Now-retired, RCA Missionary to Albania, Jack Dabney sparked many thoughts for me in his farewell comments at General Synod this June at Orange City. I mentioned several of these in my previous post. I’d like to elaborate a little more on one aspect of his mission career that he highlighted and which I think deserves more attention in mission work: the sharing of our Reformed worldview.
When Jack arrived in post-Communist, post-isolation Albania, he was one of many Western missionaries who came to share the Gospel. Affiliated with a pastor-training institution, he quickly realized that there was a dearth of Albanian-language theological books for preparing pastors. Dabney contacted his Reformed seminary friends and missionary colleagues and asked them “what are the best short (due to translation costs) Reformed-friendly theological works that they would recommend?” Here's what he came up with:
1. The Kingdom of God by John Bright (Old Testament)
2. The Message of the New Testament by F. F. Bruce (New Testament)
3. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Theology and Nature of the Church)
4. The History of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof (Theology and History)
5. A Short History of the Early Church by Harry Boer (Early Church History)
6. A Short History of Christianity by Martin Marty (History)
7. The Letters of Paul, Conversations in Context by Calvin J. Rotzel (New Testament history and Pauline theology).
8. The History of the Church in Albania by David Hellston (History, written by a missionary (Reformed theology) in the Albanian language)
9. Integrity by Stephen Carter (A book that contrasts a corrupted worldview with God’s expectations for living)
10. Kiss Your Church by Dick Little (A great book on pastoral ministry with an excellent chapter on how to write a sermon)
[NOTE: Numbers 1-7 below were suggested by faculty with Reformed perspectives; 8 & 9 were requests from missionary colleagues in Albania; and 10 was written by Jack's pastor, who raised the funds for translating and printing this book in the Albanian language.]
Additionally, he had hoped to get The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated, as well as The Enduring Community: Embracing the Priority of the Church by Brian Habig and Les Newsom, but was unable to get these produced for various reasons.
While many may quibble with this selection, Jack reports that the Albanian Christian community has devoured these translations and the local publisher has trouble keeping some titles in stock. Should this surprise us? That after believers have copies of the Bible in their mother tongue, the next thing they want is sound theology and church history to place their new-found faith in context? I think we should expect this more and more and perhaps even (somewhat) re-orient our Reformed response to missions to capitalize on our unique strengths and contributions to global Christianity.
Let me explain my rationale: thankfully there are many evangelical, Pentecostal and independent missions and missionaries that are on the front-lines of leading people to Christ throughout the world and establishing churches where none have ever existed. We Reformers should be grateful and humbled by these efforts, as our own zeal for evangelization is seldom matched by theirs in actual practice. Yet we often see, as some believers grow in their faith, that they become drawn to Reformed truths when they are exposed to them. The RCA’s aid in helping organize disparate Pentecostal congregations in the Dominican Republic into the Dominican Reformed Church (See Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s 2009 blog on this subject) after they heard Reformed preaching on the radio is a case in point. Our goal isn't to create lots of little "RCAs" or to "steal" new believers from other churches, but to help believers mature in the faith--as Reformed creeds and catechisms can strengthen one's walk with Christ. Indeed, we constantly meet new believers who are almost "upset" that no one explained Reformed Christianity to them sooner, as our teachings often seem to fulfill a spiritual hunger they possessed but couldn't otherwise satisfy.
In my own ministry, it looks very likely that we’ll be able to add (with the technical help of Words of Hope) a simplified Hausa audio version of the Heidelberg Catechism (translated by the joint work of a Christian Reformed missionary and Nigerien Christians) to the first-ever complete Hausa digital audio bible. This solar-powered audio device will soon be produced and distributed in Niger with Audio Scriptures Ministries, once funds are raised and logistical issues are resolved. For a largely non-literate people, this could mean that Bible listeners would also have the explanatory resource of this classic catechism to better understand the essential truths of the Christian faith. Thus, they'd be better equipped to respond to the new believer’s dilemma (to borrow from Francis Schaeffer) “How now shall I live?” Also their preachers and teachers would be able to use the catechism for discipling their churches and instructing their children.
Returning to Jack Dabney’s ministry work in Albania, my own response after hearing him at General Synod was “Who will help us get these great books translated into Hausa, so that I can share them with Christians there?” The translation of classic Reformed texts into the world’s languages seems like a very appropriate contribution for us in the RCA (and others in the Reformed Community) to share with the global Christian community. Should this be something we pursue as a denomination or through a body like the newly-launched World Communion of Reformed Churches? If so, how can we make it happen?