Joanne Shetler, a Wycliffe Bible Translator, in her book “And the Word Came with Power,” says on page 108
“Balangaos had always had village elders, older men informally chosen by group consensus to guide them. I usually sought these older people to work with me on translation; their status and their experience were invaluable. In the course of helping with the translation, they ended up with an unusually solid knowledge of the Word of God. They were naturals to become a new kind of elder, elders in the Balangao church. Early on they began teaching others what they’d learned about God from the Scriptures.”
It seems to me that this expresses an ideal way to bring an unreached group to faith.
- Enter a community with the blessing of the elders/leaders.
- Seek help and guidance from the elders.
- Get the elders involved with the ministry— even before they have chosen to follow Christ.
Why is this ideal?
- Entering the community with the blessing of the elders gives one immediate status. When entering a community, any community, people will label those who dwell with them. A great label is “Welcome Guest,” especially if the welcomers are the leaders of the community. Other good labels are teacher or healer. But if one doesn’t have a good and clear label, eventually one will be given less desirable labels like… “foreigner,” “stranger,” “alien,” or perhaps even “troublemaker.”
- Seeking the help and guidance of the elders supports the societal structure. It honors those that the people have already honored. There are times that one has to challenge the leadership…. but certainly not at the beginning. If one reads the book of Nehemiah one finds that Nehemiah strongly challenged the local leaders. However, he did so only years later. Initially, he utilized the local leadership.
- Relatedly, the local leadership knows how to allocate resources and get things done. Getting their blessing is more than symbolic, it is also very tangible.
- Getting the elders involved in ministry sets things up for group conversion. As the elders were trained in the Bible through their translation work, they were slowly made ready to change and follow Christ. Upon their conversion, the community is much more ready to change with them. It reminds me of the conversion of Iceland to Christ, that came after a vote of the clan leaders.
- Translators become experts in Scripture even before they become followers of Christ. Be open to the possibility that God works backwards with some… where they are discipled before they are converted. Adoniram Judson would be another example of one in whom early converts of his were his translators. However, they were translators in his ministry long before they were followers of Christ.
- All of this leads to elders/leaders in the community who are now Christians and also well-trained in the Scriptures. They make ideal church leaders.
Some missionaries like to enter a community seeking out the youth because they are often the most ready to change. (I like to say that in the US, college students rebel by dabbling with agnosticism or atheism. In the Philippines, college students rebel by dabbling with Evangelicalism.) However, ignoring the older generation often leads to divided families. Will divided families happen? Of course, sometimes. But taking the extra time to work with leaders and the older generation can really lead to longer-term community transformation.
The young can minister, but will often have great limitations. I had a friend who was an 18 year old and a pastor of a church. It was an Ibaloi church (Ibaloi being a traditional tribal group that has an elder leadership structure much like the Balangao). Why would an elder-based group have an 18 year old pastor? They liked his musical ability and liked his preaching. But he had no spiritual authority in the church. He did music and talking, but the elders in the church were the spiritual (and administrative) leaders. It would have been must wiser, in all probability, to have had one of the older members serve as the senior pastor, and have the younger as an associate pastor or worship leader.
In Joanne Shetler’s situation things worked out… and that is a blessing. I know some people personally who are the fruit of her ministry there. It seems to me that one should seek this pattern, especially for pioneering work. Sometimes the ideal is not possible, but going for soft targets, ignoring the patriarchs and matriarchs and leaders, may actually hurt growth long-term.