When I think of the topic “Overcoming Barriers to the Gospel,” I am reminded of the words of the late Paul Hiebert when he said, “We need to recognize that the effective communication of the gospel is central to our task. There is little point going ten thousand miles to give our lives if we cannot bridge the final five feet.”1
That, of course, raises the question of what it means to effectively communicate the gospel. Much has been written on this topic, but I think the obvious place to start is by providing the Bible in a language and format that will touch the hearts of the unreached.
We have Cameron Townsend and countless other diligent translators to thank for the thousands of languages which today have the Bible available. But I have become convinced over my forty years of full-time ministry that the completion and production of a printed text of the Bible—although absolutely indispensable—cannot and must not be the end of the gospel communication process.
My friend, Bob Creson, president of Wycliffe Bible Translators USA, agrees:
We know that if we don’t create oral strategies we’re going to miss huge percentages of the population, because many people are illiterate, and they will never learn to read and write. And it’s important that they hear the good news of the gospel.
The Need for Oral Strategies
My eyes were opened to the reality of the need for such oral strategies in the early 1970s. The Lord had called me to give up a comfortable job as the manager of an avocado-processing plant, and follow him on a journey of faith. We sold our home, moved with our four children into an old school bus which we converted into living quarters, and traveled around the western United States as God led us. Wherever we stopped, we sought opportunities to minister to people in whatever way they needed.
While working with a Mennonite mission on a Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona, we came across a bookcase with more than one hundred Hopi New Testaments sitting on it. At that time, there were only a dozen or so Hopis coming to church, and we wondered where all the Bibles had come from.
When we asked the Hopi Christians why the printed Bibles were sitting on a shelf instead of being used, they said that there had been a revival some years back during which many Hopis had come to Christ. Missionaries translated the Bible into their language and gave them copies for personal use. But when the translators followed up, they realized that the Hopis couldn’t read and they were using the Bibles as part of their traditional religious practices. The story goes that the translators then took the Bibles away and stored them in the church where they remained—unused and virtually useless.
God’s Word and Lasting Fruit
That story really upset me. I had already read of tremendous revivals in other parts of the world where people quickly returned to false religions. I wondered if that was the way of all revivals. I began to investigate. What I discovered was that both the Welsh and Wesleyan revivals had long-lasting impacts—and both had the word of God readily available.
However, some other movements of God had limited access to scripture and produced very short-lived results. I’m not applying this across the board—my investigation wasn’t that extensive—but the evidence I did see pointed to a direct correlation between scripture and lasting fruit. This cemented in me the calling to provide God’s word to people in a form they can use.
Years later, after we had settled in Albuquerque (New Mexico, USA) and started Faith Comes By Hearing (FCBH), I attended a mission conference in Korea. I sat for hours listening to extended discussions about various strategies for getting the word of God to unreached peoples. At one point, I asked what percentage of these people could even read the materials being proposed. The answer I was given was “a low percentage.” (I’ve since found out that half of the people alive today are functionally—or completely—illiterate.)
I came home from that meeting with a new resolve to help overcome the barrier of illiteracy and get the gospel to millions who’d never heard. FCBH has since set a goal of recording the New Testament in two thousand languages—which would allow ninety-seven percent of the world’s population to have the audio Bible in their heart languages—and establishing 1.8 million Bible listening/discipleship groups by 2016.
Even before that conference, we had recording teams in numerous places and were giving free Bible cassette tapes to people all over the world. These tapes were overcoming the barrier of illiteracy; however, we soon realized that many people faced another barrier—poverty. What do you do when the batteries in your cassette player die and you cannot afford another set? For the fifty percent of the world who live on less than two dollars a day, this is a very real question. Do you buy batteries for your cassette player, or do you buy rice for your kids to eat? We knew there had to be a better way.
The Solar-Powered Audio Player
After our entire ministry spent three days in fasting and prayer, our engineer presented me with the prototype for what would become a self-contained, solar-powered audio player. We called the unit a Proclaimer. Since 2006, we’ve sent almost 120,000 Proclaimers to more than one hundred countries. Once on the field, trained workers use the units to set up listening/discipleship groups where the poor and illiterate can hear the pure word of God.
FCBH has received literally thousands of testimonies from people all over the world saying how powerful it is for them to hear the scriptures in their native language. In places considered hard to reach, people are gathering to listen to and discuss the word of God. As they do so, they are learning how to apply scripture to their lives and situations. Out of these simple listening groups, churches are being planted and whole communities are being transformed. On top of this, in many places, hearing the Bible is actually helping people with literacy and increasing the demand for print scriptures!
I also cannot help but think that many of the other legitimate barriers to the gospel faced by Christian workers (e.g., cultural misunderstandings, prejudice, and the westernization of the gospel) are also overcome by allowing indigenous people to simply hear God’s word in their heart language.
I believe that the word of God in a language and format that can reach the unreached is the most powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship we will ever have.
May God continue to bless his word in every translation and format in which it goes forth!
(Contributor: Jerrid Stetler)
1. 1999. “Cultural Differences and the Communication of the Gospel.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 373-383. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey Library. Used by permission.