In the Democratic Republic of Congo, André took his translation of Luke 1-3 to a small village chapel to read it to the congregation and get their response. When he finished, the people applauded. One 82-year-old woman commented, “Very good, my son. Today I have understood what I had never understood before.”
Hearing and understanding is the first step in evangelism and discipleship leading to church planting. God has sent his message of love, but it must reach people in the language and in a form they relate to best.
Making God’s message clear is Andre’s goal as he works to translate God’s Word into his mother tongue as part of The Luke Partnership—a joint project of The Seed Company (a Wycliffe Bible Translators affiliate), The Jesus Film Project (a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ), and SIL International.
Many large language communities, some with several million speakers, still have no scripture at all, meaning they lack a foundation for individual and community transformation. Many of these communities are hard to access or have sociolinguistic problems reflected in attitudes toward the use of the language. In some cases, there is little or no Christian presence.
The Luke Partnership was born as a pilot program to produce some initial scripture and scripture-based materials in each of thirty languages. Our initial dream was to give these language communities access to portions of God’s Word in thirty-six months.
We surveyed the languages under consideration and made decisions about what language projects to include. Here are some criteria we used:
- They had no Book of Luke or, in most cases, any other scripture.
- They were without the JESUS Film.
- No one else was planning or currently working on translation.
- They were a group of over 100,000 largely unreached people.
- They had active churches or had been adopted by church-planting agencies.
- Local speakers could be trained for key responsibility in the translation process.
- Where feasible, multiple area languages could be worked on as a group.
The Luke Partnership permits our organizations to leverage our strengths and create effective tools for evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. An “initial goals package” for a community includes the translation of Luke’s Gospel (usually published in both print and audio form), the JESUS film (based on the Gospel of Luke), and further Old and New Testament selections. This set of scripture portions, compiled by LifeWords (formerly Scripture Gift Mission) and called the Pioneer series, includes three Old Testament and four New Testament booklets which can also be produced in audio form. The Old Testament portions prepare the way for the understanding of the gospel, and the additional New Testament selections help to disciple new believers.
“We always consider the option of modifying these initial goals,” says Dr. Katy Barnwell, senior consultant for The Seed Company, “but so far the Luke Partnership package—Luke, the JESUS film, and other Old and New Testament scriptures—has been approved without much variation.”
We strongly emphasize audio materials from the beginning so the community can use the scriptures right away, even before they have a literacy program in their language. Even where some can read, audio often provides the most effective media to reach people. Tom Meiner, director of partnerships for the JESUS Film Project, explains,
In many cases, the Luke Partnership brings the first scriptures in their mother tongue to a group of people. The JESUS film is certainly the first film in their language, which obviously creates a lot of interest. For many of these people, the literacy rate is low, so the film helps bring them the message of Christ in a way they can understand…. The film generates excitement for the believers because now they have a tool that will draw attention, whether in a large crowd or in a private showing, so there is new interest in evangelism. Often this carries over to a nearby language group. The church leaders in that group then want these tools for their people as well. Church planting impact is similar. The scripture and film help to open doors and reveal the “ripe fruit.” If there was no church, in many cases one has started.
Partnering with Future Users of the Materials
The Luke Partnership is a strategy that enables a community to attempt translation work without setting up intimidating, long-term projections for a full-scale New Testament project. The aim is to produce materials that local churches and mission agencies can use immediately—often within ninety days of the start of translation. Local churches welcome this approach and availability of tools for evangelism and church planting in a form that can be used immediately.
“Making available small portions early,” says Barnwell, “and involving the church and community in testing and using these early, helps to increase local interest and support.” Barnwell also notes that this process allows quick feedback on the translation that helps the team to find the right style of translation for the local situation.
Where churches exist in the language area they are primary partners and owners of the projects. In areas where no church exists, the Luke Partnership looks for other agencies working in the area with whom we can partner for immediate and ongoing impact. This material is never developed in a vacuum or translated without a plan for distribution and follow up.
The Cluster Strategy
In many cases, languages identified as priority needs for translation are not isolated. We developed a “cluster strategy,” grouping languages in the same geographical area together.
In the cluster strategy, representatives from several languages participate in a series of two or three workshops each year. The churches or other partners help select three mother-tongue speakers of each language, often with complementary skill sets, to be trained for initial linguistic work, orthography development, and then translation. These mother tongue teams work closely with facilitators who are experienced in translation. These facilitators sometimes come from other countries; they come on a regular basis to mentor, offer individual help, and supplement the group training sessions.
Training continues throughout the workshop series, each workshop focusing on a particular topic. From the beginning, translators apply their training as they produce portions of the Gospel of Luke in booklet form and on cassette. With the goal of ensuring a high-quality, communicative translation, translators and consultants apply rigorous procedures for studying the source text, drafting translation, checking their work with other team members, testing and reviewing with other speakers of the language, and consultant-checking the translation.
The Luke Partnership was born in 2001, and the first languages we identified were four in Ethiopia and five in Madagascar. Word for the World, a South-Africa based Bible translation organization, joined the work as a partner in Ethiopia. The Seed Company enlisted prayer partners, connected funders/investors to the projects, developed the project design, and provided administrative support as well as project management. The JESUS Film project recorded the translated script and produced the film.
In 2002, having proven the model, we began projects in several East Asian communities and later in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea Bissau, and Nigeria. This year, we anticipate opening Luke Partnership projects in Sudan and Central Africa Republic.
By 2006, the Gospel of Luke and the JESUS film had been completed in thirty languages. We had also started a second phase of the project, enlarging the scope and focusing on the cluster strategy. Since the first thirty languages began, work has started in a total of eighty-three languages and there are currently fifty-two language communities involved in active Luke Partnership projects.
From the Initial Phase to Full-scale Translation Programs
Many projects, begun with the limited goals described above, continue on to address further translation goals. The first Luke Partnership projects in Ethiopia, begun in 2001, will complete New Testaments this year (2008). Three of the five original Luke Partnership projects in Madagascar also continued with further translation goals. Of the thirty original Luke Partnership languages, twenty-two are now full-scale Bible translation projects.
The initial phase of the Luke Partnership accomplishes several important things. First, churches in the language community experience the effectiveness of scripture and scripture-based materials in their mother tongue; a team of trained and experienced Bible translators is prepared for more translation work; and churches and other partners in the area experience what is involved in Bible translation and managing a translation program. When a Luke Partnership project is coming to a close, and further translation work is being considered, administrators look for some key criteria before approving a full-scale translation program. For example, if there is a local church, they look for believers within the church who are motivated and committed to a full-scale project. This is important because the church will have a responsible role in organizing the project and helping support the translation team financially. Church members will also be involved in reviewing and testing the translations as they are produced and in finding creative avenues to get the scriptures into use as they are translated. Also, the current translation team must have the desire and ability to continue with the translation project, or there must be a group of potential translators with the desire and aptitude for further training.
Facilitators and consultants who can give the necessary training and technical support are essential to sustain both initial and ongoing projects. As a key component of Luke Partnership projects, facilitators identify potential consultants within the local language community and guide them in an intentional training program.
The Luke Partnership is a strategy that allows a community to begin translation work without necessarily committing to a long-term New Testament or full Bible translation project. This approach gives the translation team and the local church the opportunity to see how materials in their language can help spread the good news of the gospel and build the Church. They build confidence and gain valuable translation experience in an empowering environment.
People hear and understand, often for the first time, the message—and it is powerful! After viewing the JESUS film for the first time, one woman in an isolated area of Indonesia exclaimed, “Who taught Jesus to speak our language? How long did he study it?” In Madagascar, people in one community stayed up all night to listen and discuss the translation. One person said, “If we had known that this is what the Bible says, we would have become Christians long ago.”
Once the JESUS film is produced, it often opens opportunities for wider involvement of people in the community, creating greater ownership of the product and the potential for wider impact. When the Luke Partnership started in one very sensitive language community in Africa, there were very few Christians. The team found local people, most of whom were not believers, to read the parts for recording the JESUS film. As they read the scripture, some of them believed Jesus’ message and trusted him. People from this group are now listening to God’s truth and a small indigenous church has grown up around the translated scriptures.
Often on the first showing of the JESUS film, many respond to Christ’s call, opening the door for local agencies to implement follow-up programs that lead to new churches. Jesus now speaks languages all over the world, and people are hearing him speak clearly to them in the language—and medium—they understand best, most often their mother tongue. For many of them, this is the first time they have understood God’s message of love, and very often the result is changed lives and growing churches.