Whose new year?

Happy New Year!? Happy almost new year? Or, happy already new year?

Where I live, there are afireworks4ll kinds of “new years”: In about five weeks, Chinese New Year will burst out over several days. Two months after that, it will be Tamil New Year. Islamic New Year will arrive in October. And of course the new year of the Christian liturgical calendar has already been with us for several weeks.

So yes, happy Gregorian New Year to some of you!

And the moral of the story is… Well, I actually don’t know whether blog posts are supposed to have “a moral of the story.” Nonetheless, I like to think about at least two points.

First, I consider myself hugely privileged for being able to belong to a place where so many diverse traditions live together. All these times of “New Year” and their diverse celebrations – what fun to be part of that!

Second, not everybody has the opportunity to live in such a multicultural environment, but many could stretch themselves just a little bit and get a taste of what an amazing world we live in. Poverty is sometimes a matter of the mind. We can choose to enrich ourselves or to impoverish ourselves by what we seek to put into our mind. This year, choose to be rich!
(Read up on your Chinese neighbors’ New Year’s celebrations? Have a chat with the imam at the nearest mosque about their calendar? Ask someone from a distant corner of the world when their traditional year starts?)

And to all, Happy New Years for this year!

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Mostly Dead, or Alive

Oslender mann May 31, 2014, two 12-year old girls in Wisconsin lured their friend Payton Leutner to the woods, stabbed her 19 times and left her to die. Payton survived. When her mother asked her later how she was able to crawl out of the woods, she said,
“Because I wanted to live.”

I have never experienced anything like what Payton went through. I cannot imagine what it felt like. But I often think of her fierce will to live when I look at the developmental stage of a Christian organization to which I belonged many years. Some 30+ years ago it was at its peak, vigorous and determined. Now it is a pale and disappearing shadow of its former self. Stabbed and cannibalized by its friends, its leaders oddly detached and MIA, abandoned by its own, maligned by its former partners, it shuffles toward retirement and maybe a decent burial.

And yet, the challenges that gave birth to this organization 80 years ago have not disappeared. They are as vivid as ever – marginalized peoples around the world, many with little access to education or to the life-giving Word of God in any of the languages that speak to their hearts, with little depth in their engagement with God and Christian faith and practice. Over many years the organization learned and developed its expertise in how to communicate the Scriptures accurately and effectively across cultures and languages, how to collaborating with diverse partners, how to support local ministries, how to building up people and their  strengths and competencies, investing for the future…  Now all these lessons and resources are evaporating in an ongoing exodus and accelerating decline.

What does it take to wake up an organization such as this one to the point where it will stand up and defy death with Payton’s words, “Because I wanted to live!”? How can a new organization emerge, stronger and more vibrant than ever? How will it join Kenneth L. Pike, a pioneer scholar and missionary, who liked to sing,

Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
And looks to God alone.
Laughs at impossibilities,
And shouts, “It shall be done!”

And shouts, “It shall, it shall be done!”
And shouts, “It shall, it shall be done!”
Laughs at impossibilities,
And shouts, “It shall be done!”



Filed under Christianity, Missions

Of Money, Grails, and Cows

grailThe role of money in international missions has challenged the worldwide church for many years. Wherever money is in play, the rallying cry for more and better “accountability” is soon heard. For some, accountability is a holy cow whose lumbering presence reassures us that all is safe and as it should be. For others it is still a Holy Grail, an ideal whose perfect manifestation continues to elude us. Either way, it is holy – perfect, unquestioned and unquestionable, subject of numerous spoken and unspoken lèse-majesté laws.

And yet, when we look into the New Testament to see what it has to say about financial accountability in donor-recipient relationships, there is precious little to be found. In fact, nothing. (Now that’s a dangerous statement to make. I fully expect to be corrected by those more knowledgeable than me. Please do!)

Of course the parables of the money entrusted by a rich man to his servants (Matthew 25) or a (future) king to his servants (Luke 19) come to mind, as does the story of a vineyard owner and his wicked tenants who refuse to give him his rightful share (Matthew 21.) All of these stories emphasize that the giver has a right to a return.

Nevertheless, the application of these stories to today’s donor-recipient relationship is hardly straightforward. For one, few people would maintain that in these stories Jesus aims to prescribe proper financial investor relationships. More importantly, in all three stories the master / king / landowner represents Almighty God. Who of us would dare to assume the role of God in our relationships with Christian brothers and sisters? When we do play God, it is no wonder that those on whom we impose our desire for accountability feel violated and soon rebel against our “God-complex,” to use Bryant Myers’ term.

What, then, does the New Testament suggest? It moves us from a transactional view of cooperation described by strategic plans, SMART goals and milestones, budget lines, and detailed reports to a relational world of a community in God. We all stand before him together as debtors, recipients of grace and blessings that we are expected to share. When the young church in Jerusalem had a need, it did not submit a plan for famine relief and church growth. Those who knew of the need simply made it known elsewhere, and the churches elsewhere with its rich and its poor stepped up to help. The needy church was to use the funds as it saw fit. The apostle Paul organized an orderly and transparent transfer of funds from one corner of the Mediterranean to another corner, and that was it. To the glory of God for all who watched.

All this leaves me wondering how we could develop such an awareness of mutual responsibility and such a deep trust between churches around the globe. If the apostle Paul could do it, surely we with today’s much easier travel options, electronic communications, and world languages should be able to. What’s keeping us from it?

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Cart, or Horse?

cart-before-horseWhat comes first, the cart or the horse? the chicken or the egg? ministry or translation?

For decades, the Bible translation movement has been counting “languages needing translation” rather than “ministries needing translation.” One result has been that a large number of completed translations never found a place in the life of believers and churches. They were boxed away and soon buried under the sands of time.

A second consequence has been the lack of appreciation for the way local ministries manage to navigate their multilingual environments. Such insensitivity keeps us from exploring how translations in various languages, including national, regional, and local languages, might strengthen these ministries.

To correct this situation we need a radical re-boot, focused on two factors:

  • The primacy of local ministries in local communities
  • The multilingual language diversity in communities and churches around the world.

What could this look like? The graphic below represents a redesigned picture of how the various elements of a language program relate to each other.

How would you improve this graphic?
(click on the graphic to obtain a clearer picture, or download it here:
Ministry-Focused Language Programs)

Note: Since the graphic below was published first, I’ve slightly revised it to indicate the influence that local ministries can have on language programs.

ministry focused lg programs - v3


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Give us friends!

Bishop V. S. Azariah

Bishop V. S. Azariah

Bishop Azariah from India was one of a few non-Western participants in the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. There he challenged the other participants with the words,

Through all the ages to come, the Indian church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labors of the missionary body… You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us friends!

Almost exactly a hundred years later, I heard a church leader in a remote region of Indonesia echo the bishop’s challenge to a group of Western missionaries there:

We know you have sacrificed much for us, and we thank you for it. You have left your countries to come here. You have lived in huts in the jungle and brought up your children there. You painstakingly translate the Bible into our languages, and when it is completed, you wrap it in gift paper, you put a bow on it, and you give it to us. But that is not what we want. We want you to work with us.

For decades and maybe centuries, the missionary enterprise has reflected a paternalism along the lines of “the West knows best.” Less than ten years ago, I overheard a Western missionary comment on the fringes of a meeting with Asian Christian leaders, “We Westerners have to be here; we are the only ones who are really committed to reaching the unreached with the Word of God.” Old habits and attitudes die hard!

Fortunately, even the missionary world is changing and increasingly recognizing the capacity and rightful role of the Church of the global south and east. From a paternalistic “the West is in charge” we have gone to “we are only here to work ourselves out of a job.” That transition strikes me as quite incomplete. The notion that “we work ourselves out of a job” seems hardly less paternalistic than the earlier “the West knows best.” It implies that we have something to give to some needy recipients, and as soon as we’ve delivered whatever it is, we can leave. Where is the mutuality in that? The long-term commitment to being the global Church?

Too often have I heard the line, “When the nationals can do it, the Westerners should leave.” What does this do to the Bishop’s plea, “Give us friends!”? What does it do to the Scriptures’ exhortations for believers to be one, to submit to each other?

Before I close, a personal note: As I look back over my last 30 years on three continents, I can tick off time after time when I myself have aimed “to work myself out of a job.” In retrospect I can only marvel at my local colleagues and friends and how graciously they overlooked my superior attitude. May God forgive me as they have forgiven me!

Note. Slightly revised to clarify that Bishop Azariah was not the only, but one of very few, non-Western participants in Edinburgh 1910.


Filed under Christianity, Missions

Multilingual Minorities and Churches

For decades the worldwide Bible translation movement has been translating New Testaments and Bibles into the heart languages of the world’s linguistic minorities. Yet the world has changed in many ways. During those years, the movement has been quite aware of missiological insights and changes in general, but it has yet to come to grips with the sociolinguistic upheaval that these minorities have experienced.

For many speakers of majority languages, monolingualism remains an option, but for most linguistic minorities multilingualism has become the new standard, not just in their daily lives but also in their Christian life and activities. As believers, they hear the Bible read in a regional language, they sing worship songs in English, they listen to sermons in a national language, and they discuss their faith with neighbors and friends in their local heart language. thaliTheir congregations are kaleidoscopes of several local languages. Many of their pastors have been trained through the medium of a national language, often do not even know any of the local languages, and minister and preach in the national language.

Yet too often Bible translators maintain a habitual focus on “the heart language” without asking first what role a heart language is actually playing in this mix. In some contexts, it may be the most appropriate language for one-on-one evangelism. In others, it might motivate otherwise multilingual youths to come together in informal Christian fellowship groups where they’ll speak “their” home language. Friends may meet to discuss oral Scripture recordings in their local language. Discipleship, outreach, worship – each may require one or more different languages. Which combo of various materials in different languages and different media will support these ministries most effectively? And how will that affect which parts of the Scriptures are likely to be used (or not to be used) in the heart language?

The translation of whole New Testaments or Bibles into each heart language creates an enormous demand for human and financial resources. Even where that demand can be met, the focus on New Testaments or Bibles in the heart language may blind the observer to the real needs of local multilingual churches. They end up at the same time with more than they need and with less than they need. They will have a whole New Testament in their mother tongue, much of which they will not use, and they will not have an introductory oral Scripture overview in their heart language, various evangelistic materials in audio format for their outreach ministries, or some Psalms from the Old Testament in a regional language for their church gatherings. In order to engage in discipleship, outreach and worship, they need a deliberate mix of Scripture-based materials in various media, some already available in national or international languages, others yet to be prepared in regional languages or local heart languages.

How can we develop a more appropriate and effective strategy for Bible translation with linguistic minorities?


Filed under Mission

Transitional Bible Translation

Why do we talk about “transitional literacy,” but never about “transitional translation”?

For over thirty years I have been observing Christian efforts among linguistic minorities on five continents. These efforts often include literacy programs and translating the Bible into the minority languages. For several years now the term “transitional literacy” has become increasingly prominent. Transitional literacy aims in two directions: Usually it is part of multilingual education which teaches literacy skills in the mother tongue from where they can then be readily extended to regional, national and international languages. Less frequently, transitional literacy efforts help people who may already be fluent readers of a majority language to become familiar with the script and alphabets of a minority language. In either case, transitional literacy equips linguistic minorities to function well in the complexity of their inescapably multilingual contexts.

imagesIf linguistic minorities are confronted daily with their multilingual contexts, surely so are the Christian communities among them. If transitional literacy validates the mother tongue and at the same time provides a bridge to and from the wider educational and multilingual context, should not an approach of “transitional Bible translation” do the same? No doubt Bible translation into minority languages aims to validate these languages and the communities that speak them, but how does it aim to provide a bridge to and from the other local, regional or national languages used nearby? How does it help integrate the local Christian community of a particular linguistic minority into the wider context of the body of Christ? How does it help an outside pastor to minister effectively among a linguistic minority whose language he does not speak? Maybe it is time that a discussion of transitional Bible translation becomes the top agenda of a Bible translation movement that has long assumed linguistic minorities to be primarily monolingual.

What do you think? What would transitional Bible translation look like?


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Welcoming Dissonance

A few days ago, a friend mentioned Kevin Miller’s new documentary Hellbound? The movie has already created quite a bit of controversy. Mark Galli’s dismissive review in Christianity Today provoked an angry outburst from Frank Schaeffer.

A review in the Wall Street Journal presents the movie’s essential question as “How can a loving God send people, even bad people, to a place of eternal torment?” This is certainly a fair enough question. The WSJ quotes a wide selection of opinions from the movie. What bothers me in all this is not the issue of heaven or hell. To be honest, we know precious little about either one, and I’m satisfied with the cogency of many thoughtful evangelical responses. I’m not interested in joining the battle for or against the post-evangelical caricature of an alleged evangelical viewpoint.

What bothers me is the implicit assumption that the evangelical position creates irreconcilable cognitive dissension in us, and that this is a bad thing. It strikes me that Christianity thrives on contradictions – love and justice, law and grace, faith and works, Three in One, fully God fully Man, God transcendent yet imminent, predestination and free will, death and eternity, to name only a few. Theologians may attempt to reconcile these pairs but invariably fall short of resolving the tensions. At that point, cognitive dissonance becomes acute. By contrast, when we let the contradictions stand and attempt to engage with both sides of each pair, we meet the complex reality of God and a life lived with God. Whatever cognitive dissonance we may feel welcomes us to do the best we can regardless. It assures us that we do not have to answer the great questions before we can live, and it reminds us that we cannot demand “right” answers from others before we let them live.

And that is why I welcome what others reject as cognitive dissonance. It reassures me that I need not join those clear answers that others are so sure about. It reminds me that not having all my ducks in a row is much preferable over trusting the wrong answers. And it makes me wonder whether – contrary to what theologians, bloggers, film makers and popular writers may think – some questions were not meant to be answered, or fought about.



Filed under Christianity, Movies, Religion, Theology

Live and Let Live

Maybe thanks to a mighty kick in the pants from his brash vice-president, President Obama has finally come out in support of gay marriage. And people haven’t stopped talking and writing about it yet. Now before I say any more, let me state clearly that I’m not into gay marriage, or domestic partnership, or anything like it. At the same time, I’m more than hesitant to oppose it. Why?

Both my countries (Switzerland and the USA) have become small microcosms of the planet we live on. Children sleeping in cold alleys and living in abandoned schoolbuses; young investment bankers wondering how to spend all their money. Muslims bowing toward Mecca in their prayers, Christians partaking of the eucharist, Hindus placing bindis on their foreheads; atheists decrying such age-old superstitions. Arabic, English, Spanish, Swahili, Tibetan – all spoken in the same village.

Our global means of communication and transportation are quickly rendering the concept of nation states irrelevant. They have also made any attempt to define the standards and laws of a country by those of any single sub-group not only irrelevant, but dangerous. Among nations, zero-sum thinking and war have long been the default approach to disagreements. In our own microcosms, the world has arrived to stay. All kinds of people sharing very little space… Will war be how we choose to resolve our disagreements? Is muscling any opponents to the ground, whether by ballot or by verbal and physical violence, our preferred way?

Or shall we choose to live and let live? It strikes me that for the Christian, the “live” part should involve so much “loving your God” and “loving your neighbor” that not much time will be left for wrestling people to the ground. It also strikes me that we cannot reasonably expect to be tolerated if we are unwilling to tolerate. And what of those who will not tolerate us? Just as we support and defend the freedom of others, so we support and defend our own freedom – our freedom to worship, and our freedom to serve God and others.


PS Two disclaimers: Maybe it goes without saying, but the sentiments expressed above are mine – nobody else should be blamed for them. And as always, like those of most people, my thoughts are still “evolving,” too.

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Filed under Christianity, Homosexuality, Religion

Elevator Pitch

How to put 700 pages of systematic theology into an elevator pitch? I recently finished reading through Stanley J Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God. This blog post was motivated by that experience.

So here is my attempt:

God created us to live in harmony with him, with each other, and with nature. We have not done well with any of these. Each of us has pursued their own goals and plans. With the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has opened the definitive way to reconnect with him. He invites us to join him in his program of restoration to him, to each other, and to creation. Whatever we do in line with his intentions will not be lost, but God’s program will not be complete until the day when he makes all things new, and will remain in our midst on this renewed earth.

How would you summarize what Christianity is about?


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