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The Bible Translation Industry Is At A Crossroads

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Wycliffe Associates recently resigned from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability while under review for its fundraising practices.  I wrote a short article about the resignation, thinking that would be it.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

That story plunged me deeply into the Bible translation industry, and I’ve written several stories since.  I learned several things.  First and most importantly, I learned that Bible translation is hard workand that work has been done faithfully and sacrificially for generations.

But I also learned that there’s a difference between the Bible translation ministry and the Bible translation industry.  And the Bible translation industry has raised for me far more questions than I have been able to answer.  But I think a few of those questions are important, so I pose them not just to the leaders of the industry, but to the evangelical donors who fund them. 

Question #1:  How big is the Bible translation industry?  

Bible translation has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

Wycliffe Bible Translators takes in more than $200-million a year, making it one of the largest Christian ministries on earth.  Wycliffe Associates takes in another $50-million per year.  Lots of ministries that are thought of more as missionary organizations than Bible translations nonetheless have significant translation operations.  These include Ethnos360, formerly known as New Tribes Mission, and TransWorld Radio.  These two organizations alone take in a combined total of more than $100-million in annual donations.

And these numbers don’t count the more than 100 Bible translation organizations that are a part of the Wycliffe Global Alliance.  Other “umbrella” groups also exist, including Every Tribe Every Nation and IllumiNations.  It’s impossible to say with certainty what the total annual take is for these organizations, but it almost certainly exceeds $400-million, and it could be far higher than that.  That means that in the past decade alone, Christians have donated more than $4-billion to Bible translation activities.  These organizations own land, buildings, and other assets totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Question #2:  What are we getting for our money?

There are about 7,000 languages on Earth.  About half of them – or about 3,500 languages — already have Bible translations.  Said that way, it sounds like the job is only half done.  But, in reality, more than 99.9 percent of the world’s population speaks these 3,500 languages.  Only about 10-million people speak the other 3,500 languages combined.

The reason the total number is so small is because almost all of these languages have less than 3,000 native speakers.  Further, more than 500 of these languages are considered “endangered languages,” spoken only by a few elderly people.  And most of the speakers of these “endangered languages” are also fluent in another language that already has a Bible translation.  Finally, we know that linguists predict that almost all of these languages will become extinct in the next 50 years.

Given all that, we come to a question that some might find obvious, but probably just as many will find troubling.

Question #3:  Why Are We Still Doing This? 

This is a hard question to face.  For 2000 years, Bible translation has been at the forefront of Great Commission activity.  The biblical story of the Pentecost, when each person heard the gospel in his native tongue, has enshrined the idea that we are to take the Bible to “every tongue and every tribe.”  Bible translation has long been a core missionary activity and skill.  Faithful Christian martyrs gave their lives for their translation work.  The Reformers of the 16th century – especially Wycliffe and Luther — made Bible translation a hill to die on.

But what about today?  You may think that the $400-million-per-year Bible translation industry should race to the finish line.  We’re almost there!  Don’t let up on the gas!

Or your position may be:  We can always do more to make older translations more accessible to modern readers.  There’s still work to be done.

These are defensible positions.  But even if one of those is your position, you have to consider this:  We are quickly approaching crossroads we have not faced in the 2000year history of the church, which is that the age of Bible translation has finally come to an end.

We should pause at that crossroads and celebrate.  Faithful Bible translators of the past and present are on the verge of achieving a monumental goal, equivalent in scope and difficulty to some of the great achievements in human history.  Praise be to God! 

But we will not honor their legacy if we continue from this crossroads in the same direction we’ve been going, especially if we do so not for the sake of reaching unreached people, but for the sake of preserving the man-made institutions of the $400-million translation industry.  We will dishonor those who gave their lives to this work in generations past, and we will fail to seize the new work God has given us for our own generation.

That’s why I hope the leaders of the Bible translation community will take these questions seriously.

If they do not, their donors and a skeptical public have a right to ask harder questions still. 

Warren Cole Smith is the President of MinistryWatch. 

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.