Bible Translation as Holistic Mission


This pa­per at­tempts to de­velop a nat­ural con­nec­tion be­tween Bible trans­la­tion and holis­tic mis­sion. The re­main­ing Bible trans­la­tion need is daunt­ing; over 2,700 lan­guages do not have any Scrip­ture trans­lated into them. This war­rants build­ing a link­age with holis­tic mis­sion be­cause of the im­por­tance of both Bible trans­la­tion and holis­tic min­istry in mis­si­ol­ogy. This pa­per will there­fore ex­am­ine bib­li­cal, his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary con­nec­tions be­tween Bible trans­la­tion and holis­tic ministry.

Bible Translation and Holistic Mission

Build­ing the case for a con­nec­tion can be­gin by the fo­cus of the gospel on trans­form­ing the whole per­son. Holis­tic mis­sion is the ‘in­ten­tional in­te­gra­tion of build­ing the church and trans­form­ing so­ci­ety’ (Mc­Connell, 2000: 448). It is the de­lib­er­ate ‘process of fa­cil­i­tat­ing change through­out a com­mu­nity or re­gion’ (Voorhies: 1999: 588). This change has to do with see­ing the whole of the per­son be­come like Christ in all ar­eas, the ‘ma­te­r­ial, so­cial and spir­i­tual – as well as in the com­mu­nity – eco­nom­ics, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal’ (Voorhies: 1999: 588).

Gen­er­ally the fo­cus of trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment and holis­tic mis­sion are the mar­gin­alised peo­ples and com­mu­ni­ties of the world. These are the same peo­ple that Bible trans­la­tion as mis­sion serves. What is at stake for these peo­ple is the ‘sur­vival strat­egy in a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture [which] is the com­bi­na­tion of agri­cul­tural, med­ical, re­li­gious, ed­u­ca­tional, com­mer­cial, con­struc­tion, and house­hold ac­tiv­i­ties that con­tribute to hu­man wel­fare’ (Brad­shaw, 2000: 966).

Holis­tic mis­sion ‘is then no longer seen as pri­or­i­ties, but as parts of a whole’ (Stew­ard: 2000, 448). The link­age to Bible trans­la­tion then is that it should not be viewed as what needs to be done (i.e. the num­ber of lan­guages that are yet to be trans­lated) but as a part of God’s holis­tic and trans­for­ma­tional plan for the na­tions to glo­rify him.

Bible trans­la­tion as mis­sion has many dis­ci­plines that can be ex­pressed from a holis­tic per­spec­tive. These in­clude lit­er­acy (ad­dress­ing is­sues of il­lit­er­acy), so­ci­olin­guis­tics (learn­ing how peo­ple use lan­guage in their so­cial sit­u­a­tion), eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy (un­der­stand­ing and valu­ing the mu­sic of peo­ple), an­thro­pol­ogy (ap­pre­ci­at­ing the cul­tural fac­tors of a peo­ple group), lin­guis­tics (in­clud­ing ‘prac­ti­cal con­cerns such as lan­guage learn­ing/teach­ing meth­ods and pro­ce­dures’ (Dick­er­son, 2000: 580)) and trans­la­tion (the ‘trans­mis­sion of a mes­sage from one lan­guage to an­other whether in writ­ten or oral form’ (Scott, 2000: 967)).

The con­cept of the trans­lata­bil­ity of God’s Word is at the heart of Bible trans­la­tion. This en­sures that God’s Word is avail­able to all peo­ple groups in the lan­guage of their heart. This com­mit­ment en­sures that God’s mes­sage to peo­ple is ‘couched in their own lan­guage and cul­ture’ (Shaw, 2000: 125) so that God’s ‘power and au­thor­ity comes to them di­rectly in their cul­ture’ (Shaw, 2000:125).

Bible trans­la­tion in the con­text of the world’s mi­nor­ity peo­ple groups en­sures that ‘the Bible em­pow­ers the pow­er­less and forces the pow­er­ful to recog­nise their own weak­ness be­fore God’ (Shaw, 2000: 125). The spir­i­tual un­der­stand­ing gained from the ver­nac­u­lar Scrip­tures en­cour­ages har­mony within the emerg­ing Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. Through read­ing and un­der­stand­ing the trans­lated Scrip­ture, peo­ple ‘de­velop an aware­ness of God and un­der­stand their re­la­tion­ship to him’ (Shaw, 2000: 125). They are also no longer de­pen­dent upon the out­side world and are equipped to do the­ol­ogy in their con­text and ap­ply this to daily life (Shaw, 2000:125).

Fi­nally, many Chris­tians as­sume that the Bible is only about spir­i­tual things and there­fore only ap­plic­a­ble to per­sonal de­vo­tion and spir­i­tual growth. How­ever, the Bible needs to speak for it­self. There­fore it needs to be freed ‘from its spir­i­tual cap­tiv­ity and [be al­lowed] to en­gage and speak to the whole of hu­man life’ (My­ers, 1999:227). Only then is it be­ing used in a holis­tic sense – Bible trans­la­tion and holis­tic mis­sion join to­gether for the same cause.

Biblical Perspectives on Bible Translation as Holistic Mission

Jesus de­fines his com­ing in Luke (4:18-19 and 7:22) as the ‘new age of sal­va­tion … the time in his­tory when God in sov­er­eign grace brings free­dom from the guilt and ef­fects of sin’ (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p.). The good news of Jesus Christ is di­rected to the poor, pris­on­ers, the blind and op­pressed but it in­cludes all who need to de­pend upon God. In this con­text there­fore, the holis­tic needs of mar­gin­alised peo­ple groups are highlighted.

Fur­ther­more, Jesus’ mes­sage of sal­va­tion is fo­cused on the whole­ness of all peo­ple. He ‘promises the restora­tion of all that sin has marred or de­stroyed’ (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p.). Christ is unique in what he of­fers – right­eous­ness given by God. Sal­va­tion, ‘whether it is con­ceived of phys­i­cally as de­liv­er­ance (Ex 14:13) or spir­i­tu­ally (Ps 51:12)’ (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p.) is from the Lord.

The foun­da­tion for Christ’s au­thor­ity over cre­ation, ex­pressed in Colos­sians 1:15-20 is that he is Lord over all cre­ation be­cause he was in­volved in its for­ma­tion. ‘To him it owes its unity, its mean­ing, in­deed its very ex­is­tence … he is both the uni­fy­ing prin­ci­ple and the per­sonal sus­tainer of all cre­ation (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p). Fur­ther­more, God has re­moved all hos­til­ity be­tween him­self and all peo­ple. When ac­cepted by peo­ple, this will re­sult in ‘sub­mis­sion to, and har­mony with, God’ (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p.).

Build­ing upon this theme of whole­ness, James (1:22) chal­lenges Chris­tians to put the Word into prac­tice. The Word should not just be lis­tened to or read, but to be ap­plied in one’s life and com­mu­nity. A Chris­t­ian’s faith must also be more than su­per­fi­cial acts or for­mal re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity. ‘The per­son whose re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence is gen­uine will put spir­i­tual truth into prac­tice, and one’s life will be marked by love for oth­ers and ho­li­ness be­fore God’ (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p.).

Paul speaks of the power of God’s Word to trans­form peo­ple’s lives (Rom 1:16 and Col 3:16) to the ex­tent that we ‘sub­mit to the de­mands of the Chris­t­ian mes­sage and let it be­come so deeply im­planted within us that it con­trols all our think­ing’ (Barker and Kohlen­berger, n.d.: n.p.).

When these bib­li­cal con­cepts are linked to­gether the case is made for Bible trans­la­tion as holis­tic mis­sion be­cause with­out Bible trans­la­tion, the Word is not made avail­able to peo­ple who need it the most. If they are de­nied the Word of God in the pow­er­ful form of it be­ing given to them in their heart lan­guage, then there is lit­tle like­li­hood of holis­tic trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment occurring.

Historical Perspectives on Bible Translation as Holistic Mission

In the early church, the Bible was con­sid­ered to be the book for every Chris­t­ian. The church fa­thers em­pha­sised Bible read­ing, which in turn pro­duced lit­er­ate peo­ple. For those who were not lit­er­ate, the Bible was read pub­licly be­cause the Bible was con­sid­ered to be cen­tral for ‘deep­en­ing of the spir­i­tual life of the in­di­vid­ual Chris­t­ian, and of the Church’ (South­well, n.d.: n.p.). Later on William Tyn­dale wanted the King of Eng­land to un­der­stand how im­por­tant it was for the poor and un­e­d­u­cated peo­ple to be able to read the Bible in their own language.

In the 1600’s Bartholomew Ziegen­balg went to south­east In­dia to work with the Tamil peo­ple. Ziegen­balg be­lieved the ver­nac­u­lar Scrip­tures needed to be avail­able at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble stage of mis­sion. His was a broad strat­egy be­cause he be­lieved Bible trans­la­tion had to go hand-in-hand with Chris­t­ian ed­u­ca­tion. The new Chris­tians and their chil­dren had to be able to read the Bible for them­selves. He also be­lieved that the dili­gent study of the phi­los­o­phy and cul­ture of the peo­ple group was foun­da­tional to evan­ge­lism and church growth. He car­ried out med­ical work and pur­sued the for­ma­tion of an in­dige­nous church with its own unique min­istry. He in­sisted on the use of Tamil lyrics in wor­ship. He was to­tally com­mit­ted to the per­sonal con­ver­sion of the Tamil peo­ple. Ziegen­balg was con­sid­ered ahead of his time in his holis­tic ap­proach (Neill,1986:196).

William Carey in his work in In­dia had a five-fold strat­egy: the un­der­stand­ing of the lan­guage, cul­ture and thought process of the non-Chris­t­ian peo­ples; the preach­ing of the Gospel by every means pos­si­ble; the trans­la­tion of the Bible into the lan­guages where it was needed; the plant­ing of a church as the ear­li­est pos­si­ble point; and the train­ing of lo­cal Chris­tians to be lead­ers in min­istry (Neill,1986:224-5).

Other no­table mis­sion­ar­ies who were in­volved in Bible trans­la­tion such as Adoniram Jud­son (1788-1850), Henry Mar­tyn (1781-1812) and Hans Egede (1686-1758) demon­strated a holis­tic ap­proach, as they were also in­volved in evan­ge­lism, Chris­t­ian ed­u­ca­tion, med­ical work and the­o­log­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion. They all showed that Bible trans­la­tion was com­ple­men­tary to each of these areas.

Her­bert Klem points out that early mis­sion goals in Africa in­cluded ‘well schooled African pas­tors and a Bible read­ing laity. Lit­er­acy pro­grams and schools were at the very cen­ter [sp] of mis­sion­ary think­ing and pol­icy’ (1982:26).

Lamin San­neh com­ment­ing on the de­vel­op­ment of the African In­de­pen­dent Church move­ment notes that dur­ing the cen­turies of up­heaval and ex­pan­sion of the church, mis­sion­ar­ies ‘be­came pi­o­neers of lin­guis­tic de­vel­op­ment … the re­sult­ing lit­er­acy, how­ever lim­ited, pro­duced so­cial and cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion’ (2002:99).

There­fore, his­tor­i­cally there do ap­pear to be strong con­nec­tions be­tween Bible trans­la­tion and holis­tic ministry.

Contemporary Perspectives on Bible Translation as Holistic Mission

A fun­da­men­tal is­sue con­cern­ing Bible trans­la­tion is the lan­guage of the heart. This is ‘what­ever lan­guage most ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cates about deep spir­i­tual and per­sonal mat­ters to the ma­jor­ity of the mem­bers of a given eth­no­lin­guis­tic group’ (Shel­don,1999:n.p.). Ray Al­dred, an Amer­i­can First Na­tion per­son, states that a heart lan­guage also ex­presses peo­ple’s ‘spir­i­tu­al­ity, their eco­nom­ics, and their po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions’ (2003:n.p.).

As the mes­sage of the Bible is cen­tral to trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment, it must be made avail­able to all peo­ple in a lan­guage they can un­der­stand. There are two goals of Bible trans­la­tion: for peo­ple to read the Bible and come to a per­sonal faith in God; and en­sur­ing that a trans­la­tion is a clear, ac­cu­rate and nat­ural one so that peo­ple will be brought to God (Gela,n.d.:n.p.). Holis­ti­cally, there is the goal of spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion of peo­ple as they al­low the power of God’s Word to change them as they un­der­stand and obey it (Gela,n.d.:n.p.).

Fur­ther­more, Bible trans­la­tion puts ‘power into the hands of or­di­nary peo­ple, to ap­ply God’s Word in their lives and in their cul­ture’ (San­neh, cited in South­well n.d.:n.p.) This makes the Bible rad­i­cal for those who are poor and op­pressed be­cause it be­comes it ’em­pow­ers the pow­er­less and forces the pow­er­ful to recog­nise their own weak­ness be­fore God’ (Shaw, 2000:125). The Bible also shows that ‘no peo­ple group can be truly in­de­pen­dent, but needs to recog­nise its in­ter­de­pen­dence with oth­ers, even as they ex­press mu­tual de­pen­dence on God’ (Shaw, 2000:125).

Bible trans­la­tion as mis­sion fo­cuses on find­ing terms and con­cepts in the re­cip­i­ent cul­ture and lan­guage. This makes ‘Jesus and his fol­low­ers into Africans for African hear­ers, makes them Chi­nese for a Chi­nese au­di­ence’ (Jenk­ins, 2002:113). Fur­ther­more, the task of Bible trans­la­tion re­quires the de­vel­op­ment of al­pha­bets, gram­mars, dic­tio­nar­ies and other as­pects of the lan­guage. All of this in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the re­cip­i­ent lan­guage re­sults ‘al­most every­where in arous­ing deep loy­al­ties to­wards the in­dige­nous cause’ (San­neh 1993:140).

In a holis­tic sense, lit­er­acy plays an im­por­tant part­ner­ship in the min­istry of Bible trans­la­tion. This is be­cause peo­ple need to ‘de­velop their own lit­er­a­ture, ex­press­ing in writ­ing what has hereto­fore been avail­able only in oral form’ (Shaw,1988:238). Lit­er­acy pro­vides mi­nor­ity lan­guages with value and a greater so­cio-po­lit­i­cal sta­tus through de­vel­op­ing a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment where these peo­ple groups have their right­ful place in the larger so­ci­ety. ‘A grow­ing lit­er­ate so­ci­ety would sup­port var­i­ous so­cial and eco­nomic gains for the com­mu­nity, as well as pro­vide a con­text for the read­ing of God’s Word’ (Watters,2003:2-3).

Wayne Dye notes that lit­er­acy is linked to evan­ge­lism (the wit­ness of a Chris­t­ian lit­er­acy teacher in a class of non-Chris­tians); build­ing up be­liev­ers (lit­er­ate be­liev­ers are gen­er­ally stronger spir­i­tu­ally and less likely to back­slide than non-lit­er­ate be­liev­ers); prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance (lit­er­acy skills lessen the like­li­hood of get­ting cheated in busi­ness trans­ac­tions); eco­nomic ad­vance­ment (be­ing able to read and write in­creases one’s abil­ity for per­sonal and eco­nomic achieve­ment); self es­teem (us­ing the ver­nac­u­lar builds per­sonal and com­mu­nity es­teem, re­spect and achieve­ment) (1985:221-232).

Bible trans­la­tion as holis­tic mis­sion can be eval­u­ated by Samuel Voorhies’ ten prin­ci­ples of holis­tic Chris­t­ian trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment (1999:590-1).

First, Voorhies states that peo­ple and their cul­ture have in­trin­sic value. In re­sponse, Bible trans­la­tion too em­pha­sises this be­cause it re­spects and fo­cuses on peo­ple’s heart lan­guage and their iden­tity within their own cul­ture. Bible trans­la­tion in Africa en­sured that cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties were pre­served be­cause of in­fu­sion ‘with a spirit of stim­u­lus and con­ser­va­tion with its lin­guis­tic in­ves­ti­ga­tions and its adop­tion of lo­cal re­li­gious vo­cab­u­lary to ex­press Chris­t­ian teach­ing’ (Pit­man, Habito and Muck,1996:341).

Sec­ond, the lo­cal cul­ture needs to be un­der­stood and re­spected. Those in­volved in Bible trans­la­tion do study and re­spect the lo­cal cul­ture to help en­sure an ac­cu­rate trans­la­tion will be done and that the peo­ple will use it. Lamin San­neh notes that, ‘a cul­ture that for the first time pos­sessed a dic­tio­nary and a gram­mar was a cul­ture en­dowed for re­newal and em­pow­er­ment, whether or not it adopted Chris­tian­ity’ (2002:99).

Third, peo­ple’s needs and self-re­spect must be con­sid­ered, to en­sure own­er­ship and self-dig­nity. Suc­cess­ful Bible trans­la­tion pro­grams should start with iden­ti­fy­ing and us­ing lo­cal re­sources as the foun­da­tion of a sus­tain­able process. Part of this process is that of grap­pling with tech­ni­cal ar­eas of de­sign­ing the al­pha­bet, the writ­ing script, how the lan­guage is struc­tured, in­clud­ing its gram­mar, and analy­sis of the cul­ture (San­neh, 2002: 106).

Fourth, peo­ple rather than tech­nol­ogy should be the fo­cal point. In Bible trans­la­tion, the peo­ple must be the fo­cus. It is pos­si­ble how­ever, that be­cause of the ‘high tech’ na­ture of the Bible trans­la­tion process due to the heavy us­age of com­puter tech­nol­ogy, there are some who may have found it dif­fi­cult to keep this balance.

Fifth, the whole per­son – mind, body and spirit must be in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment ef­fort. In re­sponse, Bible trans­la­tion has his­tor­i­cally fo­cussed on the mind, on the­o­log­i­cal, evan­ge­lis­tic and dis­ci­pling as­pects of the Chris­t­ian life. The needs of the body and spirit are out­comes of the Scrip­tures be­ing used by people.

Sixth, de­vel­op­ment needs to com­mu­ni­cate Christ through word (the gospel of Christ), deed (serv­ing as Christ would) and sign (demon­strat­ing Christ’s king­dom life). While Bible trans­la­tion has en­abled the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of God’s Word, those in­volved in Bible trans­la­tion will be more ef­fec­tive if they are also serv­ing in deed and sign.

Sev­enth, ‘all in­ter­ven­tions into a group of peo­ple… carry a mes­sage that must be un­der­stood and in­ter­preted from the re­cip­i­ent’s world­view’ (Voorhies,1999:590). It is im­por­tant for those in­volved in Bible trans­la­tion to study the world­view of the re­cip­i­ent lan­guage and cul­ture. This also en­sures a rel­e­vant trans­la­tion process.

Eighth, God is al­ready at work in the com­mu­nity so this must be un­der­stood and sup­ported. This is a uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ple and ap­plies as much to those in­volved in Bible trans­la­tion as it does to other forms of mission.

Ninth, ‘trans­for­ma­tion in a per­son comes through a re­la­tion­ship with Christ’ (Voorhies,1999:591). As has al­ready been pointed out, a goal of Bible trans­la­tion is for peo­ple to read the Bible and come to a per­sonal faith in God (Gela, n.d.:n.p.). Fur­ther­more, Kwame Be­di­ako claims that African Chris­tian­ity to­day is in­con­ceiv­able apart from the ex­is­tence of the Bible in African in­dige­nous lan­guages…. Africans had the means to make their own re­sponses to the Chris­t­ian mes­sage, in terms of their own needs and ac­cord­ing to their own cat­e­gories of thought and mean­ing (2001:n.p.).

And fi­nally, tenth: ‘churches are foun­da­tional for sus­tained and abun­dant trans­for­ma­tion’ (Voorhies,1999:591). Bible trans­la­tion is al­ways to be in sup­port of the lo­cal churches where they have been es­tab­lished. They are to par­tic­i­pate in the Bible trans­la­tion process.


The case for Bible trans­la­tion be­ing holis­tic mis­sion has now been made. How­ever, it is pos­si­ble this has not pre­vi­ously been con­sid­ered in this way. There ap­pear to be strong enough mis­si­o­log­i­cal, bib­li­cal, his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary con­nec­tions. With­out Bible trans­la­tion, the Word is not go­ing to be avail­able to peo­ple who are usu­ally cul­tur­ally and lin­guis­ti­cally mar­gin­alised. If they are de­nied the Word of God in their heart lan­guage, then there is less like­li­hood of com­plete holis­tic trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment occurring.


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South­well, N. (n.d). The im­pact of Bible translation. Un­pub­lished pa­per. SIL In­ter­na­tional Pa­cific Area, Brisbane.

Stew­ard, J. (2000). Bib­li­cal Holism. In Evan­gel­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of World Missions (p. 448). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Voorhies, S. J. (1999). Trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment: God at work chang­ing peo­ple and their communities. In R. D. Win­ter and S. C. Hawthorne (Eds). Per­spec­tives on the world Chris­t­ian move­ment. (pp. 586-591). Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Wat­ters, J. (2003). SIL’s ser­vice in the world. In­ter­com. Jan­u­ary-March. p.p. 1-2.

Kirk Franklin is Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the Wycliffe Global Alliance.

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