paul Opoku-Mensah taught me that it is good and natural that missionaries have different ideas than those who come to faith through their ministry. The missionary who founded The Church of Pentecost in Ghana, James McKoewn, only did evangelism and discipleship, but he was pleased when, after his retirement, the very successful church he planted branched out into medical work, schools and more. He saw these changes as a sign of his success. But many missionaries resist changes to ministries they start. I remember a person highly respected among his people telling us that a particular missionary had to go. The missionary had not done anything wrong except keep control too long.

If a missionary translates the Bible for people, those people may develop their own vision for what comes next. They will want to make sure that the translation is reprinted and on sale for the next generations. They might want to have their language used in the first few years of primary school to help their children get better grades. They may want lots of literacy classes. Or maybe they will want to translate their church’s liturgy. There’s no telling what things they will want to do to that the missionary didn’t do.

In order for this to happen well, the missionary must leave, or at least relinquish his or her hold on the ministry, so others can take it new directions.

To really succeed, a missionary must create the conditions that bring an end to his or her ministry.

The start of an era

In 1800, of all the languages in the world, only 68 had a translation of the Bible. Today, the number of languages with the whole Bible stands at 670 and another 1521 have the New Testament. A total of 3321 have some or all of the Bible in print. You can find all these facts at

Most of these translations were done by Western missionaries; making the last two hundred years the era of missionary Bible translation. The missionary approach has been very successful both in terms of the number of translations and in terms of the spread of Christian faith. It will certainly go down as a glorious era in the annals of missions.

But the missionary era is fast coming to an end. While new translations are still starting at a good clip, fewer and fewer of them are started, organized or lead by missionaries. Local people and churches are doing those things. This shift is anything but a sign of failure. In fact, it is the exact opposite – a sign of success. In Ghana where I work, Ghanaians who themselves received the Bible in their languages during the era of missionary translation are now undertaking translation in the languages of Ghana not yet so endowed. This turn of events is healthy – to be expected where God is working.

I work alongside Ghanaians in ways that reinforce what they are trying to accomplish for God’s Kingdom

Missionaries did things in a certain way – one that suited their preferences and those of their organizations. Ghanaians are keeping some of those ways, but in other cases they are mixing things up. I expected they will change more things over the next decades. With others around the world and under God’s guidance, they are inventing the next era of Bible translation.

This new era does not exclude western missionaries, but it does change our roles. Instead of bringing our ways, we learn and encourage innovation as we teach and consult. Encouraging innovation includes going along with new approaches we don’t believe in because sometimes they work. Humility about one’s opinions and experiences is crucial

Why I am still a missionary

I was experiencing God’s Word in a totally new, living, transforming way, when George Cowan came from Wycliffe. He presented a way to give to others for the very first time the Word that was changing me – by translating the Bible into their languages. It was captivating. That is why I became a missionary involved in Bible translation.

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

What brought me into missions was not the command of the great commission, nor the idea of changing the world, nor even the idea of finishing a great goal such as translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. For me, it was more personal. These other motivations came along as confirmations.

This motivation has proved very durable. No matter how many goals we set, how many we reach, or how many we fail to reach, how much we change the world, or fail to change the world; what never loses its luster is the idea of giving to others the Living Word that changes my life.

Over the years, I have added another motivation to my repertoire; one I did not expect. It is one I share with the preacher who started preaching only in prisons because he found that prisoners could often hear the Living Word in a way that respectable people often could not.

I am not a missionary because I have something extraordinary to bring to people. God has that. So do all Christians. Rather, I am still a missionary partly because where I go, people are open to the Word of God. They receive it and make it their own. They understand it in their context. They understand that it is for them and they act on that. Even before they have it, while the translators are working, they expect that it will be theirs, that it will show God to them.

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

I am not saying that I am a missionary because I see more results overseas than at home. I’m not even sure there is a reliable way to measure that! No, I am a missionary because when people in Africa accept God’s Word for what it is. They interpret it through the lens of their circumstances. When they explain what they understand in God’s Word, I see things that I had not understood, or that had I understood with my head but not with my soul.

I love the piece in Handel’s Messiah where a soloist sings “Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. The crooked straight and the rough places plane.” I might even like that part better than the Hallelujah Chorus. But the Bible verse that solo comes from was given a new power when I was in Burkina Faso. A town which was served by a very bad road invited the President. He accepted their invitation, and immediately the roads department set about repairing the road for the president. I understood in a new way that I was to set about eliminating the sins in the desert of my heart if I was to expect the King to show up and be happy.

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

But it is not really about understanding the Bible better, or differently. No, through the eyes of African brothers and sisters I see and experience God differently. From my privileged position as a middle class, white American male, the biblical God who brings liberation to captives escapes my comprehension. I might even fear that saying “liberation” will slide me into bad theology. But when I see the liberation God brings to my African brothers and sisters, I understand better his character, his passions, his vision for this world. This God experienced by my African brothers and sisters is my God, but not the dimmer version of him I had known before. Sometimes, it’s like I’m hearing the Gospel for the first time.

In short, I am still a missionary because God keeps revealing himself in new ways in what I do. You don’t have to be a missionary to experience that. Rather, God will keep revealing himself in new ways to anyone who injects his grace and truth into this world.

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Missionaries are special

A while ago, I came across a very provocative article entitled “My Son’s Disability Doesn’t Make Me a ‘Special Kind of Person’“. Here’s an extract

Boys in Chad

Boys in Chad

In 2012, when my son was born with spina bifida — a birth defect of the spine — I joined the ranks of millions of people worldwide who love someone with a disability. I’ve learned a lot in the year since: how to find the best wheelchair-accessible parks, how to schedule multiple therapists, how to be a mom. But more than that, I learned that I am “a special kind of person.” At least, that’s what people told me. Why? Because it takes a special kind of person to raise a child like my son.

Girl carrying her baby sister

Girl carrying her baby sister

I’ll be honest and say that at first, I really liked being a special kind of person. Who wouldn’t? It was nice. It meant I was doing something good, something important and noble. I am, after all, raising a child who has a disability.

But after a few months, it didn’t sit so well anymore. Being called a “special kind of person” began to make me uncomfortable. And then I saw a photo on Facebook that made me realize why. It was a picture of a teenage girl dressed for prom and standing beside her date — a boy with Down syndrome. The picture was charming, but it was the comments that got to me:
“Honorable move, looks like she made his day!”
“Someone at my school did the same this year. It made me proud of her because she’s absolutely beautiful and could’ve had anyone she wanted.”
“That is very sweet of her…”

In prayer meeting with colleagues

In prayer meeting with colleagues

Turns out, she was a special kind of person, just like me. But it felt hurtful somehow. I started wondering, “How would I feel if the boy in this photo was my son?” Sixteen years from now, when my son goes to prom, will people applaud his date? Will they see her as a martyr? As a saint?

Just what are we saying about people with disabilities when we glorify those who love and care for them?

When I speak about Bible translation in churches in the US, it is not unusual to have someone say to Dayle and I something to the effect that we are special people. It might simply be, “I could not do what you do” or “I admire you for doing such difficult work”. I try to give those comments gracious responses, but they have always bothered me.

The forest in northeastern Congo

The forest in northeastern Congo

Seeing Bible translators or missionaries as “special people” because of the place they work, or the people they serve may imply something negative about that place or those people. Believe me, we enjoy the places we have served and the people with whom we have the privilege to work. Yes, there are negatives here, as there are in my wonderful home town in the USA.

But we do not have to work up some special grit or determination which merits special mention or admiration. Quite the contrary.

The author ends her article like this.

So call me hardworking or call me a wonderful mother. But if you call me a special kind of person, I’ll probably nod and smile, because I know a secret: If you knew my son, you’d love him, too. So, I guess you’re a special kind of person — just like me.

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

It’s true. If you saw the amazing places we have seen, if you knew the people we work with, if you saw their joy at receiving God’s word in their language, if you could join in their enthusiastic worship, if you witnessed their deep character and joy in struggles; if you saw their everyday joys and pains, then you would love them too and want to be with them. That makes you just as special as we are.

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Of heads and eyes

Our son Mark started suffering with migraine headaches in his teen years. I have them too, but Mark’s were much worse. He would end up in the hospital in Nairobi, where were living at the time. He would have debilitating pain and stroke-like symptoms such has one side of his body going numb. One of Mark’s migraines was a major family event that took at least a day out of our lives and caused us lots of emotional anguish.

Through a Wycliffe colleague, we had come into contact with an African evangelist named Dennis. At the time he had no formal Bible or theological training, but he showed a gift for evangelism and ministry to the poor. A few days after Mark had been to the emergency room with one of his worst migraines, Dennis called the house to chat. Among other things he asked how we were doing. Dayle told him that she was discouraged about the headaches. Dennis asked if he could come pray for Mark. Of course, Dayle was happy to say yes. She set a date and time which worked for Dennis and Mark’s school schedule.

Even before the day came for Dennis to visit, he phoned to ask how Mark was doing. Dayle told him he had not had another migraine yet. Dennis told Dayle Mark was healed. But he looked forward to meeting with him and told Dayle that he would have no more migraines. Dayle told me when I came home. I was skeptical. I would wait and see.

That was April 2003. Shortly afterward the doctor suggested a change of medication. The newest and best drug was not working so he suggested a drug which had been around for so long that Dayle’s mother told us that she had taken it in her teens. Also, we were able to discover more triggers. Cured meats turned out to be one of the main culprits. So no pepperoni pizza for Mark.

Mark never again had a debilitating migraine while we were in Africa. In fact, it was not until 2010 that he had another severe migraine. Whether it was Dennis’ prayers, the new drug or identifying the triggers I don’t know. In any case I see God in all three. It also does not bother me that Dennis prediction lacked some accuracy. Contrary to what he said, Mark did have more migraines. But, from the day that Dennis prayed for Mark, his migraines ceased to be a major events in our lives and within a few months they ceased to be a cause of major concern. In my book, that qualifies as healing.

Years earlier in Burkina Faso, we were introduced to a young man named Adama, from that country, who had come to the Lord out of drugs. He was a very calm and enjoyable person, but he had used drugs and they had left him with a moderate mental impairment before he came to the Lord and quit using. He could not do complicated tasks and he worked very slowly. We hired him occasionally to do yard work. He did good work, but he could only do in one day what most people could do an hour or 2.

Our oldest son, Matthew, was about five years old. He was having a series of eye infections since he was one month old. Allergies coupled with the dry and dusty environment were making his eyes vulnerable. One day Adama came by and asked if there was anything he could pray for. Dayle said that Matthew had started another eye infection. Adama asked Matthew if he could pray for him. When Matthew said, “yes,” Adama stood behind him, put his hands over Matthew’s eyes and prayed for him. Matthew never had another eye infection.

In addition to giving glory to God, these stories point out something profoundly important for missionaries – the people they go to minister to can also minister effectively to them and it can be mutual spiritual enrichment and encouragement. It’s reciprocal.