By Greg Pruett
It was my first day on the job back in 1994, and I was eager to get started. I walked onto the West African scene fully trained to translate the Bible—tomes of knowledge about Greek, linguistics, and missiology crammed into my mind. But when the sun rose on my first workday at Pioneer Bible Translators, my mentor didn’t escort me to a desk to show me how to translate. Instead, he walked me over to a well he had hand-dug for the village to show these Muslim people the love of Christ, and we started troubleshooting a hand pump so the people could have water.
Later I watched in awe as the Bible translator treated horrific burns on a child who had fallen into a cooking fire. That’s when I understood that the first translation of the Word people read is our lifestyle. We physically represent the good news of the justice of Jesus walking around among the people.
That’s how I learned the truth of the maxim we often repeat: “It’s never outside the scope of Bible translation to obey the Bible.” People watching the work of Pioneer Bible Translators from the outside marvel that we have a holistic ministry. It’s the name that throws them off. People can’t imagine that a group called Pioneer Bible Translators will also do church planting and economic development. But that’s what happens when you spend all day translating the Bible. If you don’t live out what it says, you contradict the very words you came to translate!
Crossing the Last Language Barriers
Holistic ministry has become even more crucial now as we cross a major milestone. Over the next 8 to 14 years we expect God will make it possible for the many partners of the Bible translation movement to start the last translation projects needed in the world. All of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. The places left that need the Bible are among the most dangerous and resistant on earth. But that’s the nature of pioneering the last frontiers of Bible translation.
We are sending this generation after the high-hanging fruit. Our goal is to start and finish a total of 300 translation projects by 2050, largely among the least-reached peoples with no church and no Scripture. These language communities suffer the greatest spiritual poverty on earth and, not coincidentally, often they suffer the greatest physical poverty too. To cross these last language barriers with church and Scripture will require more than just Bible translation.
It may not be obvious initially that translating the Bible among unreached peoples requires holistic ministry, but I’ll share an example. I went to minister to a Muslim people in West Africa where only one church of about 40 people struggled to reach the 80,000 Muslims who spoke their language on our side of the border. I imagined finally finishing the whole Bible in their language and then handing the Scriptures over to a group of only 40 people. That was troubling.
I wanted to maximize the impact of my 20 years of labor, so I needed the church to multiply in order for that translation to have its full impact. I knew that handing a Bible to a small group of people would be far less encouraging than handing it to a multiplying network of churches spreading across the language community. So that’s how I first got involved in church-planting and disciple-making movements.
Maximizing the Impact of Bible Translation
What does church planting have to do with Bible translation? It’s all about impact: no church, no impact. As the church multiplies, the impact of the translation work multiplies. We can translate the Bible without investing in the church as long as we don’t mind it not making a difference. But if we crave gospel impact, we have to help the church learn to use the Scriptures to grow, mature, and multiply.
I knew from my training that local leadership is the key to church multiplication. So I started encouraging the local pastor to share Jesus among his own people. That’s when I spotted another obstacle. The local pastor was spending 10 hours or more a day hoeing his fields and was barely able to feed his family. He was zealous but had no room in his day for anything but survival. I presented the need to a Sunday school back in the United States and they promptly funded a pair of oxen and a plow. That’s how I got into economic development projects. Before long the pastor was riding his bicycle to distant villages and preaching about Jesus; he was able to because he had a better way to feed his family.
Over time we challenged the local church to envision sending out their own mission force to plant a church in every Yalunka village; we challenged them to spread the Word to other nearby unreached people groups. The response? “How do we leave our families behind with nothing to eat?” So we worked together to start orchard projects and goat farms. We worked to improve the rice harvest. As wealth grew, the tithes coming into the church grew exponentially. The tithe on the rice harvest went from a little pile of rice near the pulpit to a huge truckload filled with sacks of rice. The improvements provided the church with the resources to do the work.
Maximizing the impact of Scripture is why the strategy of Pioneer Bible Translators includes church planting, medical evangelism, economic development, literacy, ethno-arts, and many other seemingly unrelated fields. We even do sports ministry to attract the youth of one unreached people group to the Word of God.
Most recently we are establishing entrepreneurial businesses to increase our access to a growing number of countries that no longer welcome traditional missionaries. We are committed to doing whatever is needed to make sure everyone everywhere has the Word of God available in their language, and that networks of churches use the Scriptures to grow, mature, and multiply in every language on earth.
Building a Kingdom of Thriving People
Bible translation is not about producing books. Our rallying cry is not, “A Bible on every shelf.” For me and for my teammates, it’s all about life transformation, the actual impact of the Word of God on the lives of the people. Our output is not Bibles, but churches using the Bibles for transformation. Our vision is that one day, if the whole church worldwide cooperates together, we will see lives being transformed through God’s Word in every language.
I was honored to give my neighbor a Yalunka New Testament when we first published it. His life was unstable back then. He often was party to commotions in the village that I would try to help calm. But as he grew in his faith, I watched him grow in kindness and gentleness.
One day he brought a young couple to my front porch for medical help. I could see that the man had beaten his wife. I was angry. The young man couldn’t understand why. That’s when my Christian neighbor said, “The time for beating your wife is past.” The stunned young man sputtered, “But if you can’t beat your wife anymore, how can you keep her from doing bad things?” My neighbor cocked his head and explained, “The thing that tells us not to beat our wives is the same thing that tells them not to do bad things.”
That “thing” is the Bible in their language. When my neighbor explained that the time for beating your wife was past, he was saying, “The kingdom of God has come among the Yalunka people.” The Bible in their language has brought a new era in Yalunka history, a time when husbands love their wives, when parents care for their children, and a time when Jesus is King. That’s what Bible translation means to us.
Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus knows that people may survive by having enough to eat and drink, but to live, to really thrive, they need the Word. If we are to bring justice to the world and end human trafficking, slavery, poverty, and all other ills of the human condition, we must start with the foundation of God’s Word. If it were just about creating books, even one as important as the Bible, I’m not sure we would have enough passion to do the work. How could these young families risk their lives in the most difficult places on earth? But it’s more than Bible translation. And God’s people are willing to be generous with their lives for a chance to change the world.
Greg Pruett serves as president of Pioneer Bible Translators.