Two young men trampled the trails of Guatemala together in 1917. One was Cameron Townsend—a 22-year-old American intent on winning Guatemalans to the Lord by distributing Spanish Bibles. The other was a Guatemalan named Francisco Diaz, who had only been a Christian for a few months.
Francisco, whose mother tongue was Cakchiquel, recognized on a deep personal level that if the Cakchiquels were ever to have a meaningful relationship with God, then they and God would have to share a common language. But why, he wondered aloud to Cameron, did that language have to be Spanish? Surely God could speak Cakchiquel, too, couldn’t he?
The Birth of a Vision
Townsend accepted the challenge, and a vision was born. After translating a New Testament for the Cakchiquel, he went on to found SIL International and Wycliffe Bible Translators, with the goal of translating the scriptures into every language in the world.
In 1999, Wycliffe and other partners adopted Vision 2025—a vision that all language communities needing one would have a Bible translation program in progress by 2025. Humanly speaking, this was an impossible goal because at the pace at which Bible translation was taking place, it would be 2150 before the final translation was started. We agreed this was unacceptable and committed to work with a renewed sense of urgency.
God has honored that commitment and, with our partners, we are now participating in the greatest acceleration of the pace of Bible translation ever witnessed by the Church. Last year, 109 translation projects were started—the largest number ever recorded. The remaining number of translation needs stands near 2,200.
The Vision Grows
Vision 2025 has exponentially increased the need for resources (prayer, people, and funds), and in response, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA has undertaken the Last Languages Campaign. The goal of the campaign is to contribute our God-led share of the resources needed to begin the last Bible translation projects.
At the official launch of the Last Languages Campaign on 22 November 2008, as I was walked to the platform to speak, I passed Zachary Peterson, the 8-year-old son of Todd Peterson, The Wycliffe Seed Company board chair. Zachary jumped to his feet, reached out, and gave me a high-five. I will treasure that image for a long time. That small act of excitement, support, and encouragement represented to me God’s goodness, joy, and pleasure at that to which we were committing ourselves. It was a living, visible picture of God’s enthusiasm for reaching the least, the last, and the lost.
Working toward a Common Goal
One of our local pastors who spoke at the launch gave us a charge: “Please, God first!” At the end of the service, all of us stood together to commit ourselves in faith to what lay ahead. And what lay ahead has been most encouraging. Last year my wife and I attended the graduation ceremony of twenty-three story crafters from eight different language communities in India. The workshop was sponsored by the New India Evangelistic Association (NIEA) and facilitated by The Wycliffe Seed Company. Wycliffe USA contributed funds and consultants, including a staff member assigned to OneStory—an oral storying partnership of Youth With a Mission, Trans World Radio (TWA), Campus Crusade for Christ, and Wycliffe.
Ten months after the workshop started, mother tongue scriptures were available in eight languages representing sixty-five million people. These came in the form of biblically accurate, culturally relevant oral stories. In three of these languages, the stories represented access to scripture for the very first time! Faith Comes By Hearing—another partner organization—recorded each newly translated story.
The results have been amazing. Storytellers report that their non-Christian neighbors are showing great interest in the stories. In this part of India only 0.3% of the population professes to be Christian, and only one-third know how to read or write. So, according to partners like Dr. Alexander Philip, director of NIEA, the translation of stories becomes a church-planting effort—not only because it is an oral strategy, but because it uses the mother tongue.
Rev. Samuel Hembrom, secretary of the Brethren in Christ Church, who gave some of his personal time to help in the story project, agrees with Dr. Philip: “This is a strategic time to use the mother tongue, and we are convinced that the Lord is going to bring in a great harvest.”
Dr. Philip wrote in July 2009 that eight of the men who completed the storyteller workshop—working in three different languages—were participating in a Luke Partnership Workshop. These workshops, a partnership between the JESUS film and The Wycliffe Seed Company, focus on the translation of the Gospel of Luke, which becomes the script for the JESUS film.
Dr. Philip and his colleagues view the preparation of the JESUS film script as extremely significant. “Without doubt, the JESUS film has been the most effective tool in seeing a breakthrough in church planting in this area,” says Pramod Paul, church-planting leader with the NIEA.
Partnerships are one of the reasons the pace of Bible translation is increasing so rapidly. I am convinced that our work in the future will best be completed through partnerships like this one in India, and that in many places translation projects will begin with storying. The progression from oral stories in the mother tongue, to JESUS film scripts based on the Gospel of Luke, to complete New and Old Testaments supported by literacy programs—all accomplished with an abundance of partners—is proving to be an effective strategy for getting the word into the minds and hearts of people as quickly as possible.
The day before he died Townsend is reported to have said, “I guess I’m not going to see it.” “See what?” he was asked. “The last language started.” After a pause, he said, “Finish the task.”
As we launched our Last Languages Campaign, we set out to honor God and spread the vision of Bible translation for the last languages, and we committed ourselves to seeing the task through. Building on the vision of Townsend—which never faltered, even on his deathbed—we believe that, by God’s grace, we and our partners will accomplish the task of starting the last Bible translation need in this generation. And we remain convinced, as Diaz was, that effective evangelism and church growth rest on the foundation of the scriptures in the mother tongue.