In the early 1980s I took a three-month leave from the news department at Christianity Today and jetted south to study Spanish in Costa Rica. Little did I suspect where that journey would ultimately lead.
International Publishing: Intro to Our
As Colombian church leader Harold Segura says,
You’ll gain a fast-paced look at trends and
God gave me a love for Latin America, and ultimately I left the magazine to explore full-time ministry there. During an extended trip around Central and South America, I asked missionaries and Latin pastors how a North American journalist could fit into Christian work. “We need more Latin-authored Christian books and articles,” they invariably said. “You can come and train Latin Christians to write.”
To my surprise, eighty to ninety percent of all Christian books in Spanish were translations from English or another language. It didn’t make sense. Why would Latin Americans want to read a Christian book about time management or youth ministry, for example, written by authors from a country with such different cultural, economic, and family values?
I spent four years in Peru as a missionary journalist focused on training writers. Later, I began equipping and encouraging local Christian publishers and authors, primarily in hard countries of the world, through Media Associates International (MAI).
In my travels with MAI, I meet men and women with incredible stories and a passion to write and get published. But many of their stories remain untold. A striking imbalance of Western translations remains. In some countries, at least four in every five Christian books has been translated from English or originally written in a culture foreign to the reader. One of the most strategic global ministries today is vibrant local Christian publishing and authorship.1
Books Build the Body
The Church in every country and culture needs skilled Christian writers who can speak to the unique interests and needs of its people. Indeed, the strength of a nation’s Church lies in direct proportion to its body of locally-authored and produced Christian literature.
Bright spots exist where Christian publishers and writers are effectively edifying the Church. For example, eighty-four African biblical scholars participated in the Africa Bible Commentary, a project which is equipping African nations and informing the Church worldwide. OMF Literature in the Philippines has won multiple national book awards, influencing both Christians and larger society.
Yet the preponderance of translations and imported books in many countries bolsters the false notion that Christianity is purely a Western or imported religion and thus irrelevant, if not repugnant (depending upon one’s view of Western culture).
Mark Carpenter, CEO of Editora Mundo Cristão, Brazil’s largest independent Christian publisher, said,
I remember a young Brazilian Christian psychologist who vehemently disagreed with a North American author’s instruction about raising children. It took her a while to sort out what was biblical and what was merely cultural. As Brazilian Christians read our countless translated books, my concern is that some may end up thinking of evangelical Christianity as patently foreign, nice but not vital, interesting but not indispensable, commendable but not relevant.
End the Famine of Global Christian Literature
MAI equips and nurtures talented men and women with a passion for producing Christian literature for their own people. Since our founding in 1985, MAI has equipped local Christians in sixty-three countries on five continents. As a result, we've seen budding writers developed, publishing houses grown, periodicals begun, and books and magazines produced that speak to the hearts of readers in their own languages.
We advance the gospel by equipping and encouraging Christians to produce literature that nurtures the Church and attracts readers to Christ.
The power of the written word to transform lives and nourish believers is most evident in the world’s hard places. The potential impact is greatest where readers are most hungry for hope and encouragement. MAI invests in publishing initiatives that may struggle with hostile politics, volatile economics, and the desolation of war. We focus on countries with few Christians and little publishing activity.
Veteran editor Babu Verghese of India believes the ministry role of the written word will increase, not decrease, in the years ahead:
Literature is the future of Indian evangelism. The era of public Christian crusades, conventions, and open-air preaching is over in India. Witnessing has to be done very discreetly through friendship evangelism and passing on effective literature. Therefore, we need trained writers and editors who can address relevant issues. The need is urgent as the door for evangelism is being closed at a fast pace.
As an evangelistic or pre-evangelistic medium, the written word is especially effective. “In some respects, publishing has the potential to penetrate resistance and defenses better than any other medium,” notes American author Tim Stafford. “Print is portable. You can take most literature anywhere you want.”
MAI training is tailored to meet specific needs in consultation with local publishers. Our global network of volunteer trainers enables culturally appropriate training. These trainers are leading Christian writers and publishing professionals from around the world. For example, an editor from Singapore taught women in a closed country of Asia how to publish a magazine. The first three issues sold out quickly. The happily married writer of a featured testimony gave a copy of the magazine to her ex-boyfriend. He had deserted her while she was pregnant with his child. He was so moved by her story that he and his family received Christ.
Other MAI trainers are helping to raise up authors in the Middle East during a three-year project with a Jordanian publisher. In Europe, marketing professionals equip publishers to reach readers outside the church.
Every three years, MAI gathers Christian writers and publishers to participate in LittWorld, the only international conference of its kind. Since 1988, LittWorld has attracted talented men and women from ninety-four countries. Together they sharpen their skills, broaden their perspective and renew their calling. Join us for LittWorld 2012 in Kenya (details forthcoming).
Power of the Written Word
Today’s technology has created major innovations in publishing. The Internet has enabled once-isolated publishers to access business advice, to market broadly and distribute via online bookstores. Print-on-demand technology enables printing books in limited quantity, even one at a time.
E-books and social networking tools permit authors and publishers to create and promote their writings with minimal overhead costs. Notably, the publishing format with the greatest consistent sales growth in the U.S. is electronic—books formatted for download to a computer or for use with a mobile phone or e-reader. In China, twenty-five million readers read books only on their cell phones.2
Despite these new opportunities, publisher Mark Carpenter says, “Christian publishers around the world continue to face daunting challenges that threaten their effectiveness, expansion, and often their very survival.” These challenges include:
- Environments hostile to Christianity
- Managing finances to publish profitably
- Developing local writers
- Recruiting and leading staff
- Launching new titles to ensure sales of initial print runs
- Training editors
- Benchmarking against the best in one’s context as a strategy for growth
Writers and publishers still need access to the best training resources to compete where the Church is struggling and readers must choose between buying bread or books. MAI continues to focus on investing in talented men and women in the “hard places of the world.”
What the West Needs to Hear
My wife and I took Kenyan writer friend Wambura Kimunyu to a Chicago-area bookstore. “I hunted for the Africa section,” she said. “I found twenty books on one shelf, and none were written by Africans.” She challenged us, “Does it matter who tells the stories?”
Not only is indigenous Christian literature critical to the maturation of a nation’s church, we in the West need to hear stories from fellow believers in the Majority World that will inspire or perhaps help jolt us from spiritual lethargy.
Nearly a decade ago, author Philip Jenkins predicted that Christianity’s core would move to the Global South—Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He was right. As of 2010, sixty percent of Christians lived in the Global South, and that number is predicted to grow to seventy percent by 2025.3 Ironically, publication of local authors is least active where the Church is growing fastest.
I give thanks for visionary publishers and trainers who are raising up new voices in their regions of the world. “People who have written about Africa often talk about our mellow heart, the joy and laughter in our bright smiles and sometimes about our pain. What is not captured, however, is our faith—how we live our lives in the light of God’s guidance and grace,” wrote Lillian Tindyebwe of the Uganda Faith Writers Association. “There are profound stories of the ordinary person’s enduring faith, that which compels them to smile even when they are not sure about the next meal.”
Together we can end the famine of global Christian literature. The Body of Christ partnering around the world can mobilize an international army of Christian writers. God’s kingdom will expand, and Christians worldwide will be enriched as a result.
1. A fuller discussion of this topic is found in John Maust’s chapter, “Innovation in Training Writers and Publishers,” in Innovation in Mission: Insights into Practical Innovations Creating Kingdom Impact (Authentic Publishing, 2007), edited by Jim Reapsome and Jon Hirst.