On this planet, there are about 7,000 living languages. 1,860 of them do not have a single word of Scripture. 4,500 languages do not have a full Bible. That’s more than 1 billion Bibleless people.
Let that sink in.
The few believers in those people groups are doing their best to preach and teach and evangelize by using Scripture in a language of wider communication, known as “LWC.” Think French or English or Arabic in many parts of Africa. The problem is, only the more wealthy or fortunate tend to know those languages well. The commoners? The poor? The women? The children? Probably not.
The ordinary person doesn’t know LWC well because it is not their heart language. It is not the language their mothers spoke to sooth them as infants. It’s not how they tell their spouse and kids they love them. It smacks of business and politics. Not love.
Imagine only knowing Christ in the foreign language you studied in high school and college. How would those Scriptures speak to you now? Would you even bother? Instead of welling up at the glory of God you’d find yourself reaching for a dictionary you do not have.
Though much good still has come from the Bible’s influence in a second language, the word of God in the heart language has far more power to change hearts and lives. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Why English Doesn’t Work
This answers the question everyone in Bible translation dreads: “Why can’t we just teach everybody English?” It doesn’t work. The roots of a second language grow only as deep as the intellect. They do not reach the heart.
Effective ministry depends on Scripture in the heart language. Good church planting depends on biblical preaching in the heart language. Theological training for local pastors depends on Scripture in the heart language. Care for the least of these, without the soul-saving and soul-consoling message of Jesus in the heart language, is not much different than the physical help a secular organization could provide.
Effective ministry depends on Scripture, yet over 1 billion people do not have the full Bible.
The Work Continues
But God is finishing the work he started. Through local churches, national translators, and dozens of Bible translation societies around the globe, these people groups are being reached at an unprecedented rate. Well over 100 translation projects are engaged every year. No medium is off limits: Open-air Bible storytelling, the “JESUS” film, New Testament and Old Testament translation, audio Bibles, even smartphone apps. You name it. The gospel is advancing to the farthest corners of the globe.
The translator who will begin work on the last unreached language on earth is alive today. During many of our lifetimes, we will see the gospel proclaimed in every last living language on this earth. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the fulfillment of the Great Commission to me. It sounds like what John recorded in Revelation 7:9–10.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Consider Your Role
We have a problem though, and it’s a good problem. The global interest in translating the Bible into heart languages is skyrocketing. The nations are asking for help, for resources, and for personnel. But we don’t have enough laborers or senders to keep up with the need. So, I ask you to help. I ask you to help finish the Great Commission.
John Piper says you can play three roles in fulfilling the Great Commission: 1) You can go; 2) You can send; or 3) You can disobey.
Which role is for you?
Could you work in Bible translation? Probably.
What if you’ve never excelled at foreign languages, or never cared to read the footnotes in your Bible, or wouldn’t thrive under the exhaustion that accompanies globetrotting? Could Bible translation still be for you? Yes.
When people think of joining a Bible translation ministry, they think it means they’d have to relocate to a developing country, learn a handful of languages, and become Bible scholars. It’s not like that for most of the people who work in Bible translation.
Like many global endeavors, Bible translation has become increasingly specialized to become more efficient. Because of this, countless other roles exist. They’re less obvious, but just as essential to the work. We need skilled people there, too.
Currently, The Seed Company and Wycliffe Bible Translators — the two organizations I work with — have 17 job listings posted on their websites which do not involve direct Bible translation. Many of these are salaried and U.S. based — not to mention the scores of field-based jobs that are always needed.
Some of those 17 positions include: field business analyst, online marketing specialist, partner relations assistant, copywriter, video specialist, network and server specialist, field coordinator, finance specialist and graphic designer.
You don’t need to be a linguist to be on the front lines of Bible translation.
So how can you help?
You can go, by working in Bible translation within the skill set that God has given you.
You can send, through prayer, finances, short-term teams, resources, or member care.
Or, you can disobey.