Opening Ourselves to New Movements, Voices, and Opportunities
by Roy Eyre
How do I determine what God’s purpose is for my generation? What is my generation’s relationship to the work of Christ? The clues to answer these questions may be found by looking at a group that missed God’s purpose.
(Editor’s note: In this issue we start a new column where we hear from younger leaders initiating innovative, visionary efforts which are resulting in fruit for the kingdom. Our hope is that we will learn and be inspired by them even as they learn from and are inspired by those of us on the other side of the gap.)
“…David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers…” (Acts 13:36)
These words have stirred me from an early age. Fulfilling the purpose of God in my generation is an orienting goal that has provided overall direction for my life and informed my choices. What strikes me is the phrase “in his own generation.”
David lived centuries before Jesus, yet what he did in his generation had profound results on future generations, including the one that gave the world Jesus.
However, there’s a problem in assessing success for this “in-my-generation” goal—it is best done via epitaph, discovered in hindsight. That was true for David, and it’s true for me. How then do I determine what God’s purpose is for my generation? What is my generation’s relationship to the work of Christ? Ironically, the clues to answer these questions may be found by looking at a group that missed God’s purpose.
Rejecting God’s Purpose
Luke 7:30 says, “…the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves…” I can’t imagine a more horrible epitaph! The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were in strategic positions of influence in an era that gave them one main purpose—to look for the Messiah to come—and they missed it. How?
In Luke 7, John the Baptist began to express doubts about whether Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus answered, not by rebuking John’s doubt or offering intellectual proof, but by reminding John of the messianic scriptures Jesus fulfilled daily as he cared for the needy. He then turned to the watching crowd to challenge their understanding of the eccentric prophet. Those crowds responded in two ways: those who were baptized by John “declared God just,” while those who were not baptized sought to declare themselves just. In so doing, they rejected God’s purpose.
So, where did the latter—the religious leaders and lawyers—go wrong? According to the text they had three main problems:
First, they had dogmatic expectations. While the people responded to Jesus’ message by concluding it proved God’s plan right, the Pharisees insisted they were right. As professional students of the Bible, they arrogantly found ground to judge everyone else’s beliefs, practices, and expectations. Sadly, the Pharisees’ heart attitude of rigidity and self-righteousness caused them to miss God’s plan in their generation.
Second, they were unresponsive. The Pharisees had not been baptized by John. We know they heard his message, but they rejected it. Jesus faulted their lack of empathy and the distance they maintained from their followers. They looked at the world from high above, too proud to get their hands and robes dirty with real life.
Third, they were blind leaders. The same proof Jesus offered to John about his claim to be the Messiah was available to the Pharisees as well. While others believed, they refused to see truth. If a leader is not able to understand the times, see what God is doing, and know what to do and how to respond, then he or she needs people around him or her to fill that role. Even the heathen kings of the Old Testament knew this (see 1 Chron. 12:32, Esth. 1:13, Dan. 10:1).
So how do I, how do we, avoid the same problems? We need a three-fold counter-attack to open our minds to new movements, our hearts to new voices, and our eyes to new opportunities.
1. Keep expectations flexible. The key challenge for every generation is to set aside expectations. The move of God in this generation is going to look very different than in previous generations. At a recent Lausanne Consultation for North American Younger Leaders, I was part of a group that summarized the shifting tides of mission during the past century in this way:
Mission has moved from:
doing mission to all peoples
to doing mission for all peoples
to doing mission with all peoples
to receiving [mission] from all peoples.
Think about the history of Bible translation. When Wycliffe’s key partner, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), began, its personnel were the experts, approaching a project as ministering to an unreached people group. There was little awareness of the capacity of those unreached peoples to participate in translation themselves. As that awareness grew, the work then shifted to translating for a people group.The more expat translators relied on their national translation assistants, the more the nationals showed their capabilities.
The result? An explosion of national Bible translation organizations in the 1980s launched an era of doing translation with national believers. Many of these organizations proved to be well-run, effective, and sustainable.
By 1999, the rate of Bible translation had settled into a methodical pace that would require another 150 years to begin Bible translation projects for the remaining languages. For any language to wait five generations was asking too much. So in order to accelerate Bible translation again, Wycliffe, SIL, and church leaders adapted a new vision: to make God’s word accessible in every language needing it in this generation. Wycliffe and SIL therefore re-tooled to be engaged to build capacity in others and cultivate sustainable Bible translation movements worldwide.
That was the year I fell in love with Wycliffe all over again.
2. Pay attention to the margins. In contrast to the Pharisees, we need to be responsive to God, to those we follow, to those we lead, and to those with whom we co-labor. Given the fact that the Holy Spirit is in all believers, God can speak through those we may consider beneath us, specifically to those in the margins. In a globalized world, the margins are much more under our noses than we might expect. Let me suggest a few places we can look.
Today, there are deep thinkers, bold missionaries, and battle-hardened pastors among the world’s minority communities. Missiologists looking at South America are talking of three waves of mission in Brazil that are joining together as a movement. The initial wave of foreign missionaries to Brazil yielded a national Church, which in turn began to expand its attention to the indigenous tribes within the country. Today, this young indigenous church is growing its vision to reach fellow indigenous peoples (Combs 2009). This move of God that is happening in Brazil can also be found in places like Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.
But you don’t need to leave North America to find minority communities. Peoples and language communities who don’t have access to reading God’s word or hearing the gospel message are showing up in North America and Europe as diaspora in great numbers, and few besides social services organizations know where they are. One reason we’re missing them is because those who focus on the global missionary task are not the same as those who focus on urban mission in home countries. And the vast majority of Western mission agencies have few effective strategies for engaging the Church in our cities.
One of those marginal groups linguists have recently been made aware of is the deaf community and the breadth of sign languages being used around the world. There may be as many as four hundred unique sign languages used globally, and their spiritual situation rivals people in some of the most unreached places on earth. For instance, only 1% of American deaf children will attend church as adults, and less than 7% will ever have the gospel presented to them in a way they can understand—in America! The situation is likely the same in Canada. They are literally right in our midst, yet virtually unseen.
3. Understand our times. Look around. What is God doing in this generation that’s unique? Where is he at work? I see the Church shifting east and south. I hear voices from non-traditional corners of Christianity calling the West to repentance and orthodoxy. I see the nations, all ethne, rising up to take their place in the Church and in full participation in mission, biblical exegesis, and theological discourse.
I also see technology hitting its stride at just the right time in critical areas like information sharing, linguistic breakthroughs, accessibility, and technological possibilities. Let me unpack this.
Information sharing. Information is power, and it’s now available to the masses. Information on unreached people groups and languages without the Bible is available today with the click of a button. The result should be increased partnership and collaboration. I was encouraged recently that a major denomination in the United States recommended that anywhere from two to ten missionaries should be sent to every one of the two thousand languages where Wycliffe is working in order to see the impact we all desire.
Linguistic breakthroughs. Futurist Ray Kurzweil says the pace of any technological development is predictable, but it’s impossible to predict where breakthroughs will come. He anticipates numerous breakthroughs in computational linguistics in the next two decades (Kelly 2011). SIL has pioneered many aspects of linguistic technology, including the AdaptIt software that allows translators to use scriptures translated in one dialect to create a first draft of a New Testament in a related dialect. I suspect the next breakthrough is not far off, and it will not come from SIL. Some reasons for optimism:
• Microsoft hires more linguists than anyone else in the world, which has driven universities to train more linguists than ever before.
• Apple has created the incredibly sophisticated Siri feature on its smartphones, and is gathering a huge amount of data on how people converse with their technology.
• Google is putting energy into its translation capabilities as well as launching the Endangered Languages Project.
Accessibility. Nomads in the Middle East today are more likely to camp around technology hot spots than water sources (Williams and Gray 2010). Many of them carry smartphones even when they don’t have access to cell signals so they can pass files, videos, and photos by Bluetooth to each other. In addition, language groups and people groups are setting up Facebook groups. And Skype and other teleconference software are connecting the remotest locations with the rest of the world; Bible translation teams in Indonesia can interact easily with a language program coordinator living in Dallas and a translation consultant in Amsterdam.
Technological possibilities. As stated earlier, the marginalized deaf communities have created new challenges for Bible translation. The printed Bible is more likely to be replaced by one on video. Sign language is visual, after all. But that’s the beginning of the complexity. Some cultures would find reason to reject a signer if they’re the wrong gender, the wrong skin tone, or the wrong age. In other cases, some signers do not want to be identified by their repressive governments. To these challenges, technology offers the use of avatars. Teams are currently using computer animation to create the set of signs and the ability to add a “skin” of the right gender, ethnicity, or generation so that everyone has access to the word of God.
Technology hasn’t taken us as far as promised by 2012—flying cars and home robots are not quite common yet—but the time is ripe for technology to bring Great Commission breakthroughs. I believe God’s encouragement to Habakkuk could apply just as well to our day as it did to Paul’s day in Acts 13: “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you” (Acts 13:41).
A Challenge for this Generation
I can’t say with confidence what God’s purpose is for me and my generation. But a significant challenge has been laid at our feet: the word of God in every language in this generation. Today, about a third of the world’s languages have access to at least a New Testament, a third have translations in progress, and a third have a definite need for translation to begin.
We’ve seen an incredible move of God in the past twelve years since Vision 2025 was first articulated: translation has begun in almost one thousand languages. It has now become a worldwide movement. But it’s still a big, hairy, audacious goal that requires the pace to double again for the remaining third of the world’s languages which are among the most marginalized people groups in the world.
It’s a challenge worthy of this generation.
Combs, Craig. 2009. “CO PLEI: Three-wave Movement in Brazil.” Wycliffe Global Alliance. Accessed September 25, 2012, from www.wycliffenet/stories/tabid/67/Default.aspx?id=1115&pg=14&library=T
Kelly, Nataly. 2011. “Ray Kurzweil on Translation Technology” Huff Post Tech Blog. June 13. Accessed September 25, 2012, from www.huffingtonpost.com/nataly-kellyray-kurzweil-on-translati_b_ 875745.html
Williams, Keith and Leith Gray. 2010. “The Little Phone that Could: Mobile-Empowered Ministry.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 27(3): 139-146.
Roy D. Eyre is president of Wycliffe Canada. He is a former graphic designer, a student of leadership, a husband, and father of three. He blogs on leadership and generational issues at www.thebackrowleader.com.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 96-101. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.