Bible translation is a chief task for All-Nations teams, but it is far from the only task. Frequently, it is more than a simple lack of a Bible which prevents an indigenous church from beginning and flourishing among an unreached people group. The goal of each team is stated simply in the All-Nations vision: “Communities of believers in every language group living out the Word of God.” The role of the All-Nations team, then, is to identify the obstacles which stand in the way of this vision being realized in the people group to which they are sent and then devise and implement plans to overcome these obstacles. Because Bible Translation is a main focus of All-Nations, translation will always be included in the church-building strategy, but other obstacles will require additional strategies to overcome them. Let’s look at a few of the obstacles which often stand in the way of a flourishing indigenous church and how these obstacles can be overcome.
Lack of a Bible
This is typically the most obvious obstacle for the people groups where All-Nations teams are working. With no Bible to read, what indigenous Christians or seekers can learn about God and His nature and will is limited to what others tell them or a supernatural revelation. Because of how essential having access to the Scriptures is for any Christian or church, Bible translation is a top priority for All-Nations teams. One or more team members will focus on equipping mother tongue speakers to work alongside them in Bible translation. When translation is in process, an outside consultant will review and critique the translation draft before the Bible is published.
For those communities which have a Bible already or will be receiving one, that Bible does them little good if they cannot read it. For a Bible translation to communicate adequately, the obstacle of literacy must be overcome. The All-Nations team will develop or facilitate the development of literacy materials for the target language. They will begin teaching literacy themselves before training members of the community to continue teaching others how to read.
Lack of Discipleship
Possessing a Bible and the ability to read it does not automatically mean mature Christians and a thriving church. Perhaps some will take the incentive to study the Scriptures on their own and God’s Spirit will lead them to a full understanding of the Word. Frequently, though, a concerted evangelism and discipleship effort will be made by the All-Nations team. This will often begin by developing a chronological Bible course to teach to seekers and new Christians. Even if a group of Christians is already present in the target people group, they will likely need discipleship due to their earlier lack of access to a Bible. Leaders for the church must be sought out and equipped so the indigenous church can continue to thrive and grow without the permanent presence of the All-Nations team.
Sometimes the acute needs of an individual or community stand in the way of a thriving indigenous church. If the most basic human needs (food, water, clothing, etc.) are not being met, the sufferer will often not even be able to consider their spiritual needs. Where necessary, All-Nations teams will help in addressing these needs whether they are caused by conflict, natural disaster, or something else. While saving human life should always be a priority, these acute needs must be met in a way which does not foster dependency on the part of the local community or distract the team members from their other tasks long-term.
Lack of Economic Opportunity
Similarly to the acute needs described above, chronic financial difficulty can be an obstacle in the path to a thriving indigenous church. In addition to distracting from spiritual focus, a lack of local economic opportunity can drive community members (typically men) outside of the community for extended periods of time as they seek job opportunities elsewhere. This is not ideal for any family and can seriously hinder the growth of the church. Because so many unreached people groups live in areas with little economic opportunity, All-Nations team typically include a member or two with a focus on community development. These community development facilitators seek to develop economic opportunity, as well as addressing community health needs and helping the community adjust to the sometimes drastic and sudden changes which globalization has brought to their region. Community development can also provide a platform for All-Nations team to enter areas which are hostile to Christians or outsiders in general.
All too often, communities and/or governments in unreached areas are hostile toward community members converting to Christianity and forming churches. While churches can flourish in hostile environments, such an environment can also be a significant obstacle, especially when the church is just getting started. To help overcome this obstacle All-Nations teams may need to be a new community to receive new Christians when their former community rejects them. This is especially important for the first few who embrace Christianity. All-Nations team may at times need to advocate for the Christian community before local or regional governments and other groups hostile to the Gospel’s spread.
A Case Study
Now that we’ve looked at various tasks All-Nations team engage in to overcome obstacles to a thriving indigenous church, let’s follow the journey of a team which worked in Central Asia. This is a fictional account, but it does draw from experiences which All-Nations teams have had and challenges which we anticipate facing.
Meet the Team
John and Sarah Martin, William and Becky Mast, and James and Elizabeth Miller joined All-Nations within a year’s time. The Martin’s were an older family with teenagers while the other two families had a couple young children. The families were from different parts of the country, so they did not know each other previously, but became acquainted through All-Nations events, and bonds began forming. The Martin’s had had interest in Central Asia for years, and the others followed their interest as they began discussing coming together as a team.
Training for their ministry roles took them several years, partly because the two younger families were still paying off their houses. The Martin’s had interest in Community Development, taking advantage of John Martin’s mechanical aptitude and handyman skills. William Mast and James Miller were a more scholarly types. William studied Greek for NT translation, while James studied Hebrew for OT translation.
After much prayer and discussion the families committed to working together, found a target people group in Central Asia, and began preparations. Investigation quickly showed it would be difficult to get into the country and live among the target people, as the authoritarian government was hostile to foreigners. After researching their options, they realized they could get in on investors visas, with financial backing from some connections with means. The three families all began studying the regional trade language while still in the States. They were all leave for the field within a few months time. This period of study and team formation took approximately five years.
The team started out in a small city close to the region where the target people group lived. They continued studying the trade language as they processed the necessary paperwork for staying long-term in the country and launching a business and community development initiatives. During this time, they also investigated business opportunities that would meet the requirements of their investors visas. This period of integration and trade language study took one and a half years.
Finally the team was able to move into a town of the target people group. People were suspicious of the outsiders, but they gained their trust as their good intentions were realized. The families slowly found individuals willing to help teach them the local language. The people made cotton handicrafts, and John was able to help start a slipper workshop which made high-quality products which were then shipped out of the region. The more outgoing members of the team quickly built numerous relationships in the community, while other team members found it a bit more difficult. They all invested all the time they could in learning the language and culture, though John also had to spend a good bit of time in the slipper workshop.
Three and a half years after moving into the target community, the team had all gained proficiency in the local language. They began making literacy booklets, and they began translating and adapting a chronological Bible teaching curriculum, recruiting and equipping mother tongue speakers to help with the task. They discovered that some of the locals had had visions of people bringing good news. They taught the chronological Bible lessons and received an over-all positive response. Those who had had visions previously were the most open to respond to the Gospel. A couple of men really showed promise as leaders, and the team put special focus into discipling them. They finished developing the literacy course, taught a few groups how to read, and then trained other to continue teaching throughout the region. This period of developing a literacy and Bible course and launching into teaching took two years.
The team began teaching the Bible curriculum to a second group of people. The budding church leaders were asked to participate in the teaching. Some Scripture portions had already been translated to accompany the teaching curriculum, but William and James now began serious Bible translation. A couple of the translation helpers were encouraged to travel to a neighboring country to attend two-year school focused on equipping mother-tongue translators. The next eight years were spent in full-time translation and discipleship.
A serious earthquake then struck the region. The All-Nations team and the local church leaders helped coordinate the distribution of UN-provided aid in the region and assisted with rebuilding houses. The developing Christian church received a good name from this. However, in some areas of the country, the foreign-provided aid causes problems and corruption. The authoritarian government blamed the foreign institutions who had provided the aid and decided to purge foreigners from the country. The team had not intended to leave yet, but they were forced to do so, with some years of translation work left to do. They had spent a total of 15 years in the country.
The team’s exit was sudden, but it was not disastrous for the ministry. From day one, the team had done all they could to equip members of the local community to take leadership roles. The local church leaders had been following Christ for almost 10 years and were quite mature Christians. The local church had been making evangelism trips into the surrounding region for a few years and a church network was forming. John Martin had even trained local managers for the slipper factory. The transition to full local management was a bit rocky, but stabilized after a bit. The Martin family returned to the States and John now helps train future community development facilitators. The Mast’s and the Miller’s moved to a nearby country. From there, they were able to have continued oversight of the translation project and consistent contact with mother tongue members of translation team. After seven more years the translation was completed, and the manuscript was sent to the publishers. 27 years after joining All-Nations, the team had finally completed their mission!
The local church held a festive dedication service for the printed Bible. The All-Nations team could not join because of restrictions on foreigners traveling in the country, but they were able to watch some video recordings of the celebration. It is bittersweet for them, not being able to be physically present, but they rejoice over how God guided the project, and they trust they will meet their brothers and sisters in heaven.
As a reminder, the case study above is a fictional account given to illustrate the methods and goals of All-Nations teams.
The article above is based on a 30-minute talk Leonard gave at EXPLORE 2023.