By Greg Pruett
For the great majority of the world, if we and our partners continue at the current rate, all the remaining Bible translation projects will begin during the next 20 years.
The Land Cruiser was bouncing to a halt when the sound wave poured into the vehicle. We thought we had arrived unannounced to speak with one of the few churches among the Kono people of West Africa. But this struggling flock had already heard of Pioneer Bible Translators’ interest in their language, and somehow they knew we were coming. They rolled out the red carpet for us.
Generator-powered Christmas lights were blinking inside the church, and music seemed to emanate from every opening in the unfinished brick structure. We paraded between two lines of a welcoming choir singing so loudly the music pulsed directly into our souls.
Completely disoriented, I thought we had stumbled into a wedding or a party, so I leaned over to shout in a man’s ear, “What’s happening?”
His face beamed as he yelled over the din, “We heard that someone was coming who might translate the Bible into our language!” The celebration was about God’s Word!
I promised the Lord that day that those people would have a Bible. Now, six years later, a Pioneer Bible Translators family is about to arrive to begin the arduous labor of learning their language and translating Scripture for them.
A Dream to Be Realized
Scriptures in every language used by churches transforming every language group on earth—the dream is finally within our reach. Back in the late 1970s, when the Bible translation movement was gaining momentum and Pioneer Bible Translators was just sprouting from a mustard seed of faith, only 420 of the earth’s 6,900 languages had a New Testament. Most people didn’t have Scripture in their language.
Since then, teams of missionaries from numerous Bible agencies have devoted epic efforts to translate Scripture 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.
In many places, Bible translators can see the light at the end of the tunnel. In 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 of our partner agencies is nearing completion. For the great majority of the world, if we and our partners continue at the current rate, all the remaining translation projects will begin during the next 20 years.
But it won’t be easy. Islands of extreme linguistic diversity lie scattered over the earth, requiring tremendous, creative efforts to meet the need. 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. Bible translation agencies are retooling to meet the challenge of pioneering these 2,252 languages spoken by 353 million people1 in the most remote, marginalized places on earth. Over the next 20 years, we believe God will build in us the capacity to face these last great frontiers of translation need.
About 900 language groups suffer the worst spiritual poverty. They are both Scriptureless and “least-reached.” About 200 million people speak a language in which they have no spiritual resources.
Not by accident are these the last language groups in the world with neither Scripture nor churches. 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 no resources. What greater need could attract Jesus’ passion?
A Challenge to Plant Churches
If the momentum of the Bible translation movement continues as it has for the last 30 years, by 2050 we could live in a world where the New Testament has been translated into every viable language. We are now sending the generation of missionaries who could leave behind them a world in which the New Testament exists in every language that needs it! If Jesus hasn’t returned by then, that generation will tell their grandchildren, “Kids, it wasn’t always like it is today. There was a time when not everyone had Scripture in their language.”
But translating Scripture is not enough. What good is a Bible translation if you don’t have churches? Every language group needs churches using these translated Scriptures to transform their communities. Of the world’s 6,900 languages, 1,174 languages are spoken by “least-reached” people groups. (This means, according to www.joshuaproject.net, less than 5 percent of their population identifies itself as “Christian,” and less than 2 percent is evangelical).
The church’s task will not be finished until God’s Word is transforming lives in every language group. To truly obey the command of Jesus, we need to plant churches in every language group.
Restoration Revolution and Tools
The Restoration Revolution (www.restorationrevolution.com) calls everyone to participate in God’s plan to cross every language barrier on earth with both church and Scripture. We have set a major goal to start church planting and Scripture translation projects in 100 of the least-reached, Scriptureless peoples over the next 10 years.
A list of language groups suffering from this kind of extreme spiritual poverty will be posted on the Internet to help churches achieve the goal. The challenge is for all of us to ask, “What can I do to help plant networks of churches that transform a language community with no church and no Scripture? How can my church help equip a spiritually poor language group with Scripture, media, and community development tools they need to reach others who speak their language? Which of these least-reached, Scriptureless language groups might God want me to help come to know Jesus?”
Jesus said to make disciples of every nation. Everyone can get involved by praying, sending missionaries, or going themselves to make disciples or to work toward providing the tools these people need to make Jesus known.
One day a West African friend of mine told me how the Bible my wife and I translated into his language has changed his world. The passion in his eyes drew my full attention. He said, “I can’t 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.”
This man now plants 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 group.
God foretold to Abraham, “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). For 4,000 years God has prepared the way and commanded us to make disciples of all nations, but now God has placed the fulfillment of this prophecy within our reach.
Greg Pruett is president of Pioneer Bible Translators, based in Dallas, Texas.