Why I believe in language development

It is often pointed out that Wycliffe Bible Translators is not an accurate name for our organisation, because we do far more than Bible Translation. We have staff involved in language survey, literacy, and a host of other roles which fall under the broad heading of language development. However, it is sometimes suggested that language development work is not real mission work in the way that Bible translation is – a sentiment I profoundly disagree with.

So why do I believe in language development? Firstly, it is because I believe that we have a creation mandate to understand and use the world that God has created. I believe that we should study and understand languages in the same way that we should study and understand physics, biology or organic chemistry. However, I see this as something that humanity as a whole should be doing and I don’t think that the creation mandate is enough to justify the development of specialist Christian agencies such as our own.

For me, our involvement in language development is rooted in the concept of Christian mission.

For many in the evangelical world, mission is defined by the activity of the church crossing cultural boundaries in order to reach out and bring people to faith in Christ and to help them mature as disciples. This view places a great emphasis on the passage in Matthew 28 which has come to be known as the Great Commission.

To present things simplistically, in this view the justification for language development work runs something like this. Our commission is to make disciples, to be a disciple you need access to the Bible (hence Bible translation is valid) and to have access to the Bible you need to be able to read (so orthography development and literacy become valid). This sort of reasoning pushes linguistic study and literacy work to the margins as only being valid in as much as they support something else. Indeed, I’ve heard it suggested that if we have aural or video Scriptures we would not need to do literacy work anyway because people would have access to the Scriptures without it.

It is worth remembering that at different times in history the church has taken different passages of Scripture as the motivation for mission. The primacy of Matthew 28 is relatively recent, and I have questioned whether it is actually the most appropriate motivation for our day and age (see here). I certainly have very strong reservations about the concept of fulfilling the Great Commission, which strikes me as being a very Western and modernist concept. (Someone may raise the issue of Matthew 24:14 at this point. This is not the time and place to unpack this, but I would recommend you to read N.T Wright’s Christian Origins series for a wider view on what the Lord is speaking about here.)

An alternative way to view mission is to start with the character and activity of God as revealed across the whole of the Scriptural narrative. The whole story of Scripture pictures a God who reaches out to humanity in creation, through his relationship with the people of Israel, through the incarnation of the Son, His death and resurrection, the sending of the Spirit and the eventual winding up of all things at the end of time. Our mission is a response to God reaching out to us:

“… mission is first and foremost God’s own mission. God sends himself before he sends his church. There is a centrifugal force in God’s very being as the Son and the Spirit spiral out from the Father to bring healing to the world. Mission is first of all God sending his Son in the power of the Spirit to reconcile the world to himself and the and the mission of the church is nothing less than the gift of sharing by the Spirit in the Son’s mission to the world on behalf of the Father.”[i]

In this paradigm the scope and activity of our mission is defined by the broad narrative of Scripture, not just by the traditional mission texts in the Gospels. Reading through the Bible we see that God is concerned for issues such as social justice, the plight of the poor and corruption as well as for reconciliation between man and God and the forgiveness of sins. In Matthew 22 when Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment, he does not say ‘make disciples of all nations’ but rather he commands us to love God and to love our neighbour. It is clear from the wider context of the Gospels that loving our neighbour involves feeding the hungry and caring for strangers (Matthew 25:31-46). This does not, of course, exclude disciple making. The Great Commission is a part, but not the whole, of our mission. I would argue that the notion that you can divide the spiritual from the physical is one which owes its roots to an enlightenment worldview rather than to Scripture. I believe that the Bible calls us to a radical engagement with humanity as whole human beings, addressing their needs in time and eternity, so that God’s Kingdom will come ‘on earth as in heaven’ (yes, I realise that we won’t see perfection this side of eternity).

With this view of mission in place, I believe that language development work, which address the educational needs of the minority peoples of the world; which gives them the tools to help them lift themselves out of poverty, which empowers them to address the injustices they face on a day to day business, is a valid expression of Christian mission. Even if we never translated another Bible, I believe with all of my heart that there would still be a place for the compassionate work of language development within God’s mission to the world.

The Christian mission world has been convulsed by disagreements over the sacred: secular dichotomy: good works or evangelism; Bible translation or literacy… I believe that the whole Bible calls us to a holistic ministry, to a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’.

And that is why I believe in language development.

This is an edited version of something I wrote for internal publication in Wycliffe Bible Translators. Some of you might recognise it! This should be regarded as my personal view, not a statement of Wycliffe’s position.


[i] Parry, R., 2005. Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship. Paternoster, Milton Keynes. (p.58)

4 thoughts on “Why I believe in language development

  1. A lot of good ideas here. The primacy of the love command over the make disciples command is crucial. Also, valuing the scientific work we do on par with other branches of science. Terrific. (Now to live this way)

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