Bible translation is difficult. Everything about it is hard. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s a long-haul venture. It provokes intense spiritual warfare. And big picture problems like these don’t even address the day-to-day struggles that Bible translators experience. But when it comes to the big picture of Bible translation, I have observed two recurring problems in our local churches.
The first problem is Bible translators who are not concerned with soul-winning. Bearing witness to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and what that means for lost sinners—is a paramount discipline every follower of Jesus must obey. Today, we often call that activity soul-winning. This problem is not to say that a soul-winner must always lead someone to Christ each time they witness any more than a fisherman must always catch fish every time he fishes in order to be called a fisherman. At the same time, a fisherman who never fishes will never catch a fish. And a fisher-of-men who never fishes-for-men is in the same boat!
It is my conviction that no child of God is exempt from witnessing to people concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not preachers. Not scholars. Not business executives. Not school teachers. And especially not Bible translators.
I understand that the goal of providing a complete translation of God’s Word to a people can appear to be such a monumental task that it can become easy for a Bible translator to abandon evangelism in order to stay at his or her computer and desk. I get that. And I can appreciate those who are so mentally disciplined that they can quite literally remain at their desk for hours on end, analyzing languages and making constant decisions, sometimes difficult decisions, about a translation problem.
But here’s the reality. No Christian is exempt from soul-winning. Every man and woman. Every missionary and pastor. Every employee and leader. If you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you have a responsibility to be a witness, to be a soul-winner. No Bible translator should be a soul winning-less Bible translator.
The second big picture problem in our local churches is soul-winners who are not concerned with Bible translation. Now we can all agree that every follower of Jesus must be a soul-winner. But how can we call ourselves soul-winners if Bible translation is not a paramount activity of our local churches? I don’t think we can or should.
There was a time when church leaders felt that Bible translation for the Bibleless languages of the world should not be a sanctioned activity of the church. Do you know what we call that time? The Dark Ages.
Think about the tail end of Paul’s first missionary journey. In the church plants at Lystra and Iconium, souls were being saved; discipleship was taking place; spiritual leaders were being developed; and people were growing in their personal walk with Christ (see Acts 14:21-23). At this point, as best I can tell, none of the New Testament books had been yet written. But in Acts 15, Luke recounts how the first inspired decrees were given to the church through the Apostles and were written down and distributed (c.f. 15:20). Then when Paul began his second journey, he took this Scripture with him: “And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:4-5). Here’s the point: when Lystra and Iconium were given written Scripture, then were they established.
It is possible for people to be saved without a Bible in their first language. And it is possible for churches to be planted. But I suggest that, without a Bible in their heart language, a Gentile church will struggle to become autonomous or “established”; and it will struggle to increase in number daily. I’m thankful for the churches given over to bus ministries, regular door-to-door evangelism, and missionary efforts. I’m thankful for the churches that are developing leaders. And I’m thankful for the churches that are impacting their communities. But when will we have a significant number of churches also commit to Bible translation for Bible-less languages?
Now please don’t take me as saying that every soul-winner must also be a Bible translator. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that a soul-winner who is not concerned, in some capacity, with making Scripture available to those who don’t have access in their first language is an oxymoron.
So what can we do? How can we help? We can pray. Pray that God would raise up translators. Pray for God’s protection on translators who are experiencing intense spiritual warfare.
We can give. There’s no doubt; Bible translation is very expensive. In fact it might be one of the most expensive missionary ventures possible. Six-hundred thousand dollars for a whole Bible translation is not out of the question. And that doesn’t even include the funds necessary to support the lead translator’s family and ministry; the need is indeed great. Perhaps God can use you to give toward Bible translation.
Last, we can go. It might be that God is stirring in your heart about becoming a Bible translator. The incredible thing about Bible translation is that we need translators from all walks of life to get seriously involved. Educators. Lawyers. Computer programmers. Analysts. Linguists. Leaders. Consultants. Developers. Researchers. And the list could go on and on. If God’s voice is stirring in your heart, will you listen?
At a minimum, I believe that God wants each of us to be Bible translation-oriented, soul-winning followers of Jesus.