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Women’s Conference Attendees Pledge More Than $1.5 Million to Bible Translation Effort

But where is the money actually going?

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The headlines in Christian media this weekend seemed to tell a remarkable, feel-good story:  Attendees at a virtual women’s conference pledged more than $1.5 million to an effort to translate the Bible for unreached people. 

More than 750 women viewing the IF: Gathering conference March 6 signed up within the first five minutes to support IllumiNations’ 12 Verse Challenge, which asks donors to pledge $35 a month for a year to help cover translation costs for 12 Bible verses.  Christianity Today was among those reporting the story.  The women raised enough to translate a full Bible—$1 million—in five hours, CT said.

The total number of givers as of March 16 has topped 6,300, which organizers of the event said would fund more than 46,300 verses. 

“IF:Gathering, we are blown away by your generosity,” IllumiNations said in an Instagram post. “After launching the 12 Verse Challenge with you last weekend, over 6,000 of you have given and we’re now close to funding a second translation of God’s Word. Because of you, we’re able to help the Konta, Oyda and Melo people groups of Ethiopia have the Bible in their language.⁠”

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IF: Gathering founder Jennie Allen called it the group’s “most important work to date.” 

IllumiNations, which calls itself an “alliance” to translate Scripture into every language by 2033, estimates that 1 billion people live in Bible poverty. 

However, while this money may be put to good use, it also shines a light on the lack of transparency and convoluting funding structures of the Bible translation industry.

For example, IllumiNations is an organization that does not actually translate Bibles.  It is not even a separate 501-c-3 organization, so it is difficult to evaluate its effectiveness or its use of funds.  It is the fundraising arm of an organization called Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN).  Money contributed to Illuminations comes to ETEN, and it is then distributed to one of ETEN’s partner organizations.  Those partners include some of the largest organizations in the Bible translation industry, including Wycliffe Bible Translators, which last year took in more than $200-million.   

Wycliffe Bible Translators also spent about $20-million, or 10 percent of its annual income, on fundraising, which is about average for organizations in the MinistryWatch database.  However, it is not clear how much ETEN or Illuminations spends on fundraising.  Nor is it clear which Illuminations partner organization will receive the $1.5-million raised by the If:Gathering.  Illuminations was also the lead sponsor for the IF:Gathering.  The cost of that sponsorship is not listed on the IF:Gathering website.  Requests for information from IF:Gathering have so far been unanswered.

The entire Bible translation industry is in transition.  It is an industry made up of hundreds of organizations worldwide, with overlapping relationships and – sometimes – competitive missions.  Wycliffe Bible Translators, an IllumiNations partner, says 1 in 5 people do not have the Bible available in their language.  The group said of the 7,360 languages spoken in the world, only 704 have a full Bible translation, and 2,731 languages in 167 countries have begun active translation or preparatory work. 

But such claims can be misleading.  More than a thousand additional languages have complete New Testaments.  And the languages without translations often have very few speakers, and many of those speakers also speak other languages.  In reality, well over 90 percent of the world’s population speaks a language for which we already have a translation.  In fact, most of the languages for which there is no translation have less than 3,000 native speakers, and many of these people also speak a language in which a translation already exists.  

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, linguists predict that almost all of these languages will become extinct in the next 50 years.

The IF campaign was the kickoff of IllumiNations’ 12 Verse Challenge. Churches can now sign up to host their own “12VC Sunday” using a kit of materials provided by the group, including videos, customizable graphics, and emails to send to their congregation.

“You have the opportunity to come alongside the brothers and sisters who are faithfully laboring to complete the work of translating God’s Word to every language in the world by 2033,” IllumiNations said. 

Anne Stych contributed to this story.

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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.