Engaging the church

Posted on Posted in Scripture Use

During March we’re focusing on supporting God’s work. Please see the Monthly Prayer Focus page to read our strategic prayer request for this month.

By Jim Bliffen

The strategic prayer request for this month is that God will show us how to partner with churches in the language groups we serve to accomplish the work of Bible translation. This is a much bigger issue than I realized upon first coming to work in Papua New Guinea. I thought that everyone was so anxious to have the Word of God in their own heart language that the church certainly would embrace this work and gladly support their translators. I was confused by something I heard in training as I prepared to come work with Pioneer Bible Translators. Many translation students expressed a fear that they would work for 20 or 30 years translating the Bible and no one would use it. This has happened more times in the history of Bible translation work than anyone cares to remember. One of the cures for low Scripture use is involving the church very early on in the translation process. By having a part in the process, they accept the work as their own, but engaging churches is often a difficult process. I have heard pastors here in Madang say that pastors in the jungle speak of translation work as work belonging to white men. Most of them use Tok Pisin, the local trade language, to preach, and they read from the Tok Pisin Bible. Unfortunately, this language isn’t always clear. As a national man told me, “When I hear the Word of God in my own language or read it in my heart language, it changes me.”

I learned from a national Baptist pastor another important reason to engage churches in translation work. He said when people go to church they hear the Word of God in Tok Pisin; they preach in Tok Pisin; pray in Tok Pisin; and sing in Tok Pisin. When they practice sorcery or adhere to other traditions such as calling on spirits of past relatives, they always do it in their heart language. Using Tok Pisin in church and the heart language for their traditional practices is encouraging them to keep the two lives separate, while clinging to both. Those worlds cannot coexist.

Encouraging pastors to use the translated Bible is often difficult. Since for many of them their heart language was unwritten until very recently, they may not know how to read or preach in their own language. I have read research done by a sister translation organization that demonstrates a connection between preachers reading the Bible and preaching in the heart language of the people with a tremendous growth in the use of the translated Bible among the people. One man who has worked with one of our language groups for a long time said that there weren’t a lot of requests for the newly translated Bible among the people in that language group when it was first completed. Then the missionaries taught pastors to read the new work and secured agreements from them to begin reading it publicly. The newly translated Bibles “flew of the shelves,” as he put it.

I was part of a small team of teachers that went to a small national Bible College to teach the students how to preach. They were given an assignment to go back to their villages and preach a sermon in their own heart language. They were then to report the outcome to us when we came back in a few months to teach the next session. They spoke of how people were in tears of joy as they shared the Word that they now could clearly understand. Many said the people wanted them to keep on talking even after the sermon was finished. They wanted to hear more of God’s Word that was speaking clearly to their hearts for the first time.

Please pray that God will show us how to partner with churches in the language groups we serve to accomplish the work of Bible translation. It is a very important issue. Please pray that local churches will support their translators and literacy workers.

Jim serves in the area of Scripture Impact.

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