Have you ever wondered? Maybe you have — or maybe you haven’t.
Regardless, pause for a moment: 1,240 people groups. Each with 10,000 people or fewer. They have no Scripture. That’s 60 percent of the 2000-plus people groups without God’s Word.
They are the Least of These. Many are poor, isolated, marginalized and oppressed. Without God’s Truth, they still seek protection, blessing and safety from traditional methods. They:
- Pray to spirits, hoping for favor and a plentiful harvest.
- Confess belief in Jesus at church; then consult a traditional healer the very same week.
With so many people still waiting, you might think we should just work faster. But no — you’re smarter than that. The urgency is too great; we must work smarter.
But what would that look like? And why — until now — were the least the “last”? Dr. Gilles Gravelle, director of research and innovation, challenges a set of assumptions, and proposes new tools for Bible translation in the 21st century. Read on. —Johanna Fenton, editor
Most Bible translation organizations do not have an official policy for prioritizing translation projects based on population size. However, that doesn’t mean the notion has never been debated.
For some people, investing time and funds in the larger groups provided a greater return on investment: more people impacted by the Scriptures. There were also Western translators who wanted to go to the very small, marginal people groups — those numbering in the hundreds or a few thousand.
The Short Shelf Life of Printed Scripture Books
Most translators chose the larger groups for translation. First they chose those numbering in the millions. Then, when those ran out, they chose languages with hundreds of thousands of speakers; finally, they chose those in the tens of thousands.
The few people who chose the very small groups had less success. Few New Testaments were ever completed. And the portions of Scripture that were produced, printed and distributed eventually disintegrated in their humid rainforest environments.
In some cases, knowledge of the Gospel material was lost by the next generation.
Have Our Assumptions Been Part of the Problem?
One reason people avoided committing to translation work among these small and typically semi-nomadic tribes is because of certain assumptions held by Western translators. They assumed:
- They would have to commit to a full New Testament translation from the very start, probably with some Old Testament books.
- Reading would be the primary way the people would learn and pass on Scripture; that would require significant literacy work.
- They would need to make linguists out of semi-nomadic gathers and church lay pastors.
Today’s Rapid Spreading of Scripture Among Small Groups
Every people group, regardless of population, should have access to the full Bible if that is what they desire. But rather than assume the former barriers to translation, we can now expect to reach our goal of bringing God’s Word to all remaining language groups in this generation. We can accomplish this by working smarter, using improved methods and today’s technology.
Tools for Spreading God’s Word
Set Attainable Goals — Begin with rapid, attainable translation goals. Think in terms of Scripture portions rather than a full translation, and set goals to reach in months or even two to three years, no longer. With guidance, the people can determine which Scripture portions best fit their needs, and through attainable goals, God’s Truth can make rapid impact and spread naturally through their communities.
“Best Method” for Cultural Communication — Use the most effective Scripture communication method for immediate impact and wide dissemination. The JESUS film provides rapid visual/audio Scripture from Luke’s Gospel. Audio recordings of Scripture in various formats can be played by listening groups or on individual devices. Provide oral Bible story training so Scripture portions and Bible stories can be preserved and passed on long after the printed books have exceeded their shelf life. One field team member commented that, “Tell a story to three people, and it goes viral … within a short time, 50 others have heard it.” Follow up with another set of Scripture portions delivered through multiple media methods.
By working smarter, God’s Word spreads faster. We might just be surprised to see how rapidly God’s Word travels through these communities … and how eager nationals are to take on the task of providing a full Bible translation for their own people.
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