Wycliffe Bible Translators
How are they doing? Can they complete their task by the year 2000?
Rarely in the 200 year history of the modern missionary movement has there been a more wonderful story of courage, perseverance, sacrifice, and success than that of Wycliffe Bible Translators. During the relatively short span of 60 years it has grown from the simple vision of one man, Cameron Townsend, to be one of the largest mission agencies in the world today with over 6,400 members and over 90 million dollars in yearly income. $90 million is a remarkable bargain, averaging just over $800 a month per worker including overhead, especially when you consider that Wycliffe represents one of the most highly educated group of workers of any mission.
Wycliffe is currently working in almost 900 language projects and have completed over 350 New Testaments with an average of 17 new ones completed each year. Their long term prospects for success in translating the Scriptures into the thousands of languages of the world's indigenous peoples are great, but how are they doing? What are the major trends for the future of Bible translation? Will they be able to complete the translation task by the year 2000? Is it even necessary for them to do so in order to have a church for every people by the year 2000? I hope to provide some answers to these questions in this article.
How is Wycliffe Doing?
In 1984 we did an article in Mission Frontiers on Wycliffe and its prospects for the future. We thought it was time to give you an update on their progress since then.
In 1934 Cameron Townsend held the first Summer Institute of Linguistics course for prospective Bible translators in Sulphur Springs Arkansas and a movement was born. Their growth from the start has been significant. It took only 7 years for them to get their first 100 members in 1942. In 1956 they had reached their first 500 members. It only took them 3 years to double that to 1,000 members. Since then they have added 1,000 new missionaries about every seven years until 1979 when their recruitment of new staff began to take off. At the height of the Baby Boom from 1980 to 1985 Wycliffe gained an average of 256 new staff members every year. From 1980 to 1983 an average of 22 New Testaments were being completed annually. With this kind of growth in personnel and the growing rate of New Testament completion, the prospects for Wycliffe to largely complete the task of Scripture translation by the year 2000, or soon after, were good.
In 1984 MF projected that at their present rate of growth that they would have 10,213 members and at least 570 New Testaments completed by 1994. Our analysis failed to take into account either the inevitable decline following the Baby Boom's second generation, or the factor of heightened enthusiasm at the time of Wycliffe's 50th Anniversary and the push at that time to present Cam Townsend with the largest additional group of new recruits ever. Wycliffe currently has around 6,400 members and 350 New Testaments completed.
Beginning in 1986 the personnel growth rate dropped from 4.4% a year to just 2.8% and reached an all time low of .8% in 1989 with just 53 new members added. The current rate is around 1.7% a year. We admit it was unrealistic of us to expect Wycliffe to sustain their growth at the levels of the early 80s given that the pool of available applicants was declining as the trailing end of the Baby Boom generation was passing through their twenties.
Given that Wycliffe is adding around 100 new members and 17 completed New Testaments each year, what can we expect from Wycliffe by the year 2000? The most optimistic Wycliffe estimate is for 363 more New Testaments to be completed by 1998 for a total of 713 New Testaments. If their current average completion rate of 17 a year continues, then 119 would be completed by the year 2000 for a total of 470 completed New Testaments. If the 1993 rate of 25 per year is maintained, then 175 would be completed for a total of 525. This would be a very significant accomplishment but also far short of the 925 language spheres that Wycliffe says can definitely benefit from a printed New Testament.
The slowdown in recruiting new staff from the US has been a serious factor in even the placement of translation teams and the commencement of new projects because they do not have enough manpower to survey where the greatest translation needs are. (See the article on page 10) But Wycliffe is moving boldly into the future with plans and strategies to solve the problem of declining manpower and resources from the west.
Major Trends at Wycliffe
A recent idea is to tap into the vast new pool of people all over the world who do not have a college degree. (See the editorial on page 3. This trend could provide solutions to the perennial problems of lack of manpower and funds to carry out their work.
New Partnership in the Task
In the midst of declining manpower and resources coming from the US and other western countries, there is real hope coming from the Two-thirds world. The sacrificial efforts of missionaries over the last 200 years is bearing fruit with a rapidly growing missionary movement from the Two- thirds world.
Increasingly, the task of Bible translation is being taken over by non-western personnel who already live near the location of the translation needs. These non-western workers are increasingly well educated and capable of doing the work of Bible translation in areas such as Russia where there are still many ethnic groups without the Bible.
As a result of this new pool of non-western talent, Wycliffe is increasingly emphasizing the training of these new workers to do the work of Bible translation, instead of simply bringing in workers from the US.
Over the years Wycliffe has always worked to develop local involvement in their Bible translation work. This strategy is helping to create new partnerships in Bible translation. As a result of Wycliffe's efforts, NBTOs (National Bible Translation Organizations) are rising up all over the world. Wycliffe is currently working in close cooperation with 15 of these new Bible translation organizations which have grown up in association with Wycliffe in 15 countries. This has led to a reorganization of Wycliffe itself.
Wycliffe has recently become Wycliffe Bible Translators International Inc. This reflects its organizational transformation from a US led group of member missionaries to an international organization of Bible translation bodies which are now Wycliffe member organizations. Wycliffe International is now a network of completely autonomous national organizations which have agreed to work together according to mutually agreed upon standards. This is the culmination of a long standing trend toward the growing involvement of the international body of Christ in taking responsibility for the work of Bible translation and church planting. It should also speed up the process of translation as growing international resources are applied to the task.
A New Spirit of Cooperation
Over the years Wycliffe has worked cooperatively with many other mission organizations in helping these agencies to train their people and plant churches in the areas where they are working. But Wycliffe is excited to see the new spirit of cooperation that is developing between various mission agencies. They are eager to be a part of this new spirit of cooperation through sharing of information, cooperative projects and in other ways. They have been pleased to be a part of recent initiatives to more carefully define the parameters of this information sharing and look forward to progress in this area. Wycliffe has been very involved in support of the AD2000 Movement and their efforts to determine the number of unreached people groups, even though Wycliffe recognizes that many neighboring dialects can read the same New Testament, even if they are separate groups from the church planting and "unreached peoples" point of view.
One of the major challenges in the development of translation work in the Two-thirds World is that of finding the funding for such programs. Each such program is a multi-year commitment to produce a significant portion of the Scriptures (such as a full New or Old Testament). Continuity is extremely important for the success of such programs, so continuity of funding is essential. Wycliffe is working on ways to assure that continuity of funds and resources, thereby shortening the time it takes to translate the Scriptures into each new language.
Wycliffe's approach to Bible Translation that has led to their success
One of the reasons for Wycliffe's success has been their approach to ministry. One thing that has characterized Wycliffe is their single- mindedness and consummate professionalism in the areas of linguistics and Bible translation. Throughout their 60 year history they have not gotten sidetracked from their single- minded purpose of Bible translation and literacy work. They have become world renowned specialists in the sciences of Anthropology, Education, Linguistics, and Community Development as these relate to Bible Translation. They are now pioneering in the area of Sociolinguistics Survey work, which is the study of current language usage in a given language group. This is essential in determining where new translations are needed. (See the article on page 10.)
Wycliffe's work in Bible translation actually began in 1934 when Cameron Townsend launched the Summer Institute of Linguistics to train people in the little heard of science of linguistics and this emphasis has continued ever since. This emphasis on training has expanded into other areas such as Cross-Cultural Communication and preparation for the rigors of translation work in remote areas. This focus on training has resulted in a very low turnover rate for their long-term personnel.
The true measure of Wycliffe's achievements must take into account the literally thousands of workers in other missions who have gotten linguistics and translation training in Wycliffe's Summer Institute of Linguistics, which are taught in many places around the world each year and are open to workers in any mission. In fact, an increasing focus of Wycliffe's training efforts is on making their courses responsive to the needs of other organizations including the new third world translation organizations.
A Servant Heart
One of Wycliffe's core values is to be accountable to those who are the responsible officials wherever they work. They try to maintain good relations with the government by developing community-based language work projects to teach people to read. Wycliffe says, "within the confines of what we are able to do, we try to help everyone that we can." This kind of servant attitude, as is often true with other missions, has enabled them to do "missionary work " in many countries that do not welcome missionaries who merely plant churches.
Can "A Church for Every People by the Year 2000" be reached without a completed New Testament for every people?
The most optimistic estimates of Wycliffe is that over 720 New Testaments will be completed by the year 2000. This target, if realized, will be an amazing and wonderful accomplishment, but it still falls short of completing the task of Bible translation. Wycliffe has actually never claimed that they could finish the translation task by the year 2000.
Some have claimed that the above goal of reaching every people by AD 2000 is impossible for the very reason that Bible translation cannot be completed by that time. These well meaning people have made the mistake of equating a completed New Testament or Bible translation with the establishment of the church.
It can be shown that wherever a Wycliffe missionary is sent, a church arises among that people within a year or two, even though the New Testament translation will take around five or more years to complete. Wycliffe missionaries throughout the decades have been a very potent church planting force and we should do all that we can to support them in their efforts. Wycliffe's experience shows us that a church can be established before the translation is complete. Bible translation has often been the means of planting a church, but it is not the only way that God has used to establish His church in various ethnic groups.
The advance of the Church into the unreached peoples has historically moved much faster than the church's ability to provide the Bible or New Testament in the native language of each people. Often Wycliffe has moved into a people group to translate the Scriptures when there is already an existing church.
The establishment of a church in a people group has happened in many ways, but it is always based on the Word of God. The gospel has often been presented verbally by those from the outside who learned enough of the language to communicate the gospel to them. The gospel has also come through languages that are not their native tongue but which they can adequately understand to receive the gospel. It can also be brought to them using a recorded message from Gospel Recordings. They now have over 4,000 unique languages with gospel messages in the native language of these peoples. They could also hear through a translation of the JESUS film that is in their own language or a trade language that they can understand.
The question is whether we will wait to communicate the gospel until a New Testament is completed and depend completely on a written approach to communicating the gospel or whether we will use every visual, verbal and written tool available to communicate the gospel in every group as quickly as possible until the completed New Testament is available.
A verbal or visual approach to communicating the gospel will always provide much faster results than depending on the written Word alone. A majority of the people located in unreached people groups are illiterate and cannot read their own language. The work of Bible translation has the dual task of translating the Scriptures and teaching the people how to read so they can read the translation of their language when it is completed. This is a very time consuming task and one that is not likely to be completed by the year 2000.
If, as a part of the AD 2000 movement, the world-wide body of Christ is able to mobilize the thousands of church planting teams needed to penetrate each unreached people group, then we can still see a viable church movement established in these groups by the year 2000. A completed New Testament or Bible, however helpful and wonderful this would be, is not a prerequisite to seeing a viable church movement established in every people group by the year 2000.
This is not to say that we should not relentlessly pursue the translation of the entire Bible into the languages of all the peoples. It has often been the means of church planting and the Word is essential to the long term health of any church movement.
We simply must use every tool at our disposal to get the essential message of the gospel into every people group as soon as possible. Until the ultimate goal of the completed Scriptures for all peoples is a reality, much can and should be done in the meantime to reach the goal of a church for every people by the year 2000.
Words cannot adequately describe the tremendous contribution and impact that the men and women of Wycliffe Bible Translators have made on our world and the eternal destinies of millions of people. The wonderful story of Wycliffe is actually 6,400 stories of courage, dedication and perseverance in the face of tremendous obstacles, all woven together into a beautiful tapestry of God's love for all peoples. These are the kind of real heroes that our young people should be taught to emulate. These are the kind of heroes that we need to find and develop in our churches. Let us commit ourselves as the world- wide body of Christ to mobilize the thousands of workers that Wycliffe and other organizations need to complete the Bible translation task as soon as possible.