A New Reformation?

Church historians sometimes downplay one of the key planks of the Protestant Reformation; the use of indigenous languages in Bible study, worship and disciple making. A great deal is made of the theological influence of Luther, Calvin et al, but language gets much less attention.

However, the Reformation both encouraged and depended on the use of the indigenous languages of Northern Europe. The increasing number of translations of the Bible, prayer books and hymnals encouraged an increase in theological thinking which solidified the break with Rome and led to distinctive expressions of Christianity across the region. The Reformation was not just a theological event it was a cultural and linguistic event too.

Today, we are living through an explosion in Bible translation and indigenous Christianity which dwarfs the Reformation. I wonder what the theological fallout will be from this as people start to read the Scriptures in their own language and apply them to their own situations. I also wonder what side of things the historic Reformed churches will find themselves.

Just thinking.

Why People are Leaving Church: A Look at Context

Rachel Held Evens recently wrote a piece on the CNN blog entitled Why Millenials Are Leaving the Church which gained huge readership (I lost count of how many of my Facebook contacts mentioned it) and has sparked a fair bit of debate. There have been a number of responses to Rachel’s paper including this thoughtful one by Trevin Wax and Krish Kandiah has pointed us to something he wrote on the same issue a couple of years ago.

All three of these articles are worth a read and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing they all lack is a sense of historical and geographical context. So I’d like to provide some framework to help us examine the particular issues that Held Evans and others have raised.

There is no missing generation in the church. Krish is right when he highlights the lack of people in their 20s and 30s in the Church in the UK, but this is a Western phenomenon. Worldwide the Church is growing incredibly rapidly and the highest growth is among the generation that we find hardest to reach in our corner of the world. It isn’t all doom and gloom around the world and the future of the Church looks extremely bright; but we do have a struggle on our hands around here.

It isn’t just millenials who are going missing. Many British churches have very few people in their 20s and 30s, but across the board, there are fewer people of all age groups who are attending church. Simon catches one reason for this, but there are many others. So while the worldwide picture is more encouraging than these articles imply, the local one is more discouraging.

The point of these two statements is to indicate that the drop in numbers of younger people attending Church in the UK is a reflection of a much broader and long term trend. Churches are in decline across the UK  and have been for years. This article from the Daily Mail captures this trend quite graphically (and probably loses me a lot of credibility).

However, the fall in the number of Christians in the UK (and elsewhere in the heartland of Christianity) is more than counterbalanced by a huge growth in the Church around the world.

Andrew Walls suggests that this shift in the demographics of the Church is part of a much broader pattern which is ingrained in the history and nature of Christianity:

Christian expansion is not progressive; it is serial. Perhaps we can understand this best by comparing the histories of Christianity and Islam. Both faiths call the whole world to allegiance. Each has succeeded in establishing itself among peoples among diverse culture and diverse geographical locations. But in the light of comparative history, Islam has, so far at least, been much more successful than Christianity in maintaining that allegiance over time. Lands that have become Muslim have, generally speaking (there are exceptions), remained Muslim. Arabia now seems so utterly, axiomatically Muslim that it’s hard to remember, isn’t it, that the Yemen was once a Christian kingdom.

Contrast Jerusalem, which cannot even claim an unbroken Christian history, let alone a dominant one. Jerusalem, the mother church of us all, is not the Christian Mecca. Or consider Egypt or Syria or Tunisia -these were once the showcase churches, the churches that led the Christian world, adorned by the greatest theologians and the profoundest scholars, and sanctified by the blood of the Martyrs. They were churches that had seen the collapse of paganism around them and the triumphs of Christ throughout their surrounding areas.

Or think of the days, and few Christians nowadays even realize that those days happened, when the Christian faith was the profession of the whole Euphrates valley and most of the people who live in what is now Iraq, professed that faith; when new churches were springing up in Iran and across Central Asia, even in the countries we now call Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Or consider my own country, with its towns where John Knox and John Wesley once preached but are now full of churches that nobody needs and that get turned into fellowship doors or restaurants or even nightclubs. In my own city of Aberdeen we have a former church that now rejoices as a nightclub under the name “The Ministry of Sin.”

In each of these cases, a place that had been a leading center of Christian faith, an area where the Christian faith was dominant, ceased to hold that position. For whatever reason, and there are many different reasons in the different cases, the light was dimmed, sometimes indeed, extinguished. As the Book of Revelation puts it, the candlestick was taken out of its place. But in none of these cases did the dimming or withering of Christian witness in one of its major centers lead to the end of Christian witness in the world.

By the way, if you have never read any Andrew Walls, you really should. He is one of the most important Christian thinkers of our age; but widely ignored because he doesn’t write about fashionable subjects (he writes about important ones).

One of my colleagues, Paul posted this quote in a book review this morning:

“I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch. If you really want to understand the future of Christianity, go and see what is happening in Asia, Africa, Latin America.… God very often is working most powerfully far from the center.”

This has taken us a long way from the problem of a missing generation in the Church in the UK, but I believe that it gives us a context in which to understand the issues. It is good that Krish and others are looking at this issue and suggestion solutions. However, we need to be aware that lying behind the problem of one generation in one part of the world is a profound historic trend which will need a response on multiple levels.

Women and Leadership in the Church

The question of the role of women in Church leadership is one which gets a lot of airing both in Christian circles and in the wider press. However, it’s one that we rarely touch on here at Kouyanet. This is mainly because it isn’t an issue which impinges directly onto our areas of interest. However, when I came across this piece by Onesimus, I decided that I had to post a link to it. There are a couple of points of interest: it is written by an Orthodox scholar based in Kenya (though with an evangelical background), but most importantly it takes a slant on the question that I’ve never seen before.

A few thoughts on Church ‘leadership’ as we find it in the New Testament.  First we must understand that ‘leadership’ is not a New Testament word; it’s a modern word.  Leadership implies authority, initiative, direction, management and control.  In many ways, leadership is a power word, and assumes a perspective on the world around us and takes on a certain posture and demands a certain course of action.  Leadership is a man’s word and its context describes a man’s context.  Today churches of all kinds have seminars on ‘leadership’. We give our shepherds three easy steps on being a more effective leader.  So many of our churches are so large that we need our ‘leaders’ to become more effective managers.  All of this is intended to enable our churches to function as effective institutions.  But none of this is found in our New Testament.  In fact, the emphasis throughout, indeed the direct teaching of Jesus himself and the apostles takes us in the exact opposite direction.

Jesus’ followers were to be different.  They were not to be like certain Gentiles, who lived to lord it over people.  Nor were they to be like certain Jews who were keen to maintain the perks of position and power.  Instead, Jesus’ followers were to be different, known for putting the needs of others before their own, known for being like slaves in their readiness to do whatever for whoever was needy, known for being like Jesus himself.  ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:14-15)  In this Jesus leads by example.  He takes on the posture of a slave, and for those homes too humble for a slave, the posture of a woman.
Immediately after Jesus offers the disciples the bread of his body and the cup of his blood, a quarrel breaks out as to which one of them should be the one in charge over the rest of them. ‘Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.’ (Luke 22:25-27)  This is only one of several examples that I could point to where the disciples import their cultural understanding of leadership into what Jesus is calling them to do and be, only to have Jesus present them with an alternative vision of what it means to be his people that is so radical and unexpected that his disciples simply cannot fathom it.
I wish to suggest that it isn’t just the disciples who had trouble fathoming Jesus’ vision for discipleship and for the community of disciples that would be known by his name.  Every generation of Christian church has struggled with the profound temptation to import the surrounding culture’s understanding of leadership and authority into the church.  I want to suggest that when one looks at the historical record, one finds that the Church has repeatedly taken the easier road and abandoned Jesus’ blueprint in favor of the way it’s always been done.  The evidence for this can be seen everywhere throughout the history of the Church to the present day.  At almost every point, the church and her ministers look nothing like what Jesus was talking about and calling his followers to be and do.  The discrepancy is simply shocking.

If you wan’t to know how this is applied to the question of women’s ministry, read the whole article.

William Tyndale

There is an excellent article on William Tyndale in Knowing and Doing (the magazine of the C.S. Lewis Institute) which anyone interested in the Bible or Translation would profit from. (HT Antony Billington)

Tyndale was both an able scholar (fluent  in seven languages in addition to English)  and “a conscious craftsman” with an “extraordinary gift for uniting the skill  of making sense of an original with the music of  spoken English at its best.” He succeeded in making the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament speak in remarkably clear, beautiful and vigorous English.

His work made the English a Bible-reading people and influenced future translations down to the present. Because William Tyndale gave the English people the Bible in
their own language, he is rightly honored as the “apostle of England.”

Not a few of Tyndale’s translations have become a part of the English language, including the following:

• “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
• “No man can serve two masters.”
• “Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and
ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
• “Give unto one of these little ones to drink, a
cup of cold water only.”
• “The spirit is willing.”
• “Fight the good fight.”
• “In him we live and move and have
our being.”
• “With God all things are possible.”
• “Be not weary in well doing.”
• “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

This is the sort of legacy that any contemporary translator, in any language would love to leave behind. I do hope that it can be said of our work that it is expressed in remarkably clear, beautiful and vigorous Kouya.

Mission Out of Exile 2

The Jews longed to go back home and whilst the false prophets made them think that everything was OK, Jeremiah came along and shattered this illusion, telling them that they were in for a lifetime of exile.

So the Jews sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion.

I have an impression that we have a similar reaction; we like hark back to a golden age, when Spurgeon was packing in the crowds at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Lloyd-Jones was expounding Romans in minute detail at Westminster Chapel, Hudson-Taylor was recruiting huge numbers of missionaries for China and everything in the garden was rosy. Of course, that time never existed, except through our rose tinted spectacles.

Yet, while we might look back to a mythical, wonderful past, we are less sure about the future.

The Danish physicist Neils Bohr said that it is difficult to make predictions, especially when it concerns the future. I think this can be applied to the situation of the church in the UK today.  There is one school of thought that says we are living through a paradigm shift which will see an almost terminal decline in the church in Europe and a reawakening at the periphery. Others believe that things have more or less stabilised as they are. Our Grandchildren will be able to tell us how it all worked out.

I don’t know what the future holds, but one thing I am sure of is that it won’t be the past! We can’t go back! Things are not like they used to be and they never will be again. Britain will never be the great missionary sending country that it was in the past – it may, in God’s mercy, be a different sort of great missionary sending country, but the social and political factors, not to mention the religious ones, which allowed for the great mission movements of the 19th and 20th centuries have ended. We need to look to a new sort of future and not try and revisit the past.

Books of The Year

What with one thing and another, I’ve not read as many books as usual this year and I’ve reviewed even fewer. But for the record; here is a list of book reviews that have appeared on Kouyanet in 2012.

I told you I haven’t written many reviews this year.

Other books which I have read, which I should have reviewed include Simply Jesus – Who He Was, What He Did, Why it Matters and How God Became King – Getting to the heart of the Gospels by Tom Wright. These two explore broadly similar themes about the identity and work of Christ and both deserve a wide readership.

There are a heap of other books, too numerous to mention, which I should have reviewed at the time and which will now go un-remarked.

The first is a bit of a cheat. I haven’t actually finished Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church? yet. But I’m two thirds of the way through and I am convinced that it is one of the most important books I’ve read in a while. The title more or less tells you what the theme of the book is. Though obviously focussed on the situation in the US, this book has a great deal to say to the Church in the UK too. Anyone involved in leading overseas mission from the UK should read this.

The second book that I would highlight is one that I’ve quoted from a number of times, Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. This is, perhaps, the best overview of Church history that I have come across. By focussing on twelve pivotal events in the past two millenia, Noll manages to catch the main social and religious currents that have shaped the Church. Like most books of it’s type, it is distressingly Eurocentri; one day someone will write a history of the Church which gives greater emphasis to the historic churches in Asia.

I find it hard to choose a best book I’ve read this year; but if pushed, I would name The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit by Mike Reeves. This is an excellent little book which gives a superb introduction to what it means that God is Trinity. It is a very short book, but engaging and deeply through provoking. I can’t think of a reason why any Christian would not read this book, but don’t just take my word for it…

Recent years have seen a number of books designed for a lay readership that sweep the doctrine of the Trinity off the dusty shelves of irrelevance, helping us see that God’s trinity radically shapes every part of Christian faith and life. Here is one of the most lively, readable and stimulating to appear”. –Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Research Professor at Duke Divinity School, Duke University

A final honourable mention for the year goes to The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life by Stephen Holmes. This is a longer and weightier book on the Trinity, which is aimed squarely at Theology Students. However, if you have read and enjoyed The Good God, you might profit from having your mind stretched a little further.

Some Thoughts on Luther

This weekend, I had the immense privilege of visiting Eisenach, a small town in Germany.

Eisenach, which is just inside the former East Germany, has a number of claims to fame. It is there that JS Bach (probably my favourite classical composer) was born. But, for a Bible translator, it is supremely the location of  the Wartburg; the Castle where Martin Luther first translated the German New Testament.

English speakers, if they think of him at all, tend to think of Luther as the man who kick started the reformation; but there is far more to him than that.

There are many worthy reasons for studying the life of Martin Luther. Students of the German language celebrate him for his linguistic genius and for making the speech of the Saxons (enshrined in a Bible translation with more impact in Germany than the King James Bible had in England) the standard of modern German language. Those who study the family find Luther’s marriage a landmark in the development of modern forms of social interaction. Historians of the church find Luther an incredible dynamo in reconstituting the ecclesiastical structures of the sixteenth century. Roland Bainton, author of one of the best lives of Luther, once said that in Germany, Luther did all by himself what in England it took Bible-translator William Tyndale, liturgist Thomas Cranmer, Preacher Hugh Latimer, hymn-writer Isaac Watts and sever generations of theologians to do.”

There won’t be many more quotes from  Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (p. 164), but in the context, I couldn’t resist this one!


The breadth and depth of monastic influence in the church can be sketched quickly by observing the lineage of attitudes and actions that have been approved by almost all Christians everywhere. If we read the Scripture in our native languages, we benefit from a tradition of biblical translation inspired by the monk Jerome (ca. 342-420). If we sing together the praises of Father, Son, and  Holy Spirit, we follow where the hymn-writing monks Gregory (ca. 540-604) and Bernard of Clairvaux led the way. If we pursue theology, we inevitably find ourselves indebted to the monks Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-74). If we pray for the success of Christian missions, we ask for blessing upone enterprises pioneered by the monks Patrick (ca. 390 – ca. 460), Boniface (680-754), Cyril (826-69) and his brother Methodius (ca. 815-85), and Raymond Lull (ca. 1233-ca. 1315). If we are interested in the past record of Christianity in English speaking areas of the world, we cultivate a historical concern begun by a monk, the Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735). If we glory in the goodness that God imparted to the created world, we follow where the friar Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226) blazed the trail. Monasticism was never a perfect answer to the questions of how to life the Christian life. Its impact, nonetheless, cannot be underestimated. And that impact has largely been for the good.

Another fascinating insight from Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (p. 85)

The Council of Chalcedon

For the history of Christian doctrine, Chalcedon was thus vitally important in two ways. It represented a wise, careful and balanced restatement of scriptural revelation. And it also represented successfully the translation of biblical revelation into another conceptual language. Chalcedon was not Pentecost, but because its work faithfully synthesised scriptural history, the Hellenistic world could now hear “the wonders of God” in its own tongue. Because the work of Chalcedon faithfully translated scriptural teaching, the Hellenistic world could express the wonders of God in its own conceptual language. Both synthesis and translation would need to happen again and again and again.

From Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity p.80. There will be further quotes from this most excellent church history book to come.

Wrestling With Onesimus 2: Imports

This is the next post in my series trying to get to grips with Onesimus post: When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don’t Need Us Anymore.

It is quite obvious, that Onesimus has some serious reservations about the impact of the Western mission movement:

Now that I’ve been here (on the ‘field’) for a while, I am realizing that we Western missionaries are not the wonderful blessing from heaven to all these poor and lost people that we like to think of ourselves as.  While we have been certainly busy ‘preaching the gospel’ all these years, we’ve actually succeeded in reproducing some of our less savory attributes much more than anybody is admitting.  Most people who come here as missionaries only know what they know and do not know what they don’t know.  While this is endearing in children, it’s been disastrous on the mission field.  We have reproduced not just our seriously inculturated Western understanding of ‘the gospel’, but we have also reproduced our various and seriously inculturated understandings of the church as well.  The problem is, most of us missionaries have really not thought that much about what sort of ‘church’ we are planting, assuming this to be obvious.  As a result, we have succeeded merely in passing on our ignorances and prejudices, all dressed up as Bible truth.  We came here as Baptists (of multiple sorts), Presbyterians, Methodists, Bible Church Independents, Brethren, Pentecostals, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc, etc, and wonder of wonders is it not surprising that we have succeeded in importing all of our Western arguments and divisions and prejudices in spades.  We excuse our differences by calling them ‘distinctives’ and by saying that they are essentially adiaphora (matters of indifference)—especially youradiaphora—but then fight like the devil when someone actually presumes to treat our distinctives as adiaphora (‘no, really, believer baptism is necessary to be a real NT Christian!’).

To be honest, it is hard not to agree with much of this. I don’t know how many different protestant denominations we saw in Ivory Coast, but it was certainly far more than were needed. It seemed that each mission agency, denominational or non-denominational planted churches after their own image and that different Churches hardly talked to each other. How many baptist denominations does a small country need? I lost count of them! The historical and cultural realities which gave birth to our various denominations are irrelevant outside of the West.

Onesimus is right, to highlight this negative side of mission activity. Division is the besetting sin of Protestantism and it is a great shame that we have exported our divisions and our local concerns into the wider world. However, I’m not convinced by the solutions that Onesimus has to offer.

  • Onesimus, himself, has left the divided world of Protestanism behind and become an orthodox Christian. That is a solution, certainly, but it’s not one that I’m prepared to take or to advocate for a variety of reasons.
  • The broader solution is a moratorium on foreign missions. I will, eventually, get on to why I don’t agree with this idea – but let’s park it for now.

Though I can’t agree with Onesimus call for a moratorium on mission work, I do believe that he highlights that our model and expectation of missions does need to change. I’m really not sure how we deal with the fact that countries like Kenya (where Onesimus lives) or Ivory Coast have so many imported denominations. To some extent the damage has been done. Not only that, it has been exacerbated by the creation of many more local denominations. When you import division, you shouldn’t be surprised that it continues!

I do believe, however, that we need to stop importing Western denominations into the rest of the world. This means that church planters from different backgrounds are going to have to talk to each other and to work together in a way that only rarely happens. It will mean that home mission boards who often measure success in terms of denominational church plants will have to think differently. It’s a big challenge, and I’m not sure how it could all be done – but it needs to be.


Bible and Mission Links 17

Bible Translation

This theme brings us back to a couple of perennial issues. One of the things which never ceases to amaze me is the way in which people hold to the belief that the King James Version is the only acceptable translation of the Bible. The original translators certainly didn’t believe this, as this excellent post shows. The other recurring issue is the question about appropriate translation of certain family terms in the Scriptures. The World Reformed Fellowship has an interesting article by someone who attended a meeting where translators were discussing this question.

Returning to the normal subject matter of this blog; Wycliffe UK have a couple of excellent posts on the impact of Bible translation among the Hanga people of Ghana. Read this one first, then this one. Mark Woodward posted a fascinating piece about his experiences in Tanzania.

Last month we were excited to be able to host six speakers of the Kibende language, as they took the very first step towards writing their language and later starting to translate the Bible into Kibende. During the week that they spent with us here in Mpanda they managed to collect over a thousand words in their language, which will later be analysed linguistically in order to come up with a writing system that is intuitive and easy for Kibende speakers to read and write.

For us it was encouraging to see this first step in the translation project, and to look ahead in faith to the coming months and years as the Bende hopefully become more and more involved in the work, and start to produce the first portions of Scripture.


The coup in Mali has faded out of the mainstream news in the UK, but the situation there is still very difficult. This piece describes some of the things that Christians in the North of the country are facing.

There is a believer in one of the cities that has been overtaken that had an opportunity to leave the city yesterday.  A bus was sent to pick up him and the other believers that he had been shepherding during this time.  However, when the bus arrived, he and several other believing men gave up their seats so that more women and children could escape even though they were not believers.  They are hoping that another bus will come soon and that the rest of them will be able to leave.  I do not know this man personally but I am sure that in spite of all that has happened in the past two weeks he has not ceased to say “Blessed Be Your Name.”

From time to time I’ve commented on some of the problems with missionary approaches which focus on ‘unreached peoples’. This article picks up on a similar theme.

I am full aware of the urgency of reaching the unreached and preaching the Gospel to all creation, (Mark 16:15) but who gets to corner the market on the definition of “unreached?”  I suspect, it is the “market place” of Christendom itself.  Perhaps it’s the wrong question entirely. The desire to reach the unreached is motivated by the thinking that when all ethnic groups have been reached, then Christ will return. (Mark 24:14) This assumption may be emotionally driven, but I don’t think it’s biblically supported.  In fact, I don’t believe this particular verse has anything to do with Christ’s ultimate return at all.

The Beaker Folk have a superb take on the disciple Thomas:

I do like Thomas. He’s the brave one who says “well we may as well go to Jerusalem and die with him”. I say “brave” – “desperate” might be another word; again, “cynical” might be another. But he can reckon up the probabilities of what may happen if they go to Jerusalem – calls it about right, let’s face it – and still figure it’s worth going with it – because if Jesus goes to Jerusalem without them, after all, what have they got left?

He’s the one who effectively says “I’m not saying I don’t believe you – I’m just saying give me the evidence”. And he’s the one who makes the leap that the others couldn’t manage in a week. Imagine that week as he’s thinking – “If I don’t see Jesus, he’s just a dead rabbi. If I do see Jesus – there’s only one thing he can be. If I don’t see Jesus, we just go back to normal. If I do see Jesus – I’m going to have to bow and worship. If I don’t see Jesus, things are still what they seem. If I do see Jesus – there’s something very different about the world, all of a sudden.”

Lastly for this time round is a short video about the work of Street Pastors in my home town. Paul travelled the world  preaching the Gospel to Gentiles, but he never lost his affection and concern for his own people, the Jews. I’m no Paul, but it does my heart good to see the love of Christ being shared with ‘my people’. On a linguistic note, who wouldn’t want to work in a city where people have such a wonderful accent? Dave Burke’s blog is a great place to find out more about what God is doing in that part of the world.