Let me explain. By engagement, I don’t actually mean the kind with rings and wedding plans — though it seemed an appropriate title at this time of year when everyone knows someone who is planning their special day. No, I’m talking about the engagement I’ve been immersed in since returning to Dallas, to GIAL, and to 70 degree January days.
The course I’m taking is called “Scripture Engagement Strategy and Methods.” I’m already more than halfway through it, thanks to the accelerated module schedule. But it feels like I’ve learned a semester’s worth. “Scripture Engagement” is one of those phrases that people throw around a lot in Bible translator circles. Now I can actually answer the question, “So what is Scripture Engagement anyway?” Well I could begin to answer that question anyway…
The writer of Thessalonians may have defined it best when he wrote,
Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.
God’s word is powerful; His gospel goes forth and when people engage in it, it changes lives. He chooses to make us a part of the process, and He chooses to use sometimes unimaginable means of revealing His truth. Take a minute to think about the ways you’ve engaged with the gospel and the Scriptures. What made it possible for you?
My personal journey of engagement includes the following: reading, hearing sermons, listening to dramatized stories (Adventures in Odyssey anyone??), memorizing, discussing in Sunday school & Bible studies, singing, studying it in courses, etc. And it’s a process; thanks to Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, I’ve realized how much I have yet to learn. But would I have engaged with the truth if all these things had been in a language that was foreign to me? Yes, the spiritual inclination is an overarching factor; I need God to awaken me regardless of language. But we can’t deny that the reality of human experience encompasses more than the spiritual dimension, that it’s all related. So the next question is, what may impede the gospel from “speeding ahead and being honored”?
Do you know about the Coptic Christians of Egypt? I had heard of them but got to learn more of their intriguing history in class. I had to be reminded that North Africa was once a seat of great Christian thought; St. Augustine was from none other than modern-day Algeria. How history has changed that part of the world. But in those days, the Latin Bible was fairly wide-spread. Latin was the language of wider communication across the Roman Empire so the Scriptures were easily disseminated, though it wasn’t the mother tongue of anyone in Africa. When Islam swept through, the Latin Bible was easily disposed of. In the wake of Islamic conquest, no African Christian churches remained…
…except for the Coptic Church in Egypt. To this day and against all odds, they are an indigenous movement whose members still follow Christ. How did they survive? Various answers could be given, and it is a dangerous thing to try explaining how and why God works. A factor that can’t be ignored, however, is that the Bible had been translated into Coptic and not in many of the other languages spoken in North Africa. The Coptic Christians had been worshiping and engaging with God in their heart language. The case is strong for getting the gospel in the vernacular, in the language that the people most associate with their identity. How else will God’s word truly take root in a community?
Knowing that Bible translation is a powerful factor in the establishment of indigenous Christian churches, how do we explain the reality that there are sometimes warehouses full of translated Bibles sitting, collecting dust, not being used by the speakers of the language? What happened? Or what failed to happen? Look around the US and count the people who aren’t engaging with God’s word and yet have access to dozens of English Bibles. Obviously the work doesn’t end as soon as another translation is completed. We dare not forget that the goal is larger than producing a book; it’s to introduce people to Jesus. How do we get people to engage with Him through His word?
Well it’s a complicated question and any attempt at an answer is situation-specific. There is no silver bullet, and people are unpredictable. On top of all that, we know that we struggle against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” But if the spiritual barrier is so significant, than we should do all we can to reduce the barriers of language, culture, communication, distribution, etc.
How to encourage people to engage with the gospel in ways that are authentic to who they are and that convince them of its relevance to their everyday lives — that’s what my brain is buzzing with these days!