Wednesday, May 13, 2015

WE can overcome!

Bible translation is getting a new boost in Ethiopia!

For several decades, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) people have worked on Bible translations for Ethiopia’s primary languages. But this country has over 80 different languages and dialects that need Bible translation. Approaching the task the traditional way would, no doubt, take multiple decades more.

Enter Wycliffe Ethiopia, fondly referred to as WE!

A couple years ago, a handful of the national Ethiopian staff working with SIL decided to form their own registered organization that would work alongside SIL, but tackle the challenge with some new approaches intended to speed up the translation process. In particular, they wanted to create stronger partnership with national church denominations to encourage greater participation in translation at the grass-roots level.

Leading the WE in a management workshop (above)
Tefera receiving the 11th translation of OBS (below)
For four full days during this trip of mine to Ethiopia, I’ve had the privilege of working with the WE director, Tefera, and his leadership team in crafting a new strategic plan and discussing how to develop organizationally into a strong, successful ministry. It’s always fun working with emerging African ministry leaders, but this experience of helping to crystalize the dreams and aspirations of these WE brothers and sisters has been especially rewarding. What has surprised me is that their vision is not only to be a catalyst to Ethiopian churches for Bible translation, but they believe their influence and resource help should spread beyond the borders to the other countries of Africa as well.

It’s one thing to sit in a room for a several days talking about strategy, but during this time, I’ve also had a chance to witness WE already at work at tackling those 80 national languages that need God’s Word. Using a brand new approach to an initial Bible resource called Open Bible Stories (supplied by Wycliffe Associates) WE has challenged national churches to translate the labels of the fifty picture-stories into local languages as quickly as possible. WE’s goal is to have OBS available in all of Ethiopia’s languages done by the end of this year! If you think they’re dreaming, get this: WE completed the first Amharic version of OBS on March 10 and while I was here in the office, a key church leader showed up to deliver the eleventh language translation already completed! That means in just seven weeks, twelve Ethiopian language groups now have access to the story of the Bible that didn’t have it before!

Introducing Tefera and Shimeles at a coffeeshop (above)
Sharing about OBS with church-planting ministries (below)
 Even more personally exciting for me was a chance to introduce WE and this OBS project to a couple of the church-planting organizations I was visiting with during the first part of my trip here. Pastor Shimeles, director of the Horn of Africa Mission, had never met Tefera before but was overjoyed to hear that resources would soon be available that would open the door for his church-planters to reach new tribal areas of the country. We quickly arranged for some of his colleagues to come over and meet the whole WE team. One of the men called it an “historic meeting” as they all began to realize how they could help each other reach their mission objectives and ultimately speed the Gospel to the people of Ethiopia.

God has certainly done much through the faithful Western missionaries in Africa during the past hundred years. But I can’t wait to see what happens when He fully empowers this new generation of African ministry leaders to fulfill their dreams and visions for reaching the world for Christ. If this past week and a half in Ethiopia is any example of that, we’re in for some exciting days ahead!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Woman Power

“If I had to choose, I would take a woman any day over a man as a church-planter.”

I was somewhat startled to hear Pastor Shimeles, Director of Horn of Africa mission, make a statement like that. In an African culture where wives are normally extremely submissive to their husbands not to mention the strong male-dominated Islamic culture, I was surprised that women would even be seen as acceptable in the context of church planting. Nevertheless, Shimeles, was unequivocal in his praise for the women who are having tremendous success in starting up small, house-churches all across Ethiopia.

Tigest and Tsedash
On this day, I had a chance to meet a couple of them and also witness first hand some of the fruit of their labor. Pulling off the main asphalt road at the town of Alem T’ena, our 4 x 4 Toyota HiLux headed east across a very dry  countryside dotted with small, round farmer’s huts. We had loaded up the rear seat with three more passengers including two who were leading church planters now mentoring dozens of other women. Tsedash is the national women’s coordinator for HOA and Tigest is so far, her most productive mentoree. Together they gave our driver explicit directions how to navigate the difficult, barren terrain.

Every few minutes we encountered large flocks of cows and goats being driven to market interspersed with heavily laden donkeys carrying charcoal and fire wood for sale. “Normally, we travel this road in the back of a donkey cart,” they explained. “It usually takes us two to three hours instead of 45 minutes with a car.”

When we arrived at the church, the “congregation” of 25 were out in force singing choruses of worship and welcome. That was followed by multiple testimonies from mostly women telling how miraculous healings and deliverance from demonic spirits were part of the inspiration for forming this home house-church. These simple, yet passionate and authentic expressions of faith were decidedly impressive and touching. When they asked me to share some sort of devotional thought, I obliged, but would rather have listened to more of their stories.

Here's the house-church planted by these two women and a
shot of a challenging bridge-crossing along the way.
One the way back, Tsedash told me there are now more than fifty-five women in the HOA who have been trained as church planters, only ten of whom receive any sort of remuneration for their effort as coordinators. Together, they have planted over 500 churches in just the past three years. Forty-three of them have been just since January! Those churches include more than 4000 baptized believers. When I asked why women seem to be so successful in this endeavor, Tsedash explained that it is a direct result of hearing about a Gospel message that gives women dignity and respect for their giftedness. “Their normal life is so difficult and meaningless, any hope of change is attractive to them. It doesn't take long for our workers to find a woman of peace in their villages—someone already open to spiritual things and asking questions to know more. These first contact ladies then invite family and friends to join them for a Discovery Bible Study and before you know it, three to five families will be meeting together.”

 What a privilege it has been to experience all this first hand and to see such a living example of how the Gospel message brings transformation and hope – especially to the lives of women here in Ethiopia.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

You're Dreaming!

He said he would never forget the scene from that dream. It was a big room, like a hall filled with bunk beds reminiscent of a dormitory. But as he watched, the beds turned into gravestones—all except his own bed. And then, a framed picture on the wall, which he recognized as one of familiar paintings of Christ, slowly came to life. The figure beckoned him to follow and then said out loud, “You need to leave this place.”
Abdulaziz (left) with his mentor, Shimeles

I was interviewing Abdulaziz, one of the foremost church planting trainers in southern Ethiopia. Moments earlier, I had been watching this former Muslim Imam instruct a team of thirty-five men and women how to sensitively engage Islamic communities with the Gospel. Believe it or not, he was showing them how to start out by using key verses in the Koran that validate the authority and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The dream was only the beginning of Abdulaziz’s conversion story, however. As he began to question his Muslim faith, he was ostracized by his friends and family who eventually got him thrown in jail without any specified charge. He was there for nine months and never once was given a trial. But, this breech of justice turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was there that he met Shimeles, a Christian brother who came every week sharing Christ with Abdulaziz and eventually discipling him in his new-found faith.  After he was released, he soon learned how to plant churches among other Muslim communities. Today, Abdulaziz tells me, he has trained close to 4,000 other men and women to do the same.

Big brother, Hussien, with Yusuf
We walk together past an outdoor kitchen to where some injera wat is waiting for us for lunch. Sitting across the table from me is Yusuf, a young church leader of 27 ready to tell me another dream story. “It was actually fifteen years ago that my brother, Hussien, had a dream about me,” he explains. “I was very young then, but he saw me in his dream running toward a very bright light that was coming from a Christian cemetery. He tried to run after me, but couldn’t keep up. For years, he suspected that the dream meant I would become a Christian, so he was afraid to tell me about it. Praise God, we have now both given our hearts to Christ and are serving Him by planting more churches.”

As amazing as these stories may be, I soon learn that somewhere around 35% of all the people in this predominantly Muslim region who become Christians, do so because of experiencing dreams similar to these. Without question, God has chosen this particular method to transmit His truth into the hearts and minds of these Ethiopians he has called to be His own. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Superhighways and The Queen of Sheba

Since 1982, I've had the chance to visit more than 25 countries in Africa but until now, Ethiopia was not one of them. That’s why this visit has been such an eye-opener for me and is totally altering my preconceived expectations about this country.

For the past few days, I've been involved in interviewing church leaders as a means of gathering “success stories” of African ministries and churches involved in successful, sustainable outreach projects. This endeavor even landed me the privilege of a two day road trip with the Executive Director of the Horn of Africa Mission (HOA), one of the premier church-planting institutions in the country, if not the whole continent.

Adopting the very successful strategy called DMM (Disciple Making Movements, also known as CPM or Church Planting Movements), HOA is reporting unbelievable statistics in the advancement of the Gospel.  Altogether during the past 12 years, they have trained over 15,000 lay-church planters, documented over 10,000 new churches planted and validated that 200,000 new believers have been baptized. When I first heard these numbers while sitting in the director’s office, I found them a bit hard to believe. Nowhere in the rest of Africa am I aware of such successes. But after traveling for two days with the man himself and interviewing a half dozen of his grass-roots church planters, I am now a confirmed believer!

I hope to share in subsequent blogs some of the amazing stories I've heard along the way, but for now, here are two reasons why I think Ethiopia seems different than other African countries and therefore positioned as a missional pace-setter for Africa. 
  1. It’s never been under colonial domination. Everywhere I sense a very different mindset than elsewhere on the continent since folks have never developed the same mindset of dependency. There is a “can do” attitude here that results in superhighways, large flocks of cows and goats and thousands donkey or horse carts that do the transporting of goods instead of women with baskets on their heads.
  2. It has an unbroken influence of Christianity dating back to the third century, not to mention a claim to the Queen of Sheba from the reign of King Solomon. Regardless of the rise and impact of Islam over the years, it is clear that a Judeo-Christian value system is deeply rooted in the social consciousness. I believe this has impacted everything from the way women are valued to the normal accepted work ethic.

As a result, Ethiopia seems to be the place in Africa where remarkable advances are taking place in church planting and discipleship movements all fueled by the national churches themselves. So much so, that other African leaders are inviting themselves to come for visits to see how they do it.

So, stay tuned. I hope to find out some of those answers myself!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

When Helping Still Hurts

The book, When Helping Hurts, is an excellent description of what happens when good intentioned Western aid can actually hurt more than it helps if it is administered without a good understanding of the cultural context. This past week while attending a leadership team meeting of MANI (Movement of African National Initiatives,) in Nairobi, Kenya, I've been impressed by how the legacy of some old well-intentioned help is still hurting.
MANI is all about catalyzing a mission movement in every country of Africa. For the past fifteen years, since the AD2000 & Beyond Movement, MANI has been working hard at inspiring efforts to reach the remaining unreached people groups across the continent as well as preparing Africans for ministry in global missions.

But today, MANI is recognizing that the greatest stumbling block to success is the lack of commitment on the part of local African churches to support mission outreach. The problem is not that they don’t think it should happen, but that church leaders continue to see mission work as something led and funded by Westerners. It all has to do with the way churches were originally planted in Africa 50 to 100 years ago. Most expat mission organizations modeled church-planting as something independent of mission outreach, especially to other tribes, nations or people groups. So today, the idea that a national church should prepare and financially support young missionaries for cross-cultural outreach simply doesn’t exit. Most churches still think the West will provide resources for that.

Reuben Ezemadu, continental coordinator for MANI, stated during one of our sessions that unfortunately, the vestiges of old “evangelical imperialism” still lives on in Africa, especially as we see current church leaders following patterns of their Western missionary forefathers.
This is why MANI is attempting to connect with top heads of African churches to cast new vision that Africans can and should be mobilizing and resourcing mission efforts. A major summit is being planned for a year from now in Accra, Ghana in hopes that several hundred presidents of church denominations will come together for that purpose.

I’m praying this event will be a watershed moment and begin shaping a new African paradigm that will see national churches shedding old hurtful attitudes and truly begin helping to spawn a new generation of mission outreach across the continent and around the globe.

Me and WE

You would think that the name Wycliffe Ethiopia would belong to an old, venerable institution that had been involved in Bible translation for decades. That’s why I was surprised to discover it’s only been around a couple of years.

Bible translation in Ethiopia has been happening for a long time, however, but it’s been under the ministry of SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) and handled primarily by a large contingent of expat staff.  Then, five years ago, the Ethiopian government demanded that all non-profit organizations had to register either for development work or religious work, but not the two together. SIL, for various reasons, choose the development identity. The government immediately frowned on their continued work on Bible translations.

That’s why a group of Ethiopian Bible translators and staff opted to leave SIL and form a new national entity properly registered to continue the Bible translation work. Enter Wycliffe Ethiopia (WE.)

This past week, I've had the privilege to spend two days with the sixteen staff members of WE. With their legal situation in hand, they now are needing to press ahead with such things as a strategic plan, HR polices and guidelines for a board of directors. I've been asked to help them do just that.

It’s always so refreshing to meet more of the new generation of African leaders giving birth to and developing new ministries across this continent. WE is a great example. Led by a young man named Tefera, I sense both passion and vision for getting God’s Word to the remaining Ethiopian languages that want it.  And he’s not afraid to try some of the newest translation techniques that is revolutionizing how quickly the work can get done.

I look forward to see how this first introduction to WE will develop into some more organizational development workshops together later this year and beyond.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Print On Demand or POD. I’m learning how this new technology is revolutionizing and accelerating the process of publishing new Bible translations.

Today, I had a chance to visit the new POD bureau here at the Nigeria Bible Translation Trust.  At first it looks like a plain room with some innocent-looking printers, a binding machine and a Mac computer. But, what I learned is that this $20,000 equipment investment (thanks to Wycliffe Associates) is going to significantly change the way Bibles become available to unreached people groups in this country. Let me explain.

In the past, a New Testament translation project would take around 10 years to complete. Once ready to print, it would be handed off to the Bible Society which has a standard minimum press order of 5,000 copies. At $10 each, that meant an additional $50,000 had to be raised above and beyond the cost of translation before the Bible Society would touch the project. That kind of money doesn’t come easily for the smaller people groups of Nigeria.  Therefore, it can take years before any printed Bibles are actually available even though the translation is already complete!  Would you believe that there are four to six completed New Testaments here at NBTT that have been waiting for two years for these funds and there’s still no hope in sight of getting them printed?

Completed paper-back POD book done here at NBTT
Enter POD! Now, with a completed New Testament in digital format, it is easily formatted and immediately uploaded to high-speed inkjet printers. Add a bit of hot-melt glue in a special binding machine, trim the edges and you have a completed two-hundred page paper-back book in minutes that costs around $3.50! And here’s the best part of all: it doesn’t cost any more to print one book or a hundred.  In fact, if a small people group want to start with 50 New Testaments, they can now do that and then come back later to add another order for five or fifty any time they want.

It’s been fun seeing the excitement grow in the eyes of the NBTT Executive Director as we’ve discussed the implications of this POD technology. Not only does it have the potential to add a healthy new income stream for NBTT, but they can now prevent any further delay in getting God’s Word out to those in Nigeria who desperately need it.

So, PTL for POD!