What can the birth of a Bible translation agency teach us about world evangelism?
Make disciples of all nations! Doesn't that sound exciting, ambitious and . . . overwhelming? Indeed, the enormity of what God has called His people to do can paralyze us into inaction or else send us running "in all directions at once."
Clearly, the global missionary enterprise clearly needs people who will act strategically in working to carry out Christ's Great Commission. William Cameron Townsend serves as an example of missionaries who have thought, planned and worked strategically.
For Townsend, having the Bible in all of the world's languages was a strategic necessity for the Church's global mission. His tight focus on the need for Bible translation work has led today to the translation and production of New Testaments in more than 1,000 languages and ongoing Scripture translation projects in more than 2,000 additional languages.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Townsend was fresh out of college when he went to Central America as a short-term volunteer. At that time, selling books, including Bibles, was a way Protestants could get by with doing evangelistic work in Latin America. So, in order to "fly under the radar" and not run afoul of the authorities, Townsend became a traveling bookseller or what was then called a "colporteur."
After his return to the U.S., Townsend felt called to go back to Guatemala as a career missionary where he again took up colportage evangelism. One day Tonsend tried to sell a Spanish Bible to a Cakchiquel man who came by his book table in a village market.
Finally, the Cakchiquel man said something which more or less meant: "Mister, if your God is so smart, why doesn't He speak my language?"
At that point, Cakchiquel was an unwritten language. Townsend began learning it. He then set about inventing an alphabet so the language could be written, and finally he gave more than a decade of his life to translating the New Testament into Cakchiquel.
The mission organization which was then supporting Townsend scolded him for pouring time and energy into Bible translation rather than doing evangelism. Townsend's reply was simple and brief: "The greatest missionary is the Bible in the Mother Tongue."
Townsend realized that world evangelism efforts would be somewhat ineffective unless they were done in people's native tongue or "heart language." So, he dedicated the rest of his life to the cause of Bible translation.
He founded Wycliffe Bible Translators which has become one of the largest Christian missionary sending agencies. Wycliffe is today pushing to get Bible translation projects underway in all those languages still needing one. The goal is to have those translation projects going by 2025.
Because Townsend worked strategically, the Bible is now in hundreds more languages than it would have been, and lots of missionaries have acquired linguistics skills which make them far better communicators than they likely would have been.
Townsend thought it was important to approach Great Commission work strategically. The results show that he was right. Let's do the same!
-- Howard Culbertson
More mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series that appeared in Engage magazine.
Bible translation case study: Word for God
World missions history resources: Black Americans involvement in world missions World mission history crossword puzzle Historic world missions slogans Brief overview of world mission history Monastic missionary strategy Nazarene Missions International history PowerPoint: Epochs of world mission history World outreach from 1600 to the present Missions history syllabus Timeline of world missions outreach Today in world missions history Evangelizing the Vikings William Borden's story