I have seen an increase in missionaries coming to the field for a fixed term. That is to say, they come to the field with a particular term length in mind. Some will come for two, four, five, or ten years. Then, they return to their home country. From my experience, this seems to be the norm now. And when we talk to Americans, they usually ask us how long we are planning on staying. I will respond with, “our plan is to die in Cameroon (hopefully later rather than sooner).”
Since this is a less common reply, I thought I would address the question: Why are we staying? Why would we plan to live our whole lives overseas?
1. Bible Translation Takes a Long Time
Many people have asked me how technology affects Bible translation. Some have even asked (probably tongue in cheek) why we don’t just use Google Translate. The truth is that technology helps a ton! Bible societies and organizations have developed many great software programs. I cannot imagine translating the Bible without them. We are now able to back up translation work in the cloud, and on flash drives. We sync our dictionary every time we add a new entry.
This leaves us in a place where we will never have to keep our translation work inside a hard pillow that no one would want to steal, even if we end up in prison like Adoniram Judson. And we will never have to start over completely after a fire, like William Carey. And in those senses, it can make the overall process move more quickly. However, translation is just a slow business. The technology helps to catch errors, to backup work, to improve consistency. But the software cannot visit villages for us and make sure people understand. The software cannot translate into or out of Kwakum. The software is a tool, but the workers still need to work.
As a translation team we regularly struggle not just to choose the right words, but to grasp the concepts taught in the text. Kwakum does not have a word (noun or verb) for grace. They don’t know grapes, or wheat, or cypress trees. We often debate even the best way to write the names in the Bible! I give examples often on here of challenges in translation, but here is a recent debate:
We are translating right now through the story of Joseph. While he is in prison, he meets the cupbearer of the king. Now, what is a cupbearer? In my studies I found that cupbearers’ main responsibilities were: testing the king’s food and drink and giving counsel to the king as a trusted aid. Our team was excited because they have a word for someone who tests food for others: sakdolɛ.
So, we put that in our translation and moved on. Our drafting sessions last usually three days and by the third day we have worked through the text many times. On the third day, just before we were going to wrap up our session, we had this conversation:
[Translator] We might need to re-think the word sakdolɛ.
[Me] OK, why?
[Translator] Well, because a sakdolɛ is an animal.
[Me] I’m sorry, it’s a what now?
[Translator] Yeah, when there is a group of chimpanzees, one of them will go ahead of the others. When it finds fruit, it will test the fruit and let the others know if it is good. That chimpanzee is called the sakdolɛ.
[Me] So, if we use sakdolɛ people are going to think we are talking about a chimpanzee?
This is a pretty random example, but I am hoping in communicates that time is needed when translating. I heard of one group that figured out that they used the wrong word for some key concept in the Bible just before they were set to begin printing!
The fastest I have heard of a New Testament project reaching completion is 9 years. We still have not started the New Testament and we arrived in Cameroon 7 years ago. Plus, we are planning to help the Kwakum translate the entire Bible (including the Old Testament). It is going to take a long time.
2. Planting Self-Sustaining Churches Takes a Long Time
Many of you know that we are not just Bible translators, but we are also church planters. We see that a Bible without a church is like a sword without a warrior. However, we have seen from past experience that churches that are dependent upon the West rarely thrive. This drives us to seek to plant and strengthen existing churches that are led by nationals. When we say “led by nationals” it means we want to see elders and deacons raised up from the people and leading the church themselves. But listen to what Paul said about elders: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).
So, if we are seeking to raise up national leaders, and they should not be “recent coverts,” it is going to take time. So how long does it take from when you start to having mature Christians? Consider the fact that here in Cameroon you have to speak French. It takes English speakers (in my experience) between a year to a year and a half to learn French well enough to communicate biblical truths. Then, if you are going to work with the people, you need to learn their language. It takes (again, in my experience) at least 2-3 years to learn a minority language well enough to communicate biblical truth. That is just when you begin to be able to disciple people. Some older missionaries have told us that you don’t become effective on the field until you have been there for at least five years. It makes sense given these facts.
At that point you need to disciple until they are no longer “recent converts.” This is of course a bit vague, but it seems to me that it is almost always going to be multiple years. So, just to have men qualified to lead churches you are looking at at least 8-10 years. And that is ideal. William Carey spent eight years in India before he saw a convert. And one convert does not give you a healthy self-sustaining church. The truth is, planting self-sustaining, national run churches takes time. So, best case scenario, we are going to have a New Testament and some mature believers 17 years from when we arrived.
So, we could go home after that, right? Of course, but…
3. There is Great Need and Few Workers
Jesus said in Luke 10:2,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
It’s amazing, and we have mentioned it before, but today (over 2000 years after Jesus said it) this statement is still true. It is estimated that there are 2 billion people in the world that not only do not know Jesus, but they don’t even know anyone who knows Jesus. There are many people who have heard of Jesus in Cameroon, but relatively very few who know the true Gospel. If the Kwakum don’t have a word for “grace” there are no doubt many other languages that have the same limitation. The result is churches in Cameroon that do not know Jesus. These people need the Bible in a language they can understand, teaching to help them understand it, discipleship to know how to apply it, and support and encouragement to live out the Gospel themselves.
This means that it is likely at some point we will finish our work among the Kwakum. We are excited for that day, but we realize also that the Kwakum are just one among many. And so, our plan is to stay.
I don’t write this to criticize those missionaries that stay for a fixed-term. Missionaries vary even more greatly than the people groups still needing missionaries. Some come for specific jobs that can be faithfully accomplished in a shorter term. Some experience tragedy, extreme difficulty, or even just find that they cannot stay on the field because of the educational needs of their children. I don’t judge these missionaries. I expect them to make decisions that are the best for their lives and situations. But this post is just to explain why we are planning to stay.