11. Cameron Townsend, a missionary with a strategic plan

What can the birth of a Bible translation agency teach us about world evangelism?

Doing missions well: Missionaries in the past who shaped today's global outreach efforts

Mini-essays in Engage, an online missions magazine

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 either paralyze us into inaction or send us "running in all directions."

There is a better response than either of those extremes. The global missionary enterprise needs people who have a strategic plan to carry out Christ's Great Commission. William Cameron Townsend is a good example of a missionary who has thought, planned, and worked strategically.

For Townsend, having the Bible in all of the world's languages was a strategic necessity for the Church if it was going to be serious about carrying out its God-given global mission. His tight focus on the need for Bible translation work has led today to translating and producing 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 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, in a village market, a man whose mother tongue was Kaqchikel came by Townsend's book stand. Townsend wound up trying to sell the man a Bible in Spanish.

Finally, the Kaqchikel speaker said something that more or less meant: "Mister, if your God is so smart, why doesn't He speak my language?"

At that point in time, Kaqchikel was an unwritten language. So, Townsend began learning it. Then, he devised a Kaqchikel alphabet so the language could be written. He then gave more than a decade of his life to translating the New Testament into Kaqchikel using the alphabet he himself had invented.

The mission organization that was then supporting Townsend scolded him for pouring so much time and energy into Bible translation when he was supposed to be evangelizing. 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 is now one of the largest Christian missionary sending agencies. Today, Wycliffe is pushing to get Bible translation projects underway in every language that still lacks a Bible. The goal is to have all those translation projects going within a decade.

Because the man whom many knew as "Uncle Cam" worked strategically, the Bible is now in hundreds more languages than would have been, and lots of missionaries have acquired linguistics skills that make them far better communicators of the Gospel 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!

Discussion questions

  1. How did William Cameron Townsend's experience as a short-term volunteer in Central America shape his vision for Bible translation work?
  2. What was Townsend's response to the criticism he received from his mission organization for dedicating so much time and energy to Bible translation?
  3. Why did Townsend believe that Bible translation was a strategic necessity for the Church, and how did his work in this area help advance the cause of world evangelism?
  4. What can we learn from Cameron Townsend's example about the importance of strategic planning in carrying out the Great Commission, and how can this approach be applied in modern times?
  5. What role should strategic planning play in fruitful world missions outreach? How can missionaries today apply the lessons from Townsend's work to their efforts to carry out Christ's Great Commission?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

More mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series that appeared in Engage magazine.

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