WYCLIFFE CANADA HAS EMBARKED UPON AN HISTORIC SEASON AS IT CELEBRATES 50 YEARS OF BEING A REGISTERED CHARITY IN CANADA—ALL THE WHILE SERVING AS A KEY PARTICIPANT IN THE WORLDWIDE BIBLE TRANSLATION MOVEMENT. Such a milestone provides an important opportunity to reflect upon the heritage that God has provided and to prepare for the next season of ministry.
Wycliffe Canada’s history is part of a longer one, dating back to the formation of Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942. Eight years earlier, in 1934, a young man named William Cameron Townsend started a training course on a farm in Arkansas with only two students. Borrowing the name of John Wycliffe, Townsend called the course “Camp Wycliffe.” It focused on linguistic training to prepare students for Bible translation in minority languages. Little did Townsend know this was the humble beginning of what, after his death in 1982, would become a worldwide Bible translation movement.
Townsend liked the name “Wycliffe” because it honoured the trailblazing work of John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384). The Oxford churchman and academic inspired, instigated and supervised the translation of the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. Wycliffe realized that Church leadership was denying the average person in the pews access to the Bible. In his book, Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation, Erwin Lutzer explains Wycliffe was adamant that if ordinary people had the Bible in their own language, “the few who were able to read could then read it to others, and the gospel could be rediscovered.”
Unfortunately, Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible was not widely available because the printing press had not yet been invented. All of Wycliffe’s Bibles were copied by hand, usually taking one scribe about 10 months to make one copy. Moreover, only the wealthy could afford to hire a scribe. (Today there are still about 250 copies of Wycliffe’s handwritten Bibles in existence.)
What a wonderful foundation from the past that Wycliffe Canada can claim as its roots—the visionary work of William Cameron Townsend who, in turn, honoured the groundbreaking work of John Wycliffe by naming an organization after him. Now, in 2018, that organization has become a movement for Bible translation numbering 101 organizations forming the Wycliffe Global Alliance (WGA).
A Culturally Translatable Faith
Noted Ghanaian theologian, the late Dr. Kwame Bediako, says in his book, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa: History and Experience, that the Christian faith is unique because it is “culturally translatable.”
Throughout Wycliffe’s history, and the longer history of the Church, Bible translation has enabled Christianity to grow and flourish in every culture. The translatability of the Bible enables people and their societies to be better equipped through their vernacular languages to deal with changes brought upon them by outside influences. From a theological and missiological standpoint, it’s crucial for Wycliffe to continue its commitment to Bible translation within God’s larger mission.
Ours is a different world than what Townsend lived in as he tirelessly tried to raise awareness in the North American churches of the needs for Bible translation amongst minority groups around the world. Today, the global Church increasingly understands and participates in God’s mission, gaining insights into how the availability and use of the Bible in local languages transforms people groups.
Globalization across the world has created unpredictable contexts. This rapid and global state of change is happening because of spreading technology, affordable air travel, global banking and rapid urbanization, etc. Such changes disrupt the status quo of the Church and mission agencies. Consequently, a mission agency’s ability to swiftly adapt is key to its effectiveness. Wycliffe Canada, a vital member of the WGA, is no exception—it needs an adaptable spirit.
As we better understand the changing nature of the worldwide Church’s geographical spread (and retreat) and its missional intentions, we can learn how to form and re-form our strategies to participate in God’s mission through Bible translation and related ministries.
Within the Bible translation movement, numbers are often emphasized. Throughout the modern missionary movement we have used statistics as an indicator of whether or not progress is being made.
There is another aspect of mission success, however, that is much more difficult to measure: the state of friendship and collaboration amongst churches and mission agencies in God’s mission. This “measurement” calls for an emphasis on building healthy relationships of trust and mutuality as friends across mission agencies and churches in God’s community.
South and East Influence
A paradigm shift is underway, where missional leaders from the Church of the global South and East are contributing as equals in global mission. The Church there is actively initiating its own plans for the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. This may be a problem for the Western Church because it has difficulty listening well to the rest of the world. Western missions are closely tied to their own culture, which is noted for its political and economic pragmatism. This results in a growing gap between Western mission practice and how the South and East interprets mission. The consequence is that global South and East experiences are often undervalued from a missional perspective.
Historically, decisions about Bible translation strategy, training and direction were made in the West. That is logical since that is where organizations like Wycliffe Bible Translators started. But now, 70 per cent of the organizations that make up the WGA are located in the global South and East. It is only natural that the Church there would want to influence the future of Bible translation strategy.
What are leaders in the Bible translation movement from the global South and East requesting of their partners in the West and North? We have identified several areas of their critical concerns:
- Recognize the need to work together to develop curricula for Bible translation training and processes that better serve the changing contexts of the Bible translation movement.
- Develop appropriate processes for accrediting Bible translation consultants (those who check the accuracy of Scripture translations), and review the concept and role of translation consultants in the translation process.
- Affirm our global commitment to translating all of God’s Word. Encourage WGA organizations to partner together with local communities to ensure that the whole Bible will eventually be translated and made available in the appropriate media. Commit to establishing community-based translation processes that are sustainable.
Our vision is to see Wycliffe Canada and all Bible translation organizations working more closely as a community of God’s people, sharing ideas and being generous with resources and expertise.
As Wycliffe Canada and its partners, like you, celebrate this year and look forward to what God wants to do for the next season of ministry, I encourage you to take to heart the good things that God is doing, as David writes in Psalm 52:8: “I am like a flourishing olive tree in the house of God; I continually trust in God’s loyal love” (NET).
Let’s be determined to see the Bible translation movement flourish like an olive tree in God’s overall mission. Let’s be encouraged by what God is doing in and through Wycliffe Canada across the world. And let’s rise to the challenges He is placing before us.
Kirk Franklin is executive director of Wycliffe Global Alliance, a community of 100-plus organizations, including Wycliffe Canada, serving together in the Bible translation movement around the world.