Railroad ties below unfinished tracks: laying a foundation for going forward

The Lord Jesus launched his public ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Isa. 61:1-2 quoted in Luke 4:18-19)

True Christian ministry encompasses both the “proclamation” and the “demonstration” of the Gospel—that is, both evangelism and discipleship, and also good deeds done “in the name of Jesus”, especially for the poor. How does SIL LEAD reflect this holistic view of service?

Here I share some personal thoughts about how SIL LEAD supports the proclamation side of ministry. (The demonstration side will have to wait for another time.) These are important to my own motivation to work in SIL LEAD — and, I hope, to those who enable us to be part of this work.

SIL LEAD

SIL LEAD specializes in multilingual education for children who speak large minority languages in Africa and Asia. To be clear, this is not in itself proclaiming the Gospel. But in fact, the work of SIL LEAD provides critical support to the proclamation of the Gospel in minority language communities—much like the ties of a railroad support the track the train runs on.

Bible translation, vernacular literacy, and education

God evidently loves the profusion of languages in the world. He created linguistic diversity at Babel (Gen. 11), and confirmed the diversity of ethnicity and language in the Church when the Holy Spirit miraculously enabled the apostles to “tell the mighty works of God” in other languages to a multilingual crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2). Since then, the Church has labored to do the same by more ordinary means. This is more than just a practical matter: each language, with its unique vocabulary and grammar, reflects the glory of God in a way no other can.

Bible translation makes the self-revelation of God available to a language or church community, but for individual believers to have ready access to the Scriptures, literacy is a critical skill. (This is not to denigrate the usefulness of audio Bibles or other media, nor to suggest that reading is necessary for salvation: many people will never learn to read, and even literate people benefit from hearing God’s word spoken. Still, the Scriptures are accessible in a qualitatively different way to those who can read. It’s worth remembering that “Scripture” means “writing”.)

Multilingual education and the future of minority language Scripture

Most people learn to read through some sort of formal education, but children who arrive at school not knowing the language of instruction face a daunting challenge. Unless they have extraordinary motivation and support, their chances of learning both the language of instruction and the content are slim. Many simply drop out; others stay but never learn much.

SIL LEAD helps schools to teach reading in their students’ home languages, so that they can acquire the skill of reading without the simultaneous burden of learning a foreign language. Kids who learn to read first in their own languages are more likely to become literate and stay in school. And because new readers need a lot of books to become fluent readers, SIL LEAD also provides tools for schools and communities to easily publish their own early-reading books.

SIL LEAD’s focus has been on larger minority language communities. Providing education for tens or hundreds of thousands of children requires significant funding and infrastructure, so SIL LEAD works in concert with a wide range of partners, including Christian NGOs, governments, and secular international development agencies.

The relatively large size of these language communities means that most of them already possess a translation of the New Testament, or even the entire Bible. Possession does not guarantee use, however. Sustainable use of a language in writing requires that the language be institutionalized in education. Over the course of the 20th Century, many Bible translations have fallen into disuse because local language literacy did not have support from government or church-based schools. Over a generation, vernacular literacy declined, and with it the use of the vernacular Scriptures.

Without educational support, the language itself may die away under pressure from dominant languages. If people cease to use a language in which Scripture has been translated, it means a waste of investment by the Christian community. Translation alone is not enough: education in the mother tongue is also needed to secure the place of each language as a vehicle for telling the mighty works of God, a one-of-a-kind reflection of the glory of God.

Image: Concrete ties (sleepers) on the new second track of the GO Transit Barrie Line, looking north from Rivermede Dr. (detail). By Reaperexpress – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46291332