When the Apostle Paul came to preach about Jesus and the resurrection in Athens, he was brought to the Areopagus, since “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). By preaching in the Areopagus, Paul humbly implemented the idea of approaching people where they actually are, not where we as Christians would like them to be. People who are just seeking to hear something new are not necessarily seeking God, and there may in fact be just a few in a crowd who are truly ready to hear God. Nonetheless, Paul was not afraid of speaking in vain. He was simply doing the Lord’s work, and it was up to the Lord to do all the rest. There is no doubt that Paul was the most successful missionary among the Apostles.
This principle of reaching people where they are was the foundation of the IBT seminar on Scripture Engagement in summer 2015. Be it for better or for worse, the times when common people argued about theological concepts in the streets or marketplaces of Byzantium are gone. In our era of high speed and high technology people have plenty of choices and plenty of entertainments. Very often, even if they are seeking for truth in the depth of their hearts, they may not realize this with their minds. To let people know about new Bible translations and to help them feel interested is a big task that requires time, effort, imagination, knowledge, humility and a truly self-sacrificial aspiration to do the Lord’s work in today’s world.
Representatives of 11 people groups of Russia and the CIS took part in the Scripture Engagement seminar. The aim of this workshop was to provide participants with the tools necessary to arouse their society’s interest in the Bible in the language that is most convenient for that society. Participants discussed the question of how to distribute Bible translations in the most acceptable form for their audience (printed, digital, video, audio, animation, storytelling, and so forth). This time the IBT seminar was not so much for the translation team workers, but more for the users of already translated Bible texts. These are people who see their life calling in helping others to hear the message of the Bible. What is their “Areopagus” in each specific case? How will they be able to implement the ideas encountered at the seminar and what are they already doing on their own initiative? Let us listen to the unique stories of three seminar participants who represent three Turkic languages – Altai, Crimean Tatar, and Tatar.
Altai participant: “The main problem with Scripture use that I see among the Altais is that people are not yet ready for receiving the Scripture in the form of a printed book. First of all, they believe that a crucial feature of Altai culture is that it is not literary, but oral. When you offer people any book about God, they may simply refuse to read. Second, if you have become a Christian, your own clan and family will turn away from you. In their eyes you have become an enemy of your own people, you have betrayed your land and your home and even lost the right to put on a national costume. By turning to Christ, you have received a “Russian God”! Our people prefer listening to reading, and this is a clue to what I am currently doing – making a contemporary audio version of the Psalms, adapted for contemporary situations and using a contemporary vocabulary. It is a more digestible form of Biblical wisdom, presented in the cadences of Altai poetry. I do not read my version of Psalms in the church – I sing them! I am a throat singer, which is our national art. And whenever I take part in throat singing competitions, I use the Psalms. This is how I am preparing the Altai audience for receiving Biblical wisdom. Once a sister in Christ from my church who works as a nurse in a hospital asked me whether there are any prayers in Altai. I wrote down several of these Psalms, and patients in the hospital started using them as their personal prayers. Their responses were very positive.”
Crimean Tatar participant: “All Crimean Tatars know that their distant ancestors were Christians, yet you will not find any Christians among the elder generations. Nowadays all are Muslims. What was very important for me at this seminar is the practice of story-telling. Our people simply love stories! Once I even met a person who told me that all of Pushkin’s stories are based on Crimean Tatar folk tales. We have a great tradition of stories and tales of all sorts. In my story-telling, I use stories about Jesus and the prophets from both the Bible and the Koran. When you tell stories in Crimean Tatar, although people often lack vocabulary to understand you well, they immediately feel “This is our own stuff!” and become interested. When they attend the mosque, they do not ponder upon their religion. They simply accept certain rules which they consider obligatory for their life, but when you approach the same people with story-telling, they start thinking independently, they start asking questions. Their interest awakens. When people say that they are Muslim, I approach them with Koranic stories and I praise God that they are Muslims, because ‘Muslim’ means faithful and obedient to God. The main thing is to help people to start thinking and posing questions from their own heart. I organize Christian summer camps for children, and quite a few Muslim Crimean Tatars allow their children to participate in our camp programs. Before the very first camp, I spoke to their parents and suggested that if their children would not become better after the camp, next year they would not allow them to come. During our program we sing songs in Crimean Tatar, and I stimulate children to speak their mother tongue through Bible classes in Crimean Tatar. The first year we had 27 participants, next year there were 46 participants, then 55, and last year we had more than 60 children in our summer camps.”
Tatar participant: “Once several brothers in Christ from our church were invited to visit an elderly lady who had fallen down and hurt herself badly. She needed somebody to comfort her because she had terrible pain and could not even sleep at night. Our brethren brought an IBT Gospel in Tatar with them and suggested that she should read this book, but she woman said that as Muslims neither she nor her relatives were allowed to read Christian Scriptures. Right on the spot one of the brethren was inspired to ask whether it was allowable for him to read this book aloud to her. “Why not?” she responded. “You may certainly read it.” So he started reading all the passages where Jesus healed people. Afterwards, he asked the elderly lady whether they could pray for her, and she gladly agreed. After that prayer she slept peacefully for the whole night, and soon after eagerly started to pray on her own. Christians continued visiting her, and each time they came, she immediately asked her relatives to bring a scarf to cover her hair and then initiated fervent prayer. Some time passed and she became interested in hearing about the whole life of Christ, and on this request the Gospel was read to her. She felt that she was a sinner and confessed her sins. She lived a year and a half after her first contact with Christians, and died peacefully the next morning after inviting some sisters in Christ from the same church to participate in her heartfelt prayer in Tatar. The relatives of that elderly woman asked Christians to continue visiting them whenever they are somewhere near their village. This is how intercultural bridges are built through Biblical texts.”
All these three short interviews are based on oral Scripture use. They all show how God inspires His servants with the most unexpected ideas, when they are not afraid to offer Him their voices. In the time of the Apostles the Scripture was always read aloud, since people had not yet initiated the custom of silent reading. Maybe in this era of new technology we are once again entering a time when “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17).