Crossing Language Barriers

posted by Greg Pruett on April 27, 2015

This is a chapter I wrote for a missions textbook. The book can be ordered for use in missions classes through the publisher: Priest and Burris, eds. River of God: An Introduction to World Mission. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012.

Chapter 16: Crossing Language Barriers

All the important leaders in the area came to hear the preaching and eat some beef. My Christian friends in the small West African village had erected an ornate, grass-covered conference hall in front of the church with intricate care. We needed a place to host the crowd of esteemed guests we had invited to celebrate Christmas with us—all of them leaders in the world religion that dominates that region. Clusters of curious children peeked over the grass walls to catch a glimpse of the assembly while kicking up enough red dust to gradually deposit a layer of caked sediment in my lungs. Most of the church members were feverishly cooking the Christmas cow in anticipation of the feast to come after the preaching and singing—the highlight of the year.

Every weathered face in the crowd squinted at my interpreter and me in interested concentration as I stood up front pouring out the message of Jesus’ love like water on cracked, thirsty souls. I did not yet know how to preach in the local language, but I played the part of the esteemed guest speaker that year anyway, with my friend, the pastor, straining to translate my message. If I close my eyes, I can still see those elders and chiefs hanging on every word we spoke, listening with rapt attention—probably the first real encounter with the message of Jesus for some of them. I had sucked the well of my limited experience completely dry in preparation for the message. I came up with a sermon illustration I thought would be sufficiently physical to translate. At the height of my message I announced: “When God says, ‘Be holy as I am holy,’ it is like telling people to jump to the moon. Some of us can jump higher than others, but no one can jump to the moon.” Every head nodded vigorously in unison and many exchanged knowing glances. A great “Aha” moment rippled across the crowd complete with raised eyebrows. I felt in my heart that this could well be the beginning of a great movement to Jesus. I passed a sweet night in my delusion of competency.

Only the following day did one of my Christian friends have enough pity for me and the courage to burst my bubble: “Do you remember when you were preaching yesterday and everyone nodded and exclaimed their agreement . . . ?” It turns out that the moon is a religious symbol representing their world religion, and the local leaders had debated for decades whether it could be true that an unbelieving American had really flown to the moon. I also had not yet learned that the word for “jump” in the local language was the same as the word for “fly.” The way they heard it, I had loudly proclaimed: “No one can fly to the moon!” thereby putting to rest all remaining doubt. Finally an American had publicly admitted what every local religious leader intuitively suspected: The United States actually had perpetrated a hoax on the population of the world and no one had flown to the moon. That was not the sermon I had intended to preach, but I learned that day that nothing changes gospel into gibberish faster than language barriers.

What is the role of language in the Great commission? My experience has taught me that language barriers are the greatest obstacle to the spread of the good news about Jesus. At the same time, there is nothing quite like language in the world: until addressed, it remains an impenetrable obstruction, but once an outsider begins to communicate in the local language, the very barrier that prevented the communication of the message becomes the bridge on which the ideas cross. It becomes the winsome attractive force for people to identify with the message and know that it belongs to them. What does the great commission obligate us to do with regard to language barriers?

What Must We Do to Obey Jesus?

There have been many trends, pendulum swings, and fads over the years in missions, but because Jesus is the one who sent us out, the most valid approach in mission is to carefully obey Jesus’ mandate. We must obey his words, emulate his example, and live out the values of his kingdom. When Jesus commanded us to teach people of all nations to follow Jesus, he used the Greek word ethne, challenging us to reach people of every culture and ethnicity on earth. In the command, he included instructions to teach them to obey everything he commanded, Matt 28:18–20. Unless the people of every ethnic group hear or read Jesus’ commands in a language they understand well, they cannot truly learn how to obey. When Jesus sent us out to the nations, he obligated us to cross all the language barriers on earth with his profound message of grace, salvation, and justice.

How can the nations and languages learn to obey all that Jesus commands if they cannot understand the commands? Jesus said that people cannot truly live without every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, Matt 4:4. They may be breathing and eating, but they are not really alive—they are not thriving spiritually—unless they live in the light of God’s Word. Jesus wants the lives of the peoples of the world to be transformed by the power of God’s Word. That they would cross from death to life—eternal life in heaven above as well as the vibrancy of living out the truth of the values of God’s kingdom on the earth. That each would bring blessing and justice on the earth to the people around them: That blind people would see, the hungry would be satisfied, thirst would be quenched, and the good news would be proclaimed to the poor. Jesus announced the coming of his kingdom so that the peoples who are being saved would also receive on earth a foretaste of the beauty of the kingdom of heaven to come.

For the peoples of the earth to learn to follow Jesus and obey the teachings of his kingdom, we must cross every language barrier in the world with three things:

  • Church
  • Scripture
  • Transformation

People following Jesus need the ongoing ministry and teaching of the church, the gathered followers of Jesus Christ spurring one another on to greater love and living out the values of the kingdom in their community. The church in turn must have Scripture in a language that opens their eyes to the transforming truth of God. However, it is not enough to have church and Scripture; the churches must be using the Scripture to transform their communities for Christ.

Therefore, the next major benchmark I see on the pathway to obeying the great commission is this: churches with Scripture transforming every language community on earth. We must cross every language barrier on earth with church, Scripture, and transformation. The mission’s movement of our time has properly emphasized crossing every culture barrier to make disciples among all peoples to obey Jesus’ commission.(1) That will happen in the more distant future, but in order to cross all the culture barriers well, right now we must also intentionally cross the 6,900 language barriers.(2)

Crossing the Language Barriers

The idea that everyone should have a Bible they can understand first began to gain traction in the 1940s when both Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Societies were founded. By the late 1970s when the Bible translation movement was becoming a global movement with increasing momentum, only 420 of the earth’s 6,900 languages had a New Testament.(3) Most people still did not have Scripture in their language. Since then, teams of missionaries from numerous Bible agencies have devoted epic efforts to translation in impenetrable jungles and mushrooming cities the world over. Verse by verse, language by language, God has painted through these last decades the careful strokes of a meticulous masterpiece. By 1996 the New Testament was available in the languages of 84 percent of the world’s population.(4) Now only about 353 million people remain in the world with no Scripture at all, roughly 5 percent of the world’s population.(5) I estimate that between 700 and 900 million people remain in the world without the whole New Testament in their language, only about 10 to 13 percent of the world’s population. The dream born in the 1940s has been about 90 percent realized over the last seventy years. The Bible translation movement is now poised to finish the job.

The trends in Figure 1 show that, for the great majority of the world, if the Bible translation movement continues to build momentum as it has over the past thirty years, most every remaining translation project needed will begin during the next 20 years.(6)

Back in 1999 a new translation project started every eighteen days. Now a project starts every five days.(7) The Bible translation movement has made great progress in the last seven decades and now has greater momentum, greater unity, and is starting new projects faster than ever before.

Image titleFigure 1: Translation Progress Trend Projection Based on Last 30 Years Data

Traveling around the world I can note the real world evidence of the numeric trends shown in Figure 1. In many places the members of the Forum of Bible Agencies and related partners are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In parts of West and East Africa we have begun to establish projects among the last remaining language groups without God’s Word. In North and South America the work has been for the most part handed over to local agencies and is nearing completion in many cases. New Bible agencies are starting up to join the cause around the world from many different nations. Bible translation for the sign languages of the world has begun to gather momentum, and now the first deaf Bible translation consultants are spearheading new translation efforts worldwide.

In the Bible translation agency in which I work, in the past year or so, when we have chosen to begin a project for a language community with more than one hundred thousand speakers, we have found that some other team that we knew nothing about has also just started it simultaneously. We are running out of the really big languages on which to start work. Soon we will be translating primarily for languages with between one hundred thousand and fifty thousand speakers. In another ten years, we may be working mostly on starting projects in languages with less than fifty thousand speakers. If the trend established in Figure 1 is projected even further into the future, it predicts that every language in the world could have at least a complete New Testament by 2063. Whether the trend holds true or not, it is definitely up and to the right. A time is coming in which every language on earth will have the New Testament. We are now training and sending out the generation of Bible translators who could achieve a great benchmark toward obeying the great commission. This next generation could leave behind the legacy of a world in which everyone can have at least the New Testament in his or her language.

However, to achieve the milestone of churches with Scripture transforming every language community on earth, some heavy lifting still remains: 1) Some language groups have no Scripture, 2) others lack church, 3) still others lack both, 4) and yet others have Scripture and churches, but the churches are not yet using the Scriptures to transform their language context.

Language Groups Lacking Scripture

Language communities that have churches without Scripture in their language suffer a lack of life transformation. Their spiritual growth remains hindered because they cannot easily access the transforming power of God’s word. Recent research data collected over four years from over 80,000 people in 200 different churches in the US concluded: “The Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth. The Bible’s power to advance spiritual growth is unrivaled by anything else we’ve discovered. Reflection on Scripture is by far the most influential spiritual practice.”(8) Another study of over one thousand Christian households showed that people who reported reading their Bible more frequently also reported that they had less debt and gave more to their church.(9) God’s word has the power to transform people’s lives. Without the word of God in a language they can understand well, churches lack the power to truly transform the lives of people and their communities.

Sadly, many language communities will continue to do without the Word in their language for the coming decades. While the trend in Figure 1 shows that the Bible translation movement may start all the projects needed over the next twenty years or so for most places on the earth, some places may take much longer. The low-hanging fruit has been picked and the remaining languages often are spoken in countries that will not allow a missionary to hold a visa. Other world religions vigorously oppose the work of Bible translation. Challenging pockets of extreme linguistic diversity lie scattered over the earth. Their breathtaking numbers of languages require tremendous, creative efforts to meet the need. Much of the continent of Asia remains an ocean of languages without Scripture. Languages with unmet translation needs in Papua New Guinea number in the hundreds. A mountain range in North Africa has a different Scriptureless-language group on every mountain. Overwhelming needs in parts of West Africa remain largely unmet. Figure 2 characterizes the locations of the final frontiers of the Bible translation movement. If we grow complacent with current methods, we will not be able to maintain our momentum. We will not be able to compensate for the increasing difficulty of the task as we penetrate more and more complex and resistant areas of the world.

Image titleFigure 2: Concentrations of Remaining Translation Needs

Consequently, Bible translation agencies are re-tooling to meet the challenge of pioneering work among these last 2,252 languages spoken by 353 million people in the most remote, marginalized places on earth.(10) Over the next twenty years, innovative efforts will be necessary to build capacity in the various partnering Bible translation agencies to face these last great frontiers of translation need. The Bible translation movement is currently using primarily three methods to accelerate progress: 1) better technology for collaboration, information, communication, and translation, 2) adapting existing translations into related languages, and 3) training and helping the local people to do the translation more independently.

Better Technology

No longer do you hear stories about translators losing decades of work when a manuscript was lost in a canoe accident. Today’s Bible translators take advantage of cutting-edge technology. Even though their work is still remote, they can communicate with teammates over satellite modems and internet-based collaboration tools. They no longer need to transport massive tomes like commentaries and Hebrew dictionaries. Now Bible translation software keeps all the information they need within a few clicks on the computer. The Paratext software has begun to be one of the greatest accelerations of the Bible translation movement yet. Paratext software was created by the United Bible Societies, but now is being developed further by a cooperative effort with SIL.(11) Some agencies are even experimenting with crowd sourcing technologies in which all the pastors of a language cooperate over the internet to generate a Bible translation for themselves.

Related Language Adaptation

As the Bible translation movement shifts over time to working on smaller and smaller languages, we will find that more and more of them are related to languages that already have a complete Bible. Because of this trend, software that helps adapt translations from one language to another will become exponentially more important. Because little is known about these minority languages, software like Google Translate cannot help with the process. However, other tools under development are becoming more powerful and user-friendly, proving useful to generate at least a first draft. Language adaptation software will help, over time, to complete remaining projects by adapting existing New Testaments or Bibles to other contexts. These adaptations become especially strategic in closed-access countries where expatriate translation specialists are not allowed to enter the country for long periods of time.

Training and Enabling Local People

The most powerful acceleration of the Bible translation movement remains training the local people to do the work with less outside help. Many Bible agencies are shifting almost exclusively to this approach. As Christianity grows stronger and more mature in more areas of the world, many capable partners are joining the work from a variety of countries and in virtually every context. Where once there was only one mission in the world known as “Wycliffe Bible Translators,” now sixty different related missions have started in other countries partnering worldwide in the Wycliffe Global Alliance.(12) As more of the local people have access to higher degrees of education, the progress will be greatly accelerated as Bible agencies focus more effort on enabling the local people. Many of the remaining translation projects are being grouped together in cluster projects designed to leverage the achievement of more projects with fewer expatriate translation specialists. More funding has become available for innovative projects like this than ever before from agencies like The Seed Company.(13)

If the Bible translation movement can create enough innovative capacity through visionary leadership and leveraging all possible methods to accelerate the process, if they can increase capacity enough to overcome the increasing complexity and difficulty of the contexts where the last remaining languages are located, then it should be possible to complete most or all the remaining translation projects at least to the New Testament stage by 2050.

Language Groups Lacking Church

But having Scripture is not enough! What good is a Bible translation if you do not have churches or people who can read? For people to have their lives transformed by the power of God’s word, faith-filled communities of followers of Christ must be proclaiming the Word and engaging their context with the life-changing truth of Scripture. Every language group needs churches using these translated Scriptures to transform their communities.

Image titleFigure 3: Progress Making Disciples in the World

In 1974 the Lausanne Covenant stated, “More than 2,700 million people, which is more than two-thirds of all humanity, have yet to be evangelised. We are ashamed that so many have been neglected; it is a standing rebuke to us and to the whole Church.”(14) When I was training to be a missionary in 1990, the often quoted statistic was that half the population of the world was unreached. Now the Joshua Project website reports that 41.5 percent of the population of the world is unreached, or better stated “least reached.”(15) The International Mission Board reports 40 percent.(16) Figure 3 shows these data points graphed with a possible trend line. If nothing else, the trend seems to indicate that we are making progress. When extended into the future, the math indicates that the earliest we could expect the percent of the world’s population living with the label “least reached” to go to zero would be 2070 and more probably 2080 or later. One trend analysis indicates that we may drag out the process well past 2100.

Now is the time to mobilize the church to cross these remaining language barriers with the gospel. We can begin to take action today to position the coming generation of missionaries to finally succeed at a major benchmark in the task Jesus gave us to make disciples of all nations. If we effectively mobilize the church and focus some of our attention on intentionally crossing the language barriers, as well as the culture barriers, the coming generation could leave behind the legacy of a world in which every language community has a vibrant church movement ministering to the whole range of community needs.

Language Groups Lacking Church and Scripture

As bad as it would be to live without Scripture or without the hope that vibrant churches can offer, it can be worse. There are language communities in the world that have neither a vibrant church movement nor Scripture. About 900 language groups (17) suffer the worst spiritual poverty on earth. They are both Scriptureless(18) and “least-reached”(19) lacking any hope of being able to have their lives transformed either by a vital Christian witness or by encounter with Scripture. Figure 4 reveals that about 200 million people speak a language in which they have virtually no spiritual resources.

Image titleFigure 4: No Church and No Scripture; the Plight of Extreme Spiritual Poverty

There is a reason that these are the last languages in the world that have neither Scripture nor church. The church has shied away from them for generations. They live in unstable, under-resourced corners of the planet, their lives under threat of disease or violence, their populations passionately pursuing the other major religions of the globe. Some of these minorities are oppressed by their own governments or targeted for extermination by neighboring powers. No church, no Bible, and usually, no resources. What greater need could attract Jesus’ passion?

Crossing these language barriers with Scripture and church will require ground-breaking strategies. The vast majority of innovation in the Bible translation movement is about training the local church, but what about these places where there are few if any Christians? Who then will we rely upon? Most Bible translation agencies are understandably focused on places with an established church. After all, most Bible agencies do not plant churches. If one works for 20 years on a New Testament for a group with no Christians, who would then benefit? Most church-planting agencies are also not consciously prioritizing these minority groups because of the current strategic emphasis on urbanization and the “gateway cities of the 10/40 window.”(20) In order for the church to obey the great commission and eliminate the extreme spiritual poverty illustrated in Figure 4, multi-disciplinary teams and partnerships will need to be formed, incorporating the elements of church planting and Bible translation in order to cross each of these 900 language barriers with both church and Scripture at the same time.

Language Groups Lacking Transformation

Some language communities have church and they have Scripture, but for a variety of reasons, the church is not using the Scriptures in their language to transform their communities. Often because the pastors and evangelists and church planters are trained in a majority language, they use that language to establish the church. The church naturally follows the example by worshiping, praying, and preaching in the majority language. Because Bible agencies prioritize language communities that already have established churches, usually the worship patterns of the church are already well ensconced in a majority language before the translation project ever gets started. If the translation project does not pay sufficient attention to promoting the use of the Scriptures they are producing, often the church will not begin to use the Scripture. Decades of translation work go to waste.

The Bible translation agencies specialize in rapidly generating Scripture relying on the church planters and pastors to use it to transform the people and communities that speak that language, but sometimes the church planters and the pastors do not get the memo about the power of the word in the local language. The church planters themselves may never have considered the possibility of learning the mother tongue of the people to whom they minister. The pastors may have never been told that it would be permissible and advantageous to use the local minority language. Sometimes they just do not know the translation exists.

I met a church planter in South Asia who spoke one of the majority languages of the area. I found out that the local people spoke a different language than the one he was using to plant the church. I asked him, “Would these people like to use the Bible in their own language?” He replied with enthusiasm, “Oh that would be great. They would love the Bible in their own language, but it does not exist.” When I consulted the Find-a-Bible website,(21) I found that there was a New Testament as well as a variety of audio Scripture tools and the Jesus film in the local language. In West Africa I handed a copy of the Psalms in the local language to a pastor. “This is great!” he gushed, “What do we do with it?”

Without someone teaching or modeling the use of the local language for evangelism and discipleship, local pastors will not always intuitively know the value of the Bible in the local language.

The whole success or failure of the church-planting endeavor hinges on being able to communicate the complexity of the gospel and discipleship. How do we hope to succeed without using the most effective language possible? Imagine trying to understand the book of Romans in a second or third language! Our lack of strategic use of language may be one of the great hindrances remaining in world evangelization.

The God-ordained accelerator for the process of world evangelization is the use of the mother tongue. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the first believers in order to begin the church, people came together “from every nation under heaven,” Acts 2:5. They came running in fascinated bewilderment not because of the tongues of fire or the sound like a rushing wind. They wanted to know: “How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” Acts 2:8. The Greek means “in our own dialect in which we were born.” We would be wise to finish the task of world evangelization mindful of the way God started it—with each person attracted to the message by hearing the wonders of God in his own heart language.

Whether in West Africa, the Pacific, or South Asia, the pastors are the key to Scripture use. If we train them to use the majority language, they will. To overcome this gap in the Bible translation movement, our Bible schools and seminaries that train pastors and church planters must be retooled to include training in using the local minority languages when advantageous. Otherwise the Bible translation movement remains on a path to generate all the tools needed without anyone using some of them to transform the minority language communities of the world. We must find ways to train pastors using the majority languages, but then add training to help them evaluate which Scriptures and languages will be most effective. Our training must help them learn how to transition to using the local Bible translation where helpful. Without that training for pastors worldwide, our evangelistic effectiveness will remain hindered. There will be churches and Scripture, but the churches may not be using the heart language Scriptures to profoundly transform the lives of the people.

Churches with Scripture Transforming Every Language Community by 2050?

If the momentum of the Bible translation movement continues to build as it has for the last 30 years, we may well begin all the projects needed by the early 2030s. We may well be in a position to use new technologies and new methods to finish most all the projects needed over the following twenty years at least to the New Testament level. With conscious intentional effort, church-planting agencies should also be able to cross every language barrier remaining on earth by 2050, or not long thereafter. All of this means, we could now be recruiting, training, and sending the generation of missionaries that will leave behind them a world in which there are churches with Scripture transforming every language community on earth. If Jesus has not returned by then, that generation will tell their grandchildren, “Kids, it was not always like it is today. There was a time when not everyone could have Scripture in their language. There was a time when not every language community could have a church to attend.” It will be unthinkable to that generation because they will hold in their hands a cell phone with access to the New Testament in every language on earth. In that day, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” Isa 11:9.

We live in a strategic moment in salvation history. We stand on the threshold of making possibly the greatest contribution to the accomplishment of the great commission in history. We have the potential of being the John the Baptist(22) generation of the Bible translation movement. We are not the fulfillment, but we can see it coming, and we can prepare the way. The steps we take now to position this coming generation for success and to mobilize the church to focus in strategic directions may make all the difference when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ finally crossing all the language barriers on earth with church, Scripture, and transformation in the coming decades.

Crossing All Culture Barriers by 2070?

Jesus is accomplishing his plan through us. Our role is to know Jesus and cooperate with his plan for the world and to accept the privilege of investing our lives in his work. Figure 5 shows one possible future trend for crossing the remaining language and culture barriers in the world as Jesus commanded it: making disciples of every ethnos—every ethnic group. Over the coming four decades or so we will likely cross the last remaining language barriers with church and Scripture.

Image titleFigure 5: Crossing the Last Language Barriers and then the Last Culture Barriers

When the time comes that at least one people group in each language context has a vital church movement, crossing the remaining culture barriers with church will be more feasible. Each language context will have at least one network of churches with which we may partner to help cross the remaining culture barriers. It will be more powerful to evangelize the remaining people groups in partnership with mature Christians who speak the same language. Will the church proactively cross the remaining culture barriers in 2080, or will the future efforts drag on into the next century? The question should be posed in every church on earth.
The challenge is for all Christians to ask, “How can my church help a least-reached, Scriptureless language group come to know Jesus? How can I personally help cross a language or culture barrier with church and Scripture?” Everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” has the obligation to get involved by supporting missionaries financially, or in prayer, or by going themselves.

Enduring Access to Scripture

Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”(23) The Word of God is more durable and valuable than all the splendor of heaven and earth. What if we do see churches with Scripture transforming every language group on earth by 2050, will that be the end of the Bible translation movement? Even when the New Testament has been translated into every language on earth, much work will remain to ensure that every language community has enduring access to Scripture.

Old Testament Translation and Ongoing Revisions

Many of the languages of the world will still need Old Testament translation well into the future. Many of the older translations of the Bible will need to be revised preferably by the local churches. Some of the translations done in the early decades of the Bible translation movement were accomplished in a literal style that does not communicate effectively. In the larger languages of the world, some settings may justify a second translation project aimed at a different target audience.(24) There will need to be ongoing development of relevant evangelistic audio/visual Scripture tools to help the churches to evangelize the rest of their people. A people cannot be considered to have enduring access to Scripture unless they have a network of churches using Scripture to grow and multiply, and an ongoing way to continually revise, print, and distribute the Scriptures.

Digital Distribution

In the past, the finished product of a translation project took the form of boxes full of Bibles stored and distributed in a tropical climate. Over time those books would be destroyed by termites and humidity. Enduring access to Scripture can now be better achieved by digital means. New technologies have not simply opened the door to faster progress in the translation task; they have also created new possibilities for distribution of Scripture.

Today digital Scripture distribution is a reality. Downloadable over the internet, print-on-demand, live streaming audio, and text via cell phones—these abilities will only grow in the coming decades giving people unprecedented access to the Bible in whatever their situation. Around the world cell phone usage has become prevalent even in the most impoverished, remote societies. Scripture text and audio files have begun to spread from phone to phone. Dramatized Scripture recordings can now be made available to the most isolated villages with small solar-powered listening devices.(25) A few years ago if a neighbor spoke an obscure language from Asia, no one would be able to find a Bible to give to him or her. Now the Forum of Bible Agencies International has created the “Find-a-Bible”(26) website designed to help people discover sources for Bibles and Scripture tools in any language.

Recently the Every Tribe Every Nation(27) partnership has developed the Digital Bible Library with which they intend to provide the standard repository for all Scriptures in the world. In the future, digital Scripture distributors such as YouVersion(28) will be able to provide digital access over cell phone to the standard copy of any language in the world by accessing the Digital Bible Library. Likewise, instead of needing to keep a stock of all Bible products on hand, print on demand services will be able to access the Digital Bible Library and print and ship a copy of a Bible in any language in the world on an as-needed basis.

In countries that do not allow Scriptures to be distributed over the internet or by cell phone, new compression technologies are making entire libraries of written, audio, and video-based Scripture tools as well as Bible teaching available. A single SD chip,(29) no bigger than the tip of a person’s finger, can now contain an entire library of Christian Scripture tools, videos, teaching, and commentaries. No more do people need to smuggle Bibles into closed countries in hidden compartments in buses. Now whole libraries can discreetly enter a restricted access nation carried on tiny chips that can plug into any laptop.(30)

Literacy and Orality

There will always be a need for ongoing literacy efforts to help church leaders learn to be able to read the Bible for themselves. Literacy among minority language communities will always be a great struggle, but one well worth waging.

In the past the Bible translation movement assumed that in order for people to have enduring Scripture access, they must learn to read; but now people are recognizing that minority language communities tend to emphasize oral communication. While literacy still maintains a strategic significance for church maturation, especially for leaders of churches to be able to nourish themselves spiritually, now the Orality Movement has gained wider acceptance in the Bible translation movement. Oral Scripture distribution methods such as “storying” are taking greater prominence than ever before. Many of today’s translators assume that standard practice for new translation projects begins with developing oral story sets before they do a written translation. This approach gets Scripture content out circulating quickly in the culture in a powerful form appropriate to the cultural setting of oral based societies. The process of story formation also develops potential local translators who understand the significance of using the natural story telling patterns of the culture in the translation.

Even to the End of the Age

One day a West African friend of mine told me about how the Bible that my wife and I helped translate into his language had changed his world. The passion in his eyes drew my full attention. I could tell from the sheer concentration on his face that he was about to make a once-in-a-lifetime statement. He said, “I cannot imagine any way to explain how grateful I am. For as long as I live, I will never be able to tell you the thanks I have in my heart for this Bible in my own language. Sometimes I think about it at night. I used to read the Bible in English or in French, and I could understand a little bit, but now when I read it in my language, the meaning just comes right into my mind.” Not many years ago, this man had little access to Scripture and no church where he lived. Now he uses Scripture to plant churches in the villages around his home. For his community, the command of Jesus is coming to fruition—they have churches with Scripture transforming their language context.

God foretold to Abraham, “. . . through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed . . . ,” Gen 22:18. For 4,000 years God has been working the fulfillment of this prophecy through his people. One day the blessing of the message of Jesus will reach every nation, every language, and every culture.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave us a command, and he said that he would accompany us and accomplish this work through us “even to the end of the age,” Matt 28:18–20. When we complete this task to his satisfaction, that will be the end of the age. Are not 2000 years enough? Will we now decide to get serious about Jesus and his command? We are potentially one generation away from accomplishing arguably the greatest milestone toward the accomplishment of the great commission in the history of the world—churches with Scripture transforming every language group and community. Prophets and holy people longed to see this day, but we are the ones living in this time with these choices ahead of us. A great opportunity lies before us now, but will we seize it? Every church and every Christian has the responsibility to play a part in this movement to strive for transformed lives through God’s Word in every language.

End Notes

1. Joshua Project, 2011.
2. Some of the 6,900 languages will not require translation work because their speakers are adequately bilingual in some other language with Scripture or the language is nearly extinct.
3. Grimes, Ethnologue.
4. Wycliffe Bible Translators, 1996.
5. Forum of Bible Agencies, 2011.
6. I estimate that all the Bible translation projects needed will have begun by around 2029. I have seen other estimates varying from 2037 to 2038 ( The number of new projects still needed will likely be small by the early 2030s.
7. Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2011.
8. Hawkins, Follow Me, 104–105.
9. Kluth, Bible Reading Helps Your Financial Health.
10. Forum of Bible Agencies, 2011.
11. SIL, Summer Institute of Linguistics, is one of the largest translation agencies in the world ( and historically related to Wycliffe Bible Translators. For more information about the software Paratext see
12. For a more information on the Wycliffe Global Alliance see
13. For more information see
14. The Lausanne Congress, 1974.
15. Joshua Project, 2011. According to the Joshua Project, “An unreached or least-reached people is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group. The original Joshua Project editorial committee selected the criteria less than 2% Evangelical Christian and less than 5 percent Christian adherents.”
16. International Mission Board, 2011.
17. Calculated from data downloaded from
18. I use the term “Bibleless” to mean people without a whole New Testament or Bible in their language. I use the term “Scriptureless” to mean without any portion of Scripture in their language.
19. Joshua Project, 2011.
20. One may simply search for the phrase on the internet to see how common the idea has become.
21. . Forum of Bible Agencies, 2011.
22. Luke 3:4–6, 16.
23. Mark 13:31.
24. For example, World Bible Translation Center works on developing “common person” versions of the Bible in the mega-languages of the world. See
25. For more information on solar-powered listening devices see: and
27. For more information see
29. SD Chip stands for a Secure Digital (SD) flash Card.
30. For more information see

Greg Pruett

Greg has served as President of Pioneer Bible Translators since 2007. He, his wife Rebecca, and their three children served in West Africa for more than twelve years, completing the Bible in the Yalunka language. He has a degree in civil engineering from Texas A&M, and a Masters and a Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He also has linguistic training from the University of North Dakota and the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

twitter: @GregJPruett

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